Just a mallard? There are about 13 mallard-like subspecies worldwide to include Mallard, Mottled Duck, American Black Duck and Mexican Duck right here in the good ol’ USA. How similar are North American mallard-like species and what are their common origins? Is the American Black Duck really becoming extinct due to hybridization with mallards, and are hybrids easily distinguished? What’s the difference between “New World” and “Old World” mallards and, importantly, how might this distinction impact duck hunting as we know it? Dr. Philip Lavretsky is a wildlife geneticist from the University of Texas at El Paso. A seasoned duck hunter, he answers these questions and more. “Whether you’re a die-hard mallard purist or next-duck-over-the decoys hunter, an ardent species collector or duck nerd, this is likely one of the most thought provoking duck topics you’ve heard in a long while,” says Ramsey Russell.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky Discusses Genetic Relations of Mallard-like Duck Species in the United States; Describes How Mallard, Black Duck, Mexican Mallard and Mottled Duck Are Related; Makes Distinctions Between “Old World” and “New World” Mallards; and Explains Possible Implications to North American Mallard Migrations and Atlantic Flyway Mallard Population Declines
To find out that the most iconic North American duck species, our beloved Mallard, is in peril. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world where you’re only shooting tame mallard ducks? Can you imagine that right here in North America where we duck hunters are footing the bill for everything? Can you imagine us only shooting “game farm mallards.“ I cannot. It’s a very sobering thought. – Ramsey Russell
Ramsey Russell: It’s Duck Season Somewhere. I’m sitting at SCI Convention, day two. I’ve got to tell y’all about this story. We’ve got this booth with six continents’ worth of waterfowl, hunters from all over the world coming and going, asking questions. A lot of them come in and go, “What kind of duck is this?” or, “What kind of duck is that?” or, “Where did you get that particular species?” Like a spread of decoys, beautiful birds just attract duck hunting people. Yesterday afternoon, it was like a red light had stopped traffic and everything slowed down. Up walks this guy, and he hangs around my booth. He goes through my brochures. Martha is talking to him. I’m talking to a client. I get done and introduce myself.
He says, “Yes, I need some information on African Black Duck and African Yellow-billed Duck.” That’s my guy, man. I flew into Africa duck hunting details, and we started talking about African Black Ducks. Well, I don’t have an African Black Duck, guys. Yet. I don’t have one yet because they’re kind of a hard species. They fly in pairs. They don’t fly in big flocks, and they got this affiliation for these little—they call them rivers, over in Africa, but I think of them as little Colorado trout streams. To kill one, it’s going to take the commitment of my sitting out by one of these rivers all day long until quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, one comes by. I’m willing to do that. So we start talking, and this guy knows all this. As we talk more, he says, “No, no, no, I don’t need the hunt. I need genetic samples.”
We then had a conversation about Mallards, and about Mallard-like species of the world, at a level that really just kind of blew my mind. I interrupted him finally and said, “Hey, can you meet in the morning? Let’s record a podcast about this topic.” Listen, guys—especially you Southern duck hunters, but all you duck hunters out there listening—hold onto your hat like we’re fixing to run down a dirt road in the back of a pickup truck, because I think this conversation is going to blow your mind. To me, it brings a lot of scientific credibility to what a lot of us duck hunters are observing out in the field, or think we’re observing, about population declines, migrational shifts, and Mallards not migrating as far South as they used to. Y’all hang on and listen. My guest today is Phil Lavretsky. He’s an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. His field of study is wildlife genetics, and the topic of this conversation is population genetics as it applies to the world Mallard complex. How are you doing today, Phil?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Doing really good, Ramsey. Thanks for having me. I’m really excited about chatting about this topic and getting everybody on board and understanding what’s going on out there.
Who Is Dr. Philip Lavretsky?
Ramsey Russell: You blew my mind yesterday. Look, I’m used to duck hunters coming in and asking me, “What kind of duck is that?” Or they see that Mexican Mallard, which you quickly identified: “Hey, that’s a Mexican Mallard.” Most guys think it’s a hen Mallard or a Mottled Duck or something to that effect, so I knew you knew a little something about something. Tell me, in general terms: what is your background? You’re obviously a duck hunter.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. So my family actually came to the States from Russia in ‘89. Moved to Los Angeles because we have some family there. Then within—I don’t know, in seven or eight years, when we had just enough money, my dad got a shotgun, and we went back out hunting because that’s what he did in Russia. I’ve been hunting since I was nine, and duck hunting’s been in my blood since I was ten.
Ramsey Russell: Which part of Russia was he from?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Moscow area.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah.
Mallards and Mallard-Like Duck Species Worldwide
There’s about thirteen to fourteen Mallard-like ducks that have a pretty good, what we call radiation. They were successfully adapted to different islands and continents. But the Mallard is the only one that’s Holarctic.
Ramsey Russell: The first morning I ever hunted in Russia, I was crotch-deep in a frozen creek wearing hip boots. So I was cold. I was wet up to the crotch. We had a single coot decoy, and a single greenhead flew over. I fumbled around in my pocket till I found my call, barked out three lousy notes—”Quack, quack, quack!”—and that bird looked like he hit the end of a short rope and curled up right into those decoys. I clobbered him with a double-trigger, double-barreled, Russian over-and-under that I’d never shot before. I got excited, and I broke off a big limb and reached out there and pulled him into the bank. I asked the guy I was with, “Would you take a picture?” He’s like, “Really? It’s just a Mallard.” I go, “You ever shot a Mallard in Russia?”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, it’s exciting.
Ramsey Russell: I tell people all the time, Phil, and there is a lot of truth to this: my favorite duck in the next one over the decoys, because I guarantee I’m going to shoot it. But after 100+ species of birds and all these countries and everything else, I’ve got a thing for Mallard ducks. Or Mallard-like ducks, I call them. They all act and behave similarly, but they do what we duck hunters want them to do. They behave. They play by the rules. You call to them, they decoy, they do things, they move, they react. Really and truly, if you put a gun to my head and I had to hunt only one species of duck worldwide, it would be a Mallard or something very close to it.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I don’t think you’re alone. I think there’s a lot of folks out there that want to make sure that there’s enough Mallards out there for them to shoot and want to see them over the spread every fall and every winter.
Ramsey Russell: Most guys think of Mallard ducks as being American. They’re not. They’re circumpolar. They cover the entire Northern Hemisphere.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yep. There’s about thirteen to fourteen Mallard-like ducks that have a pretty good, what we call radiation. They were successfully adapted to different islands and continents. But the Mallard is the only one that’s Holarctic. They’re circumpolar; they’re found all the way through Eurasia, through North America. They’ve been basically brought and released, now, in the Southern Hemisphere, in New Zealand. You can find a few of them, here and there, somewhere in South America. I know they’re in Africa now. Local populations.
