Central Park Birding:: Species Accounts: Ducks, Geese, Swans

All text and photographs Copyright © Phil Jeffrey 2001-2009
Ducks, Geese and Swans are lumped under the name "waterfowl". They are a numerous and diverse family of birds with strong association with water, with several species breeding in the surrounding areas and also wintering in the vicinity. Waterfowl migration is early in spring (March/April) and late in fall (October). In contrast to many species they are usually encounted in breeding plumage and are only briefly in non-breeding plumage. The non-breeding plumage state, the "eclipse" form, is often accompanied by a period of flightlessness. For this family of birds that's typically in August. During eclipse, males look a lot like females.

In the park, waterfowl occupy all water bodies of anything over a moderate size. Mallards even hang out on the relatively small Azalea Pond during the warmer months. The largest members of the family, the Mute Swan, formerly bred on the Lake. These days the Canada Goose is the largest waterfowl breeding in the park, with Mallards being the most numerous. Other species of ducks don't tend to thrive in the disturbed environment that the park presents.

The Lake and 59th St pond are also home to a motley selection of hybrid ducks, usually hybrids with Mallards but also ones of a more domestic origin e.g. the all-white "Aylesbury" duck. Any duck that looks strange should be assumed to be of non-wild origin. The Mallards themselves are somewhere between truly wild birds and tame park pets.

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)

Abundance: now rare, formerly resident in low numbers
Status: Formerly a breeding species, now rare. Mute Swans are an introduced species from Great Britain and Europe. Somewhat sedentary, differing in this from their native more migratory cousins the Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, they are very local in a few areas in the USA, but quite numerous at Jamaica Bay for example.
Habitats: Large bodies of water (Lake, Meer)
Best dates: no good times
Best location: The Lake or Harlem Meer
Most similar to: nothing comes close - Trumpeter and Tundra Swans do not visit the park
Size: length: 50-60 inches
Appearance: Males and females essentially identical, although the black knob at the base of the bill averages larger in males. A huge all-white water bird, with a orange/red and black bill, it is difficult to mistake a Mute Swan for anything else. Back when they bred in the park the brown/gray juveniles were best distinguished by their sheer size and long necks. The aggressive posture, with the wings partly raised, is seen by the adults in response to any threat. In the breeding season the male was aggressive towards other large white birds (Great Egret, the "Aylesbury" domestic duck on the Lake).
Habits: Seen feeding on sub-surface water plants using it's long neck
Other species accounts: patuxent, cornell

Canada Goose (Branta candensis)

Abundance: common resident, breeds
Status: A resident breeder in modest numbers
Habitats: Large bodies of water (Lake, Meer)
Best dates: all year
Best location: Harlem Meer
Most similar to: visually distinctive
Size: length: 20-25 inches
Appearance: A large water bird with a black neck "sock" and white cheek patches that connect under the throat. This feature alone makes them unmistakable. The stocky body is gray/brown with a white chest. The undertail is white, and there is a thick black band on the tail. Formerly strictly migratory, Canada Geese have become partly resident and colonized suburbia and have not spared Central Park - several pairs breed here. Migratory Canadas pass over the park in April and October and winter extensively in the surrounding areas (e.g. Long Island farmland). The Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) was recently split from the Canada Goose and contains one former Canada Goose subspecies "Richardson's Goose" that is theoretical as a flyover for the park. See David Sibley's discussion of the ID issues involved in making the distinction. I have the opinion that Cackling Goose is being confused with smaller regular Canada Geese in many instances.
Habits: Not averse to taking handouts from people, it's most often seen hanging out on the shore of Harlem Meer.
Other species accounts: patuxent, cornell

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