In all honesty, I don’t remember much about the moment, other than the brief confusion I felt years ago as I stood there on a chilly winter’s day, staring at a strange-looking duck that my late, great black Lab Maggie had fetched to hand.
On the one hand, I thought I was looking at a mallard, all the way down to the tail feather curls. But then again, one glance at the rest of the duck showed a faint resemblance to a wigeon, another common duck in my area. Quoting the original greenhead, Mr. Grinch, I sat there and puzzled “until my puzzler was sore.” Finally, as my brain worked through the duck blind conundrum, it dawned on me that I had just shot a hybrid duck, a cross between a greenhead and a baldpate.
While I briefly flirted with the idea of getting it mounted, I chose not to, instead taking a few photos with my Nikon. Today, I’m left only with a few memories of that duck after a computer crash wiped out my new photos that fall and taught me the lesson of redundancy when it comes to digital photography.
In the end, I’ve only seen a couple of hybrid ducks in my entire hunting career since they are a rare phenomenon in all of North America’s four flyways. Even so, according to information from Ducks Unlimited (DU), crossbreeding between ducks isn’t as rare as one might think.
In fact, DU’s Jennifer Kross indicates that waterfowl crossbreed more than any other group of birds do. Kross also indicates that scientists have recorded upwards of 400 or more hybrid combinations of different waterfowl species, many involving the mallard and other species like wigeon, black ducks, teal, gadwalls, and pintails.
How do Hybrid Ducks Happen?
How ducks become hybrids is simple biology: Two different species pair up in the North American duck factory, breed and produce offspring that carry characteristics of both parent birds. A bill of one, a tail feather of another, a wing that is a bit different than the duck’s other physical traits, all paying homage to the bird’s unique lineage.
Since crossbred duck offspring are infrequent and often infertile, it’s doubtful that their numbers are generally on the increase anywhere in the flyways. But even if they are as rare as an early October snowstorm, they still bring a cool fascination to waterfowlers who take a bird from their retriever’s and wonder aloud, “What’s this?”
Hybrid Duck Hype
Garrett Trentham, a 31-year old regional director for Delta Waterfowl Foundation and a resident of the waterfowl-rich regions of central Missouri, understands that fascination firsthand. Back on Nov. 17, 2017, the longtime waterfowler found himself wondering what was going on as he duck hunted on a public marsh with a good friend from the East Coast.
While Trentham grew up in middle Tennessee and learned to duck hunt in spots like Kentucky Lake and the Camden Bottoms WMA—along with yearly visits to family hunting ground in southeastern Missouri and nearby Illinois—he also spent a few years of his adult life in North Carolina where he may or may not have seen a mallard/black duck hybrid or two.
What he is certain of is that when he took his job with Delta Waterfowl in 2015, he quickly became enamored with the waterfowling prospects of his new homeland where he hunts with friends and coworkers a few dozen times every year.
While he moved past the “gotta shoot a limit” stage of his waterfowling career years ago—he started hunting with his dad when he was 4—Trentham still lives for the sight of a late autumn or early winter sunrise over the marsh. And with the numbers of mallards, snow geese, and other waterfowl that make their way through the Show Me State, he isn’t planning on cashing in on the real estate boom during the next several years.
“Let’s just put it this way,” he said. “I don’t have any plans on leaving the Midwest anytime soon.” Especially after hunts like the one back in 2017, a day when his friend from North Carolina was in town and a strong early season cold front was pushing through with an early wave of greenheads coming south from the Dakotas.
“We had some really good hunting that day, so good that we were taking turns shooting ducks,” recalled Trentham of the cool, overcast day. “I had a mixed bag of puddle ducks and I needed one more. My friend needed a couple too, but he isn’t a purist like I am, so he wasn’t all that particular about what he wanted to shoot. But me? I wanted to hold out for a mallard drake since there were so many around.”
After his friend shot a couple of times, it was finally Trentham’s turn again. Soon, there was a lone drake coming in on his side of the blind, feet down, boots on, and making a penguin’s waddling descent into the decoy spread.
“He had a green head and a chestnut breast, so when he locked up and came in for a landing, I never hesitated to shoot,” said Trentham. “But as the shot crumpled him, I remember having a question in my mind, like ‘What was that?’” After the duck fell belly down, Trentham looked over at his pal and said, “That was a greenhead, right?” His friend said, “Oh yeah, 100-percent!”
While the Missouri waterfowler has a black Lab now, he was between duck dogs then and went out to fetch the bird himself. As he did, he was suddenly looking at the duck’s rump and back. “When I started to reach down for the duck, I thought, “No, that’s a pintail drake.’ It even had a small sprig feather. And I wondered how in the world I could have made that mistake.”
But as Trentham walked back towards the blind, he flipped the duck over and noticed that it had orange feet and the breast and head of a greenhead. And for just a moment, his puzzler got sore too.
“My brain started shorting out a little bit right then,” he laughed. “But that’s when it registered with me what had happened, that I had shot a mallard/pintail cross. “And while I understood the rarity of it all, I walked over and showed it to my buddy, who wasn’t all that impressed initially. He only hunts a few days a year, so he asked, is that like shooting a banded bird and I told him, ‘No, it’s way more rare than that!’”
So, rare, in fact, and so strikingly beautiful too, that Trentham decided to mount the bird, choosing to spend a few hundred dollars at the taxidermist’s shop instead of on one of the many freelance, do-it-yourself waterfowl hunting adventures that he typically takes over the course of a fall. “It’s a beautiful mount and one of only two ducks that I’ve got mounted in my house,” he said. “I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty cool to show off to my duck hunting friends.”
I bet that’s true. Especially if you fail to back up all of your computer’s photo files, that is.