Ramsey Russell: The actual Mallard duck is in Africa?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Well, no. Domestic variants of the Mallard.
Mallards in New Zealand
Ramsey Russell: Okay, there we go. Yeah. New Zealand is a prime example of where they brought in some domestic Mallard ducks. You see them with all kinds of blue bills and— It’s crazy.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, so the Mallards that are in New Zealand are part of my work, my study. We’ve got a sample set of about seven hundred. Basically, I have identified them. What happened in New Zealand was that they went and were like, “Oh, well, we want greenheads, too.” So they went to Europe. They got some birds. They released them. They’re like, “Ah, they’re doing okay.” They went out, and they’re like, “Oh, let’s go to North America.” They got some birds out of North America, but the fun fact is: they didn’t get wild birds. They went and bought game farm birds and released them. The genetic signature that we find in New Zealand, now, is most closely related to game farm birds that all have a European origin.
Mallard Genetic Studies Relating to the Mallard-Complex
My research started with just trying to build a data set with every single one of these Mallard-like ducks, with just a few samples, and starting to understand their actual relationships. From there, we started to see certain patterns.
Ramsey Russell: All right, break, break. Let’s go back to this initial point and build up to what you’re talking about. Yesterday, you came in asking about the African Black Duck and African Yellow-billed Duck. Then, we started talking about the Mexican Duck, and you flew off into the origins of it. I have been kind of kicked in the teeth on social media for my anecdotal observations about the Mallard-like complex and describing Mexican Ducks and different things [as Mallard subspecies]. I get pointed out to, very quickly, about what their origins are, genetically and everything else. I learned yesterday that some of those guys kicking me in the teeth are wrong, based on your genetic studies. Let’s go back. How did your research start? With American Black Ducks?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. Actually, my research started with just trying to build a data set with every single one of these Mallard-like ducks, with just a few samples, and starting to understand their actual relationships. From there, we started to see certain patterns. What we do now is landscape-level sampling. We’re talking about hundreds of samples. Making sure we have source populations, potential hybrids, everything that you might be able to see. Males, females, hatch-years, after hatch-years. We try to get the gamut across the ranges of these species to really answer the questions of, “What are these things? Are they hybridizing? What’s happening? What’s their real evolutionary lineage?” Because you might look at a duck in hand, and it looks like a hybrid, but, potentially, you’re just looking at white wing-bars that might be just ancestry, not hybrids. But to be able to do that definitively, you’ve got to find real genetic hybrids. That’s what we do. We go from, again, pure parental through hybrids, if they’re out there. Then not only are we doing the genetics, but we identify genetic markers that are linked to the various traits you’re seeing. The coloration of the bill or the green in the head, these types of things.
Ramsey Russell: So, you would go out, for example, and start collecting genetic samples on American Black Ducks. You would start collecting genetic samples on cohort populations of Mallard ducks. You would then look at the Mexican Duck. You would then look at the Florida Mottled Duck. You would then look at the Gulf Coastal Mottled Duck. Then, with each of those subsets, you start breaking out subsets of that subset. Then, at some point at the end of the range, you would start finding cross-pollinations of sorts?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, that was the initial reason for it. We’ve all been under the guise that all these things are just breeding the hell out of things. Especially the Mallard breeding, with all of them, and we’re losing everybody. I mean, look at the Mexican Duck. Its taxonomy has changed just because people have said, “Oh, they’re a hybrid swarm.” So that’s been an important thing that I wanted to test and to see, “Is that correct? There’s just no more North American brown ducks out there, really? What’s really going on?” And the crux of it—we published a paper on the exact same thing, it was a North American Mallard-like Complex study—basically, we have a hard time finding hybrids in the brown ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Florida Mottled Ducks aren’t going to cross-pollinate with the—
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: They do, but not to the extent that everybody thinks they are. The levels of hybridization in any of these guys—outside of American Black Duck, and I’ll touch on that—is below, or at level, of any other bird complex. In birds, especially in ducks that do the extra-pair copulation thing where you’ve got extra mating going on—if a hen fails on a nest, or something like that—you might get cross-breeding in that sense. That’s kind of how you get Pintail x Mallard and Pintail x Gadwall.
Ramsey Russell: If a hen Mallard breeds with a greenhead, and she had a nest failure— He may be off molting and doing his thing. Now, she’s looking for whoever she can get.
Mexican Duck Hybridization
I mean, look at the Mexican Duck. Its taxonomy has changed just because people have said, “Oh, they’re a hybrid swarm.” So that’s been an important thing that I wanted to test and to see, “Is that correct? There’s just no more North American brown ducks out there, really? What’s really going on?”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. That’s when you get some of these hybridization events, and you get these kinds of patterns in other birds and everything like that. But the Mexican Duck— There’s early work that basically said that the whole Northern population is a hybrid swarm. We went and got birds all the way from the US through Chihuahua, all the way down to Pueblo, Mexico, and Sonora and Sinaloa on the coast. We did genetics on all of them. Lo and behold, I can’t find a hybrid south of the border, and there’s about a 5% hybridization rate in the US. This is a bird that we thought was on the brink of genetic extinction.
Ramsey Russell: Normally hybridized with a Mallard?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. And that makes sense because Mallards come to— Well, not anymore, in numbers, the way they used to.
Ramsey Russell: Like cousins at a family reunion.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. They come in, in the winter, but for them to actually breed they’ve got to stay there and pair bond. They’re not. They’re going back North.
Ramsey Russell: Or they’ve got to be resident Mallards.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Or they’re resident Mallards.
American American Black Duck Hybridization with Mallard
Is it fact that the American Black Duck is extinct because of the clearing of the boreal forest, and the Mallards moved in and bred them to extinction, or what?
No, exactly the opposite.
Ramsey Russell: The American American Black Duck, according to a lot of Internet warriors, is virtually extinct.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Right.
Ramsey Russell: I do see a lot of hybrids. A lot of greens, a lot of curls, a lot of different little things. What are we getting at there? Is it fact that the American Black Duck is extinct because of the clearing of the boreal forest, and the Mallards moved in and bred them to extinction, or what?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: No, exactly the opposite. Like I said, if you look at Mexican Ducks, you’re looking at 0% South of the Border, about 5% hybridization rate in the North. Mottled Ducks—if you look at both Florida and the West Gulf Coast, you’re looking at 5%. Our estimates—and also other people have done a few other studies, and they basically find the same thing—real hybrids are about 5% of them. Which, again, is at-level of any other bird group. Now, in American Black Ducks, we find a hybridization rate of about 25%. Now, that is really high. But the big point here is that what we find is, those hybrids— The first generation: Mom, American Black Duck, and Dad, Mallard, breed and make a bunch of hybrids. Those hybrids tend to actually breed with Mallards, not American Black Ducks. They’re not actually moving Mallard genes into American Black Ducks.
