By Jamie Steer 27/03/2017

I was talking with a guy the other day about ducks and somehow got on to discussing favourites.

His was the endangered New Zealand whio, or blue duck, because it’s on our $10 note.  He said, “That’s a bird that knows how to sell itself.”

“Maybe that’s true,” I said, “but I haven’t seen many around recently so I wouldn’t know.”

We agreed that they had a pretty great strategy before people arrived 800 years ago. Good for them.

I told him my favourite was the New Zealand ‘grallard’, the bastard love child of the introduced mallard and the native grey duck, and now New Zealand’s most common duck.

This at first seemed to both perplex and bewilder him but, once he’d settled down, I ran him through my reasons and in the end he accepted that I’d made the more compelling choice.

This is basically what I said.

Grallards are one of the world’s newest birds

They came into existence not long after mallards were introduced to New Zealand in the mid-19th Century. Mallards took a shining (wink wink) to the grey duck and the rest is history. From what I hear the grey is partial to a bit of mallard action too so it’s a veritable love in.

People talk a lot about birds that haven’t changed in ages but I like the versatile new chick on the block.

Grallards are all over the place

I drive around a bit and there aren’t many water bodies I don’t see grallards on. Clearly they’re loving it here. People shoot a tonne of them every year and they just keep coming back. They’re the duck version of The Terminator.

I respect a bird that can take all the crap people have thrown at them over the years and still keep on kicking. I take my son down to feed the ducks and they’re always there ready and obliging.

Grallards are unique to New Zealand

I searched around and haven’t found grallards anywhere but here. There’s something similar in Australia but they’re derived from mallards mixed with the Australian sub-species of grey duck. I reckon they look different over there too.

It’s neat to have another locally unique duck, especially one that’s got such an interesting history. Millions of years of evolution in those genes and it didn’t end with their parent species. They’re the biological version of fusion cuisine.

Grallards could teach people a thing or two

Some people are so distraught about losing biodiversity that they can’t see the gains happening right in front of them.

Grallards have accepted people and the changed environments that they live in. They don’t distinguish between native and introduced species, or between pristine and modified environments.

They get on with living their lives and the world is a more diverse, interesting and vibrant place for it. While some other species have ‘evolutionary potential’ grallards are busy realising theirs.

It’s like they’re floating there quacking, “Here I am loving life and the world isn’t going to end.”

Maybe there’s a lesson in there, I don’t know.

This post is adapted from an article originally published in Flight, the quarterly magazine of Ducks Unlimited NZ Inc.

Featured image: New Zealand grallard © Peter Rees Photography.

0 Responses to “Why the bastard ‘grallard’ is my favourite duck”

  • Jamie, re the whio ““Maybe that’s true,” I said, “but I haven’t seen many around recently so I wouldn’t know.” – from context it’s not clear whether you mean you don’t know if the blue duck knows how to sell itself, or that you don’t know whether it’s your favourite.

    I haven’t seen them very often, but when I have, it’s been a magical experience. Are you a tramper? I believe there are still some in the Ruahines, and I know that they are doing well in North-west Nelson – in both cases under the stewardship of conservation organisations that are willing to kill things (mainly stoats). If you get a chance, pay them a visit, it’s worth it.

    • Whio are definitely accessible to trampers (and hunters) if you visit the right places. The first time I met a troop of Whio was watching them from a distance swimming along the Mokihinui River on the west coast. Then, a couple of years ago, I shared the Makororo River with a pair of them whilst following the river out from Upper Makaroro Hut.

      In hindsight I’ve heard them calling in the Ruahine many times and would probably have spent more effort watching out, but only recently realised what I was hearing.

      I don’t care about the $10 note. They don’t need it to be cool. They’re an amazing duck to watch as they weave in and out of the fast flowing currents so much more naturally and easily than I ever could. I sincerely hope we’re able to keep them around and they eventually become more accessible for more people to experience.

    • Good for you Sue. Yes, I mean no disrespect to the whio. I enjoyed seeing a couple of them along the Tongariro River a few years back.

  • Hi Jamie.

    “Some people are so distraught about losing biodiversity that they can’t see the gains happening right in front of them.”

    Could you please elaborate on this? Besides a shiny new cross-bred duck, what other gains do you perceive for New Zealand’s biodiversity in the face of all the biodiversity that’s in the process of being lost?

    • Great question Mike. One answer is that we have introduced tens of thousands of species to the country and further species are continually being introduced (purposefully or otherwise), or are self-colonizing. Some of those species are already highly valued, but others not so much. Regardless, almost every ecosystem in the country contains a substantial exotic contingent.

      Because of the weight of introductions, we now actually have more species in this country than we did when people first arrived, despite extinctions of some of our native species. This is a genuine gain (I am not downplaying the extent or nature of losses, by the way, just pointing to the fact that loss is clearly only part of the story).

      Recognizing these gains, I’d like to expand our horizons to the ways that wild introduced species, hybrids and hybrid (or novel) ecosystems can be viewed as ‘ours’ now too, and what that might mean for how we choose to value our environments. Do we have to limit our values for the exotic to the farm or the home garden, for example? What are the ecosystem services provided by non-natives? And maybe species can be valued outside of ‘their place’ too?

      As conservationists, our focus in recent decades has been almost exclusively on conserving the species and ecosystems of the past. In many ways that has been sensible, and there remains a role for it. But I think we’ve become a little preoccupied with loss, and on holding on to everything we had. In some ways it has made us blind to what is happening outside that native bubble and somewhat blinkered toward the environmental choices we have.