Ducklings Week 8: Flight training – intermediate level!

The duckies are in full flight-training mode now.  Basic training, just a few days ago, consisted of flying a few inches off the ground for a few metres before landing, sometimes clumsily, on the ground again.

The braver or more talented were able to take off flapping from the middle of the garden and then land at full speed in the water,  braking hard with their orange webbed feet and coming to a screeching halt just before hitting the wall at the edge of the pond. They seem enjoy the competition and chance to show off to their siblings. As they got more confident they started their run-up  further and further from the pond till they could all take off and fly together in a formation to land in the pond, though a couple of them still chicken out before reaching the water and land in the grass instead!

Yesterday, we noticed them flying the opposite way – taking off from the water surface to land on the ground. This is a variation on the other training exercise, but that’s not all to their flight prep. The ducks also cross-train in the water. Every now and then, after an extended period of foraging in the pond (i.e. uprooting and chomping on the reeds) they get the crazies, and would rush around the pond in circles, paddling like mad with their feet and beating their wings against the water until there were big waves slapping against the sides of the pond. I am sure these gives those leg and wing muscles a really good workout! After such training sessions they’d bath vigorously, preen themselves thoroughly, then head off for a long nap.

It is indeed impressive to see how the ducks are teaching themselves to fly. They are like natural athletes with an innate sense of  how to train safely and methodically. They seem to know just how much to do, and never attempt more than a couple of flight training sessions a day. They spend lots of time resting and eating, and never seem in a rush.

This morning I observed as the ducks split up into two groups: one of 2 and the other with 3 ducks. Each waddled away from the pond towards two different corners of the garden. I figured one group was going to their food trays near the kitchen and the other two were going to forage under the hydrangea bushes.

The two nearest to me, Baby and one of the twins, walked till they reached the garden gate where they couldn’t go further, then turned around to face the pond, and suddenly at a couple of loud quacks from Baby, took off suddenly, and rising to roughly shoulder height, banked and turned steeply around the conservatory and then headed straight towards the pond and splashed down into the water. It all was over in a couple of seconds, taking me completely by surprise. I was so impressed! I hadn’t seen them fly at that height before. As these two were taking off, I had also seen at the corner of my eye what I thought were a group of blackbirds flying from the side yard through our garden in the direction of the pond. Well it turned out they were the other 3 ducks, and all of them were now chattering excitedly together in the pond. Our little family had just completed a coordinated training flight!

I realised they needed a longer “runway” to attain a higher speed and height, and that was why they had split up into two groups. They needed more room to practice flying without crashing into each other. But how did they know how to do this, and how did they coordinate what they were going to do? I don’t know but it was clear to me that learning to fly for these birds was not a random series of clumsy trial flights done haphazardly. They were obviously executing a well laid out plan, wasting no energy or time, done with full cooperation of all flock members.

Although they have come quite far with their training in just a short time, they still can’t manage to clear the garden gate, as the narrow and sharp turns to avoid walls and fences are still beyond their present abilities. Trapped in our small backyard, hey pace miserably up and down the fence, hoping to be let out where they can find more space to train. Unfortunately I don’t know how to warn them of the dangers outside, and I also can’t fly to show them where they will eventually need to go (the nearby creek), so for now they have to stay in the garden. Sooner or later they will find their way out – but we’ll have to take one day at a time.

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