Ramsey Russell: So once that F1 generation, that first generation, of hybrids begins to breed themselves, they’re not further diluting the American Black Ducks. They’re just polluting the Mallard woodpile.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: The woodpile. That’s right.
When did mallards begin showing up in the Atlantic Flyway?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Think about this: there were no Mallards, really, even a hundred years ago [in the Atlantic Flyway]. Mallards started to pop up in the East around 1920, right?
Ramsey Russell: Historically, there weren’t a lot of Mallards in the Atlantic Flyway.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Mallards, naturally, were Western birds. West of the Mississippi. You can look up old records, and you could barely shoot a greenhead in the East. If you got one, that was like shooting a cinnamon teal in the East. But now, obviously, they’re one of the most populous.
Ramsey Russell: That makes sense. It had been wooded. It would have been forested. It would have been swampy. It would have been coastal estuaries.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: They’re an open prairie kind of bird. American Black Ducks are the ecological fit, for the East, of a Mallard. They are a Mallard, but what happened was that they lost the green head, and they became black. As you can imagine, a green head in a boreal forest might get picked off by a predator, but a black, black bird, both male and female— Well, there’s less pressure like that. It’s more pressure for just staying alive than it is for making green heads.
Ramsey Russell: It just ecologically evolved to blend into the shadows of a peat bog.
Origins of Mallard-Like Duck Species in North America
What we’re finding is that American American Black Ducks have always been very genetically similar to Mallards. So have Mexican Ducks and Mottled Ducks. It’s not because of hybridization and gene flow and interbreeding and all this stuff; it’s because of ancestry.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. So between a whole bunch of studies here, what we’re finding is that American American Black Ducks have always been very genetically similar to Mallards. So have Mexican Ducks and Mottled Ducks. It’s not because of hybridization and gene flow and interbreeding and all this stuff; it’s because of ancestry.
What the story looks like is that a Mallard likely colonized North America. A greenhead colonized North America, spread across North America from Europe, and then probably got cut off from Europe and so started to diverge from the European Mallard. Then what happened with glaciers coming in and the boreal forest in the East— Basically, if you can imagine the glacier coming in, in the middle of North America, it’s separating the East and the West. In the East, there’s recession, so those populations were in a new habitat, this boreal forest. This is what caused the divergence and the evolution of American Black Ducks. Now, Florida Mottled Ducks, west Gulf Coast Mottled Ducks, and Mexican Ducks—those regions were actually refugia where other species were able to survive and continue even when that glacier was around. We know that these were important, and that’s exactly what happened. A bunch of Mallards were probably caught there, got stuck there, and then changed into what we now consider Florida Mottled Duck, west Gulf Coast Mottled Duck, and Mexican Duck.
Ramsey Russell: Just a function of geographical genetic isolation. They begin to morph into something that blends in more with that environment.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. The data that we’ve got that really supports this is a whole bunch of birds that we thought were hybrids. Got the green in the head. You’ve got a Mexican Duck—yeah, it’s brown, but it’s got green in the head and curl. You’ve got the black rump, you’ve got some white tails, maybe some speckling going on. We now have confirmed this in Mexican Ducks, Mottled Ducks, American Black Ducks, and, especially, Hawaiian Ducks. When we really did the genetics, none of them are hybrids. What they were, were first-year males. As they go from first-year male to second-year, they lose those traits. As you can imagine, they’re like a teenager. They can’t control their hormones, so they’re expressing—not correctly—some of these Mallard genes that are still there, but as they become an adult they can control that. Now, they’re a good bird. Perhaps this is important for females, to make sure they’re choosing an adult male that’s got good genetics, that can be that brown duck that she wants or whatever it is. These birds are not hybrids. So you might be in the US, and you shoot something that’s a hybrid, but, if it’s a hatch-year or a first-year, it’s hard to say if that’s really a hybrid.
Ramsey Russell: Some people have told me on social media, in some of the inboxes and conversations we’ve had, that the Mexican Mallard—the Mexican Duck, species diazia—is really more related to American American Black Duck. That the Mottled Ducks are more related to the American American Black Ducks. I keep going back to, “Wait a minute, that Mexican Mallard has a double white wing-bars. Not only does it have a double white-wing bar, but it’s the top white bar trails into the tertiary, on a hen.” I’m just trying to keep up with you on a fourth-grade level, man. Every once in a blue moon— Well, number one, on a clear day I can distinguish the drakes from the hens, even in the Mexican Ducks. They’re both brown ducks like Mottled Ducks, but, if you pay attention, you can see the difference. They’re slightly bigger, got the brighter bill, and they behave to the call a little bit different than the hen, even if they’re dating and holding hands at the time. Every now and again, I’ll shoot a really nice, adult, Mexican Mallard drake—I’d say one out of ten or twenty—who has, not a full curl, but he’s got that center tail feather that starts to curl over. So, I say he’s got to have some Mallard back in his genetics. Not a hybrid, necessarily.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Now, where was that?
Ramsey Russell: Down in Sonora.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Oh, it was in Sonora?
Are mallard curls or greenish heads indicative of mallard hybridization?
That’s still part of their Mallard gene pool. You can imagine, these traits are going away; there just hasn’t been enough time in all these brown mallard-like ducks…And if you hit that light just right, you’ll see those green specks on the top of the head across all of them.
Ramsey Russell: Just every once in a blue moon—it’s not a full curl, it’s just a little bit of duck tail in the back.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. The little tiny raise? Yeah, that’s not indicative at all. You’ve got to have almost a full curl. Yeah, no, even American Black Ducks, that little raise? That’s still part of their Mallard gene pool. You can imagine, these traits are going away; there just hasn’t been enough time in all these brown mallard-like ducks. What traits are going to be seen in the kids is just a random event of who mates with who. If I mate with you, you might have a little bit of a raise of a curl, maybe a little bit more white wing-bar.
