The north bank of the Schoolhouse Creek channel seems to be a kind of field hospital for birds in trouble. I saw a Mallard fighting off a plastic ring around her neck there. Just recently I admired a Marbled Godwit that was feeding itself there despite losing its left leg below the knee. This morning in that same location I saw an adult Ruddy Duck female with an injury to its right wing. At least one and possibly more major feathers of the wing had come uprooted. She was working her wing and her side with her beak energetically and persistently, as if she had experienced a deeper injury.
None of that self-healing work distracted her for a moment from attention to her safety. A bird flew overhead, casting a dark shadow, and she scrambled into the relative safety of the water, where (if need be) she could dive. Ruddy Ducks are very good divers. That shadow gone and the danger dismissed, she waddled up onto the bank — ducks are not elegant walkers — and resumed tending to her injury.
Minutes later, a Great Egret flew in from the west and landed on the same mud bank as the duck, perhaps ten yards away. The big bird, about the size of a three-story building compared to the duck, paced over to investigate. Egrets are carnivores. Did the big bird see the duck as a possible meal? The little duck quickly drove that thought out of its brain. Although tiny and injured, the duck charged the egret. Surprised, stunned, the egret flapped its wings, whoa! It quickly backed off. The duck, secure in its victory, turned its back, returned to its spot, and resumed working on its injury. The egret processed what had just happened and stalked off in the other direction toward the water.
The authors of the Cornell Bird Lab website says