The Wilder Side of Vienna

Notes from Nature: July/August 2010

Photo: David Reali

Due to poor planning, I’ve been unable to venture to the Vienna Woods in search of what I hoped would be the subject of this month’s column. I’d been aiming to catch a glimpse of the handsome – but shy and solitary – black stork; a considerably less gregarious bird than its white relative.

Living mostly undisturbed among old stands of oak and beech in the central and south-western parts of the Wienerwald, the black stork is thriving. There are reckoned to be between 10 and 20 breeding pairs in the area.

So it was after I had once again been unsuccessfully attempting a trip, when I realised suddenly that I was doing exactly the thing I’ve so long resisted – ignoring what’s under my nose in search of something more exotic.

It took a walk along the Donaukanal on the evening that France played Mexico in the 2010 World Cup to bring me to my senses. As cyclists and joggers made the most of the fading light and the giant TV screens of waterside bars entertained scores of boozy football fans, a commotion of a more sinister kind was playing out on the water.

A female mallard duck had attracted the unwanted attention of six drakes. The males pursued her relentlessly down the canal, pirouetting aggressively all about her, as she uttered a series of desperate, guttural calls. Up to 20 drakes will sometimes pursue a female in this way, and if an eventual attack takes place on water – as looked likely in this case – she runs a very real risk of being drowned in the fracas.

In Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey note that although it is regular behavior, the mallard ‘gang rape’ is nonetheless something that has given rise to ‘historical odium’. And the species has more dark secrets still. Despite appearing to be just another surface-feeding dabbler, more ready than most to supplement its diet with convenience meals of stale bread thrown by tourists and toddlers, mallards will also devour crabs, frogs and eels. Some indiscriminate individuals have even been recorded feasting on dead birds as large as woodpigeons, or snacking on sparrows that come too close during a feeding frenzy.

I didn’t see the conclusion of the episode involving the unfortunate female on the canal; since she was swimming for her life and being helped along by the current, I couldn’t keep pace. I saw more than enough, though, to postpone my trip to the Vienna Woods.

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