Ramsey Russell: Like blue eyes, green eyes, bushy eyebrows, freckles.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. Even when you look at an adult Mexican Duck, and you look at that top of the head— Same thing with American Black Ducks. If you hit that light just right, you’ll see those green specks on the top of the head across all of them.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. If the sun hits it just right, you can see that little bit of green shimmer on all of them.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s still there. That’s part of their ancestry, and not because of hybridization. So the Mottled Ducks—Florida Mottled Duck, west Gulf Coast Mottled Duck—are as different from one another as they are from Mallards. All three of them are equidistant from each other, genetically. Again, you’ve got certain traits.
What about mallard-like white wing-bars?
Them calling mallard hybrids was a flip of the coin. A lot of it was attributed to that white wing-bar that’s not actually diagnostic for a hybrid. You’ve got to have these other types of traits.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: For example, in Florida Mottled Duck, we were doing a study. The thought was that a white wing-bar in a Mottled Duck is no good, right? But what we and my colleagues, in some previous work, found was that the white wing-bar is seen in pure Mottled Ducks, but at a 10% level. So if you were a biologist out there and saw one in 10, 10 in 100, you would be like, “Well, all those are hybrids, right? 90%, you’re looking at a bird with no white wing-bar, so the ones with the white wing-bars must be hybrids.” But that’s just not the case. It looks like it, and that trait is going away with time, but that trait is there because of ancestry and not because of hybridization.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: With all the genetic studies on the brown ducks, the Mallard-like ducks in North America, y’all have actually developed a diagnostic key, kind of like a key for a tree or anything else, that you’re going to send me so I can know.
Learn More: Mexican Duck x Mallard Diagnostic Key
(Brown et. al., in review)
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yep, that’s right. My colleagues made a phenotype key for Florida Mottled Ducks. That was the first one ever. Florida Fish and Wildlife went from 60% correctness, calling hybrids, to better than 90%. That was a real good success. That means that them calling mallard hybrids was a flip of the coin. A lot of it was attributed to that white wing-bar that’s not actually diagnostic for a hybrid. You’ve got to have these other types of traits. They may be adults or juveniles, and they have their own keys. Now we’ve got a working key, or a work-in-progress key, for Mexican Ducks, that we’ve developed. We’ve got it to where regionally, where you are— Because these traits change.
As you go further south, for Mexican Ducks, the juveniles don’t even show the Mallard-like traits because it’s been lost. The way Mexican Ducks evolved, they kind of did the stepwise progression from North to South. So imagine the northern population—US, Chihuahua—that was the Mexican Duck population. That is the Mexican Duck population. It’s got all the genetics of all Mexican Ducks, right? Imagine a few individuals all of a sudden decide, “Ah, there’s too many of us,” and they fly South. They finally find a patch of water, they colonize it, they explode. Then, a little while later, a few more individuals go South. Every time they do this, they are moving only a little bit of that genetics. By the time you go to Puebla, the genetics that were moved— They basically got rid of all of the Mallard ancestry. They’re not even showing Mallard traits down there.
Ramsey Russell: Over what period of time would they shrug off that pure Mallard ancestry?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Our estimates suggest that—
Ramsey Russell: A hundred years?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: No, no. Hundreds of thousands. It takes a long time.
Mexican Duck Distribution in Sonora’s Yaqui Valley
Mexican Ducks are everywhere, right? I had a colleague, a buddy also doing similar research, back in ‘91—could only find one Mexican Duck in Sonora.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you were telling me yesterday, for example, speaking about the Mexican Duck— I had said to you that the greatest density of Mexican Ducks I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen them all throughout the mountains, I’ve seen them some in the East, not too far South—but Sonora, that Yaqui Valley in Sonora, has just got a booming population. Who knows? They don’t count them. Hundreds of thousands of these freaking things. But you had said that those birds weren’t even there, a period of time ago. Like, in my lifetime.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. I was there in 2013. Easy picking. I can go down a canal, and Mexican Ducks are everywhere, right? Two’s, three’s. You can just watch them. You could be on the estuaries, and you’ll get Mexican Ducks coming in. I had a colleague, a buddy also doing similar research, back in ‘91—could only find one Mexican Duck in Sonora.
Ramsey Russell: In ‘91?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: In ‘91. There was basically nothing there.
Ramsey Russell: I was still in college in ‘91. Wow.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: If you went to Sonora, you’d just be shooting your pintail and cinnamon teal and all the others. But you would have a hard time finding a Mexican Duck.
Ramsey Russell: That could be attributed just to a duck’s—and not necessarily a Mallard’s, but just a duck’s—nature to exploit resources. They’re engineered—they’ve got wings, they fly, they find food, they find water, they find habitat. They do what ducks do. They thrive.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s why ducks are so adaptive. You can have a couple of bad years, but if you’ve got one good year, they’re going to blow up. They do this all the time. They can hold off, hold off, and they can exploit new resources. That’s the beauty of ducks, and why, at least, they’re not completely vulnerable to change. That’s beautiful. So going back to that Sonora— We got Mexican Ducks out of Sonora and Sinaloa. When we looked at the genetics, we knew that they weren’t there pre-1990, so we wanted to know where they came from. They basically carry all the genetics of the Chihuahuan population. That’s their source. A few birds from Chihuahua—and we actually have an idea of where—they went through a river, across the pass through these mountains, as you go from Chihuahua to Sonora, and they probably hit all the ag fields and the canals that were being built at that time. Just kind of took them to the coast and hit the coast. Boom, you’ve got a big old population twenty years later. That’s a remarkable fashion. There were no Mexican Ducks. These Mexican Ducks were able to pretty quickly find this resource, adapt, and explode. Now you’ve got all kinds of birds out there.
American Black Duck Hybridization with Mallards
Only 25% hybridization, of which the offspring further pollute the woodpile. The 75% of American Black Ducks remain pure. In a timeline of history, how far back can you say, “Okay, the American Black Duck today is the American Black Duck of yesteryear?”
Game Farm Mallard Introduced in Atlantic Flyway
Ramsey Russell: I want to wake up everybody that’s still listening. I’m nerding out on this kind of stuff. I love it, and I know a lot of you guys do too. I want to bring this thing back around to the point of why I wanted Phil to come and visit today and give us an explanation. So y’all hang on, okay? Phil, we were talking about American American Black Duck. We were talking about how they had become genetically extinct because of hybridization. No, it’s only 25% hybridization, of which the offspring further pollute the woodpile. The 75% of American Black Ducks remain pure. In a timeline of history, how far back can you say, “Okay, the American Black Duck today is the American Black Duck of yesteryear?”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, that’s a good question. To answer that question, we actually went back to history. I partnered up with the Smithsonian. Thankfully, people have been shooting ducks for a long time, especially Mallard-like ducks, so there’s a really nice collection of birds at the various museums. Basically, we know that there were no real Mallards [in the Atlantic Flyway] pre-1920. I guess I have to step back. So what happened in 1920? In 1920, some folks decided that there should be greenheads in the East.
