“Online photos of families of Lesser Whistling-ducks (Dendrocygna javanica) at the Singapore Botanic Gardens reminded me of a visit last Decemb%r, when some of the ducks frequenting the Eco-Lake displayed textbook courtship and copulatory behaviour. Some ducks invaded the open grassy edge to get scraps from picnickers.
“Another half a dozen or so birds kept to a cove on the farther side, a quieter bay loosely fringed by pandans on props and papyrus reeds. They paddled in a loose assembly, ducked for weed and surfaced with wet green strands around their bills and bodies. A few would make more prolonged dives, resurfacing in a mesh of filaments and oiled feathers; after regaining its composure and greeting its companions the duck would fluff itself up and whirl its wings to flush off the remaining droplets. The birds were mostly silent, save the barest hint of a whistle between buddies and the in-flight whirr of oncoming fowl.
“There was little to distinguish one lump of dark brown, chestnut and buff from another. But to these little beasts, every turn of head, dip of beak and nibbling of a feather was a message of intent, a motion of purpose. The ducks dabbed their bills into the water a little too often than necessary, suggesting that the gesture might be less an act of impulse than a signal to associates. One duck might also ape the preening actions of another, in a possible ritual of affirmation that precedes a mutual peck.
“With little warning, two individuals abruptly broke off from feeding and grooming to face off. Despite (or due to) the intrusion of a third party, a series of subtle head bobs soon led to a rapid swing by one duck as he mounted the other for but a couple of seconds before slipping off to tread water with breast raised in a triumphal step-dance. His mate followed suit with wings in half-lift, synchronised dunks and high frequency tail wags before each duck settled down once more with nonchalant flaps and throwaway twists of the head. There was little foreplay and no afterglow worth recounting, and most guests of the gardens probably overlooked the habits of these gregarious ducks which waste little time on prolonged courtship and ceremony.”