The first babies of the year have begun to appear at Mill Lake, where I take my daily constitutional. It is an opportunity to consider different parenting styles.
The families of Canada geese glide across the water like convoys of battleships. They always travel in a tight formation—with one of the parents leading the way, the goslings following right behind and the other parent bringing up the rear. They remain as close together on land. While the goslings eat grass, the parents stand guard, ready to hiss and run at any intruder who comes too close.
Mallard ducks take a much more laid-back approach to parenthood. The little ducklings are just as cute as the goslings. However, their family groupings usually feature only one parent. Mallard fathers are usually long gone by the time the ducklings have hatched; like absentee fathers, they seem to feel that their job is done once the eggs have been fertilized, and they are almost never around while the babies are growing up. Sometimes, if she is disturbed, the mother flies off to the other side of the pond as well, leaving the ducklings to fend for themselves. And, in contrast to goslings, who obediently stay close to the parents, the eight or so ducklings scatter in fifteen different directions, scooting all over the place while the mother vainly tries to hold the family together.
Canada geese mate for life. Mallards apparently do not.
It is not surprising, then, that Canada geese families often remain intact, staying in family groups even after the babies have grown to mature size. The mallard duck families, on the other hand, are often reduced in size, with half of the ducklings being pulled under the water by turtles or picked off by eagles before they have a chance to grow up.