Ramsey Russell: “Rich club members,” probably?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: No, no. It’s federal, state, and private that all decided.
Ramsey Russell: Really? Oh!
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: There were special state taxes that were going to be used to buy, run facilities for, and grow Mallards.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. So from 1920 to 1960, they released 500,000—half a million mallards—per year [in the Atlantic Flyway].
From 1920 to 1960, they released 500,000—half a million mallards—per year [in the Atlantic Flyway].
Ramsey Russell: A half million released Mallards per year?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Just in the Atlantic Flyway.
Ramsey Russell: Where were they releasing these birds? Throughout the flyway?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Throughout the flyway, yeah. Maine, all the way down to the Carolinas. We’ve got records of that.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I can remember the South Carolina Waterfowl Association, or somebody, actually had an avid— Am I right? Back in the late ‘90s, were they still turning those birds out?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Oh, yeah. They’re still doing it. In 1960, that was about 500,000. Things slowed down. The Feds and the states said, “Eh, it’s probably not a good idea.”
Ramsey Russell: Why’d they say that?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I don’t know why. Well, I don’t know what they said. They just stopped.
Ramsey Russell: Money?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, probably money. Probably money. But the private folk decided, “No, let’s keep doing this.” According to the best records we’ve got, there’s about 250,000 birds that are recorded, game farm Mallards, that are being released in the US. And 210,000 of those game farm Mallards are released in the Atlantic Flyway.
Ramsey Russell: Where were they getting those Mallards?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: And that’s 210,000.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me, were they getting them from wild strain Mallards from out West? Where do you buy half a million Mallards a year that you’re turning loose into the wild?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I guess we’re going to jump the gun here.
Ramsey Russell: Well, back up if you need to.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: All right. All right, let me back up. So you’ve got that going on. Then we talked about how the boreal forest was being cut down, so perhaps wild Mallards from the West were moving East. So you’ve got this double-edged sword that’s coming to the American Black Duck. American Black Ducks never saw anything else but other American Black Ducks. There was a lot of competition. Not only for resources, but for mates.
Ramsey Russell: Like a covered wagon coming over the hill to new land.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: They’re all coming. East and West, they are coming at these American American Black Ducks.
Is the American American Black Duck Genetically Extinct?
Back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, especially in the ‘80s, there’s tons of great research out there being like, “Oh man, how bad is it for the American Black Duck? How much competition for resources, food, mates is there?” Basically, folks chalked it up and said, “Hey, I think we lost the American Black Duck.” – Dr. Philip Lavretsky
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: So I came in to answer this question I really was looking for. Understanding what’s happening to the American Black Ducks. Do we have American Black Ducks? Good, pure American Black Ducks? To answer this, we sampled two hundred American Black Ducks from the Mississippi Flyway. Atlantic Flyway, covered it with another hundred Mallards from there. Another fifty west of the Mississippi, kind of Prairie Pothole birds. Then we went to the Smithsonian and got American Black Ducks that were shot before 1920. These American Black Ducks were shot from 1860 to 1915. About 120-150 year-old ducks.
Ramsey Russell: And you could still genetically profile them?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. Yeah. We’ve got new techniques that, basically, we can get great genetic material out of them. We’re not talking about one or two genes; we’re talking about thousands of genes. So the question is: if the American American Black Duck is extinct, then what a American Black Duck was 150 years ago—
Ramsey Russell: About 1870.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. From 1860 to 1915. Similar time-frames for both Mallards and for American Black Ducks. We got a bunch of Mallards and American Black Ducks from 1860 to 1915. We compared current populations against current populations. We compared it across the different flyways. Then, we compared all of that to our historical stuff. In crux, the American Black Ducks that we find now, that we’ve identified as genetically pure American Black Ducks today, are identical to American Black Ducks from 150 years ago.
Ramsey Russell: Same American Black Ducks from back in 1870?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Same American Black Ducks genetically. The same thing. Same bird. That means that American Black Ducks, somehow, have escaped complete annihilation from Mallards. To get to that point, that means good American Black Ducks are picking American Black Ducks, right? That’s the only way that this works, is that what’s left are good American Black Ducks.
Ramsey Russell: I could say an old joke that crossed my mind, but I’m going to leave it alone.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. You can leave that one alone. So, you can imagine, after over a hundred years of Mallards being there and American Black Ducks being there, all the birds are like, “Well, you kind of look like a American Black Duck,” and then you pick wrong and basically have a bunch of dead-end offspring. You’re done. What’s left are birds picking correctly. Today, that’s why we’ve got American Black Ducks. American Black Ducks are picking American Black Ducks and going to breed in a boreal forest where Mallards don’t go.
It’s almost like a force field. We’ve got GPS tracker data where Mallards hit the boreal forest and just stop. They rarely ever cross over that. Clearly, they don’t survive very well there. That’s a good thing. We concluded that as long as we’ve got good American Black Duck habitat, we’re going to have American Black Ducks. Now, we’re continuing on this study potentially. We’ve got to get birds in different places. I’ve heard anecdotal stuff from hunters where potentially all the American Black Ducks that use real coastal wetlands are real American Black Ducks, but the interior American Black Ducks are “actually just probably hybrids or just Mallard-whatever things.”
Ramsey Russell: There may be a little bit of genetic variation between coastal American Black Ducks. Because when you talk to the guys up in New England—the guys up in New Jersey, New York—that seriously hunt American Black Ducks, they’re hunting those coastal estuaries, just brackish native habitat. But I would ask myself, “Is it those American Black Ducks that find their way, migrating down the Mississippi Flyway, to northern Alabama and parts of Mississippi and Arkansas? Or is it, probably, those interiors?”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, it’s probably interiors.
Ramsey Russell: They may be a little different.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I don’t know.
Genetic Origins of Released versus Wild Mallards in the U.S. and Why It Matters
Mallard was just a side note to this study. We weren’t even looking for it, but we started picking up interesting and strange patterns in Mallards. Particularly, there were two genetic types of Mallards that we were picking up in North America. When you went West of the Mississippi it was one genetic type. But if you go to the Atlantic Flyway, they are more different from those birds than a Mottled Duck is from a Mallard.
Ramsey Russell: If the American Black Duck is genetically identical to the late 1800s, what about the Mallard duck?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. Again, so the Mallard was just a side note to this study. We weren’t even looking for it, but we started picking up interesting and strange patterns in Mallards. Particularly, there were two genetic types of Mallards that we were picking up in North America. When you went West of the Mississippi it was one genetic type. We call this the North American Wild Mallard.
Ramsey Russell: Where, approximately, are we looking at on the map?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: When you go west of the Mississippi River— So you’ve got Prairie Pothole birds and everything. What is that province? Alberta?
Ramsey Russell: Manitoba?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Manitoba, and west through Alaska: same Mallards. You start going to the Atlantic Flyway, and you start picking up two types of Mallards there. We did the same kind of stuff like we do for American Black Ducks. We looked at these Mallards—again, Mallards in the West, Mallards in the Atlantic Flyway, Mallards in the Mississippi—and compared them to 150-year-old Mallards. Basically, Western Mallards are identical to 150 years ago.
Ramsey Russell: So the birds coming down the Central Flyway—Kansas, Oklahoma, and parts of northern Texas—that’s those same 150 year-old genetics?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: So far.
Ramsey Russell: So far. Right now.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Right now. But if you go to the Atlantic Flyway, they are more different from those birds than a Mottled Duck is from a Mallard.
Why Are There Two Mallard Genetic Types in the U.S.
Just looking at their genetics, the types of genes they have— For example, a Mottled Duck is about 4% different from a Mallard, a wild Mallard. A Mexican Duck is only 2%, and an American Black Duck is only 1%. These things are over 10% different from a wild North American Mallard. So, we said, “What is going on?”
Our research basically 100% confirms that it’s game farm Mallards, being released by game farm preserves, that is the other genetic signature now found all through the Atlantic Flyway, starting to creep into the Mississippi and even further West.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. How so? Different how? What are they related to? What are they? How are they different?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Just looking at their genetics, the types of genes they have— For example, a Mottled Duck is about 4% different from a Mallard, a wild Mallard. A Mexican Duck is only 2%, and an American Black Duck is only 1%. These things are over 10% different from a wild North American Mallard. So, we said, “What is going on?” To answer that question correctly—
Ramsey Russell: Like a statistically-significant sample was way different than native Mallards.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: And you said, “Whoa, something’s up.”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: So, we wanted to know the source. Now, going back to history, we said, “Well, there’s only two sources here. We got either wild Western Mallards that were coming in because the boreal forests were changing, or we’ve got these 500,000 game farm birds that were being released.” Now, if you think about fisheries and you think about bobwhite and think about pheasants; those birds are all non-native. Those fisheries—you think of trout and salmon—that we captive-bred and we put out there— There’s tons of data that, even three or four generations into captivity, these things are starting to look and act different. Now, game farm bird releases have been happening, obviously, for over a century. The dogma was that these birds either A) All get shot, B) Stay on the pond that they are released on, or C) if they do make it into the wild, they don’t breed.
Ramsey Russell: They are predated or can’t compete.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, they’re predated, they can’t compete, they’re not good at it—whatever it is. Again, that’s why I never even thought about it. But I saw that genetic signature, and I said, “You know what? We need to go get some game farm birds.” So, we got birds out of New Jersey, Kentucky, and South Carolina. These are birds being released either for hunting or for dog training. So, these are kind of game farm birds. On top of that, we also wanted to know if maybe it’s park Mallards. You’ve got those big, pecking park Mallard things. Where we band, around El Paso, Texas, there’s a whole bunch of what we call feral birds. These are feral park ducks. They’re ducks in the wild with other wild birds, potentially able to breed. Feral, like a feral pig. They’ve got a domestic origin but are in the wild.
Ramsey Russell: I see on social media people holding up some mallard-like duck they shot, all the time, saying, “What kind of duck?” and it’s a Rouen Duck. Or bibbed mallard. They call it Mallard variance of some sort. They’ve got a little of that stock in the woodpile.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. The birds that were out there, we identified as Khaki Campbells. That’s the breed.
Ramsey Russell: Khaki Campbells?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Khaki Campbells. They are a breed. Somebody released them. They were out there. They were out there during breeding season, so I said, “Hey, these are feral Mallards. We’re taking them.”
Ramsey Russell: Where would they have gotten them from?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Oh, you can buy them.
Ramsey Russell: So they’re a greenhead?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Well, they used to be a greenhead. These things are khaki-colored.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. I’ve seen those before. I’ve seen some with little dun afros or something.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, all that garbage on them. They’re out there. They can breed. We got those, and we were like, “Well, maybe it’s park Mallards. Maybe they’re the problem.” No. To get to it, our research basically 100% confirms that it’s game farm Mallards, being released by game farm preserves, that is the other genetic signature now found all through the Atlantic Flyway, starting to creep into the Mississippi and even further West.
How Do Game Farm Mallards Differ from Wild Mallards?
Ramsey Russell: Well, but now, Phil, so what? It’s a greenhead. It quacks like a duck, it comes in, and it looks good on the strap. You know, it’s a Mallard. Well, if it’s got a little Aflac or a little Rouen in it, who cares?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, so that’s about where they’re at.
Ramsey Russell: Heck, I remember there was a mallard shooting preserve in Arkansas. They were shooting Mallards out there, and the whole place is near Stuttgart.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: You’ve got real birds out there, what are you doing?
Ramsey Russell: I’m being facetious, and I’m saying, “Big deal! It’s a Mallard.” So what? What are the implications?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: What are the implications? Right. So, game farm Mallards have half the genetic diversity, so they’re not very adaptive. Now you’re putting this inbred line into our diverse line. What happens when you do that is, you inbreed your own line. That’s one thing. The other thing is that they basically only look like a Mallard, and they’re far from it. A American Black Duck is more like a Mallard than these game farm Mallards.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you were telling me the other day some of the key differences that would affect their reproductive capacity.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: These game farm Mallards—you’re looking at a bird that’s 700-900 grams. They’re these small, flighty birds. Kind of the size of maybe a wigeon, maybe a little between a widgeon and a gadwall. Now, look at our wild North American Mallards, and they should be around 1,100-1,200 grams. Big duck. You’ve got a significant difference. So, now they’re smaller. Are they going to be able to survive those harsh winters of the East? Are they going to be able to do that? Do they have the right fat preserves? On top of that, me and my colleagues in Europe— See, Europe is having a real problem. Their wild strains almost gone. Their wild Mallard strain is almost gone.
Ramsey Russell: One of the funnest duck shoots I’ve ever been on was in Sweden, jump shooting driven Mallards. They were not wild Mallards. Most of them were tiny birds.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: So, these are domestic Mallards. Do they know how to migrate? Do they know how to survive? Where are they? Now, the more important thing is that we already have the data on their bills. Their bills have completely changed, and they’ve changed because— Think about what they’ve been eating for the last 100+ years. We’ve been breeding them for 100 years. A fact that I haven’t mentioned is that we now have pretty substantial data that these are European-origin Mallards in North America.
Ramsey Russell: Not European wild Mallards.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: No, European domestic.
Ramsey Russell: European domestic.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. European domestic Mallards. We’ve been breeding them for 100 years. Who knows how many generations?
Ramsey Russell: English Calling Mallards.
How Widespread Are Game Farm Mallard Genetics in the United States
Over 90% of birds that I found in Atlantic Flyway had these game farm Mallard genes in them in substantial amounts. That means you’ve got a 10% chance, if you pull the trigger on a greenhead in the Atlantic Flyway right now, that you’re actually shooting a wild North American Mallard
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, that’s right. To pivot quickly on that, the history of what happened in North America— A few folks did try to breed wild Mallards. That wasn’t very successful. They tried American Black Ducks. That wasn’t very successful. Because when you’re putting wild birds into captivity, you’re not going to get the output. Then they went to Europe and said, “Well, these guys figured it out. They got birds that dump eggs. As long as you put them on Purina chow, they could breed year-round.” Right? That’s a perfect domestic bird. They went, bought them. They brought them here to the United States, and that’s what’s been bred here. What I find in Kentucky, New Jersey, and South Carolina is the exact same domestic lineage of [“Old World”] Mallard, and they’re all of European descent. A single lineage was brought from Europe, and then people bought them.
Ramsey Russell: If I go shoot a limit of Mallards in one of those states that are in that region, what am I looking at in terms of odds? What are the odds that it’s going to be a wild strain Mallard?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I did the study in 2010, so it’s been a decade. Over 90% of birds that I found in Atlantic Flyway had these game farm Mallard genes in them in substantial amounts. That means you’ve got a 10% chance, if you pull the trigger on a greenhead in the Atlantic Flyway right now, that you’re actually shooting a wild North American Mallard and not just some sort of game farm Mallard hybrid.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. Probably what we can expect in the future is to see more tame-looking, Aflac-looking, woodpile Mallards crop up on social media.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: I feel like that’s exactly what I’m starting to see. I’m starting to see more and more pictures, and guys saying, “Wow, this is a weird hybrid.” I’m like, “No, that’s just a game farm bird.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, and it’s not like they’re hunting right next to the city park.
Game Farm Mallard Hybridization Possibly Affects Mallard Productivity and Survivability, and Might Explain Atlantic Flyway Mallard Population Declines
Decreased Mallard Productivity Because Game Farm Mallards Have Different Bill Structure
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: What this research really exemplifies is that this idea that these game farm birds don’t survive and don’t breed is nonsense. For them to have all these game farms genes in the wild means that these birds not only leave their pond, but they successfully breed in the wild with Mallards. Again, going back because we studied American Black Ducks and Mallards together with this, where we see the game farm Mallards is in Mallards. We don’t see game farm Mallard genetics very much in American Black Ducks. They’re not picking differently. Perhaps the problem in the East is because they’re essentially a hybrid swarm. It’s a feral hybrid swarm, out in the East.
Ramsey Russell: You said something just a minute ago about how you’re seeing, in the Atlantic population, a different bill structure. Expound on that. What do you mean by bill structure? What does it matter?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Right. So, the bills are shorter. Their lamellae, which is essentially their teeth—kind of like baleen in whales—that’s how they filter, and their structure is specific to the way they filter. Now, these game farm Mallards have wider gaps in their lamellae. They have shorter bills.
Ramsey Russell: Because they’ve been bred to eat duck chow.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. They’ve been bred to eat big seeds, bread, corn. Stuff that you could just buy. So you can picture that if you take a park in the East and you make it into a beautiful wetland with wild seed, you’ve actually decreased the carrying capacity of the population size that can be maintained on there for that kind of duck, because they can’t actually eat it.
Ramsey Russell: A part-farm duck just can’t make a living on native seed.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: So there might be a reason, based on what you’re saying, for why the Atlantic population of Mallards has gone from 1.5 million to 400,000? It could be genetic?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. That’s part of the hypothesis. We’re testing that. I would say that, at least in part, it might explain things. Now, we know that genetics is out there. That’s a fact. How that genetics translates to population decline, or not— We’re continuing to look at that. Essentially, there’s theory—again, people have looked at this and have really studied this because they have really great datasets on fisheries—that that’s what you see, typically, when you do something where you’re mixing wild and domestic. You might see a boom in population and a steady decline. What’s happening is that more and more of that population is getting these traits that are just not good in the wild. Going back to a hen that’s dumping eggs and doesn’t care about those eggs— It’s great in a domestic setting; not so great in the wild.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: You’re looking at excessive aggression in males. They’re just mate, mate, mate, mate. Yeah, that sounds great, but they’re going to expend all of their resources and probably don’t survive very well. Maybe they don’t even mate correctly. Maybe they can’t even do that correctly. Now, what’ve you got to understand is that population decline isn’t just all of a sudden. The steady decline could be because the hens are now a half egg worse every generation, or even a quarter egg, and the males are not surviving as great. Their kids are not surviving as great. Every generation, the population is getting worse and worse at surviving the wild.
Game Farm Mallard Hybridization Possibly Deters Continental Migration
Ramsey Russell: A thought that comes to my mind as we start talking about the infiltration of a domestic Mallard into a wild population— I’m imagining these big old Baby Huey Mallards that are raised in a Minneapolis park. Here comes winter, and they’re like, “I don’t have a genetic cue to migrate.”
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: “I’ll just weather it out. I’m a big fat Mallard, and I eat good. People are throwing me bread, and I don’t have a genetic trigger to migrate South.” Is there any basis to that?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Absolutely. Now, I’ve got to correct you. Remember, we did look at if it’s the park Mallard that’s the problem. These fat park Mallards, but they’re not a problem. The problem is these little, skinny, flighty game farm Mallards. If you’re out in the East—
Ramsey Russell: Got you. It’s the ones that the states and the government and the private organizations put out in the wild that come from domestic European breeds.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. More “sporty”. That’s what the Europeans wanted. These little flighty birds. Kind of looks like a greenhead; is not a greenhead.
Ramsey Russell: But if their genetic code begins to predominate the genetic code of Mallards in the Atlantic Flyway, there could be an implication for migrating South.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s right. I’ve got a bit of data, and we’re testing this a little bit more, but if you look at band recoveries from the Atlantic Flyway, you’ve got a particular population—and this population is US-born Mallards, not US-born American Black Ducks, not Canada-born Mallards or Canada-born American Black Ducks, but US-born Mallards—that has been steadily increasing in the number of band recoveries being found in the Mississippi Flyway. Particularly in the northern part of the MAV, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
Ramsey Russell: The northern half.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: The northern half is where they’re being recovered.
Ramsey Russell: They’re not going as far South. They’re not flying down to Illinois and Arkansas and Mississippi and Louisiana.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: That’s not what it looks like. The last I did the work, it looked like 25%, in any one year of all banded Mallards in the US side of the Atlantic Flyway, are being recovered in the Mississippi Flyway. This tells me a whole bunch of birds are starting to move West, for whatever reason, and that’s where they’re probably pair bonding. That’s why we’re starting to see creepage of these non-native, non-wild genetics further and further West.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’m just trying to imagine this on a map. Let’s just say that in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York—that part of the Eastern US—that those birds are starting to creep over to the West and get on the upper Mississippi Flyway. Now you’ve got the genetic code that does not want to migrate South. But you said earlier, way back when, that the birds coming out of Alberta, Manitoba, out of the Arctic, still have the wild genetics, and those are the Mallards we’re seeing continuing to fly and do their migration down the Central Flyway.
Is the mallard migration shifting westwards or is something else happening?
Ramsey Russell: Is it, like you were saying, a matter of the Mallard migration moving West, or is what I’m hearing you say that the Eastern half of the US Mallard migration being retarded because of this genetic code?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: It very could be.
Ramsey Russell: That’s very possible, isn’t it?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: It’s very possible, yes.
Ramsey Russell: As a part of that hypothesis, are y’all continuing to explore and research and do some work like that?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah. My grad student just came back from Mississippi Flyway wingbee a couple days ago, and we got three hundred birds out of the Mississippi that we’re going to do genetics on and start asking those exact questions. Those are wintering birds, so we’re going to do source, where they’re coming from. What proportion of those three hundred Mallards are coming from X, Y and Z? On top of that, we’re partnering up with state agencies that have got summer banding programs to get these local Mallards, to start looking at what the local genetics are. The Great Lakes Mallards— They’ve been declining for a while. Is that just because they’ve been declining, or have they been increasing in these poorly adaptive genes and traits through time? We don’t know. That’s something that we’re keen on answering.
More Information on Mallard-Like Species, Mallard Genetics, and Waterfowl Management Implications
Ramsey Russell: Phil, do you have a website? Is there somewhere you can very easily— I’m going to tell you, for a guy like me even to get on Google and try to find some of these research papers, I don’t have the time and inclination. I get overwhelmed with bio-graphs and everything else. Seriously, is there a resource where people could read up, and follow up, on some of this research y’all have done, or some of the studies or a website or something?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, there’s been a few press releases on our work, but it just got published. We’re actually hoping to partner up with a few popular magazines, hunting magazines, that should expand on this and get this message out. We’re looking to get this message out any way we can. We should have a whole website, but we have a website: Lavretsky Lab
Ramsey Russell: Oh, Lavretsky Lab?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yeah, you’ll find it.
Ramsey Russell: Have you got a social media page for Lavretsky Lab?
Phil Lavretsky: Yeah, we’re on Twitter, too. Mostly my grad students. I tell them what to put on there because I don’t know how to fumble through that stuff. Yeah, you can check us out on there. We’re constantly putting up what’s going on, what we’re doing, what we’re finding, what we’re seeing.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky The greatest thing is the anecdotal stuff, hearing from the hunters. This is a conversation that I want to start. To me, as a waterfowler, if I see a Mallard going over my spread, I want to be shooting wild Mallards. That’s me. I have no idea how the rest of this country feels. Maybe if it’s a greenhead, it’s a greenhead. But here’s the thing: at this point, it’s a bunch of privatized ducks that are potentially polluting one of our greatest resources.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a drive-home message, Phil, because I say all the time: birdwatchers don’t care. I’m not beating up on birdwatchers. I’m saying a guy looking through binoculars at the park says, “Oh, what a beautiful wild Mallard duck.” He gets to see one. He checks it off his list. As a duck hunter, I want to see so many wild Mallards that they obliterate sunshine from hitting the ground.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Me too.
Ramsey Russell: If we’ve got this genetic pollution going on, we’re walking down the stairs instead of forward.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Look, we are potentially walking down the stairs of the bobwhite. Bobwhites— There’s a lot of reasons. Obviously, habitat’s a real problem, but we were constantly trying to upgrade them with pen-raised birds. Lo and behold, those pen-raised quail rarely ever survive. There’s actually some nice genetic work that shows that, even by three generations, they half their egg production in the wild. The number of eggs that are actually viable and create kids. Now, you’re halving it, and through time you’re going to continue to half it. They don’t have the instinct to survive. They don’t have this instinct to mate correctly. All of these things. Once things are captive, they’re captive. That’s a real hard thing to break. We are, again, potentially going down the line of fisheries. You’re looking at salmon fisheries, trout fisheries, where, yeah, I love catching rainbows, too, but I know that they’re hatcheries. Unless those fisheries, Fish and Game, are stocking millions of fry out there, I’m probably not catching my limit today, right?
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Here’s the thing, how do you feel about, in a decade, more or less—who knows how long this is going to take or what happens—your currently $25 duck stamp; do you want to be paying for pen-raised birds with those taxes?
Ramsey Russell: No way, man. I always talk about the future of duck hunting, and now we’re talking about the most iconic duck species in the Northern Hemisphere to a duck hunter imperiled by continental and global decline.
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: And, again, we are watching the declines in Europe, actually, because of the same thing. We throw out 210,000 game farm mallards a year, but they throw out 3,000,000. They need to throw out 3,000,000 mallards because they’ve lost their wild birds for exactly this reason. They’re ahead of us because they’ve been doing this for a lot longer with a lot more birds, and they polluted their own birds to a greater extent. Basically, what they’re dealing with, we may be dealing with in a short while, here.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. One more time, where can anybody listening follow you on social media? @LavretskyLab on twitter?
Dr. Philip Lavretsky: Yep. It’s Lavretsky with love. Love-retsky.
Ramsey Russell: Guys, thank y’all for listening. That’s some pretty sobering news, right there, To find out that the most iconic North American duck species, our beloved Mallard, is in peril. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world where you’re only shooting tame mallard ducks? Can you imagine that right here in North America where we duck hunters are footing the bill for everything? Can you imagine us only shooting “game farm mallards.“ I cannot. It’s a very sobering thought. Follow us @RamseyRussellGetDucks on Instagram. If you’ve got any comments, if you’ve got any subject matter you want to hear, let us know, guys. Thank y’all for listening. See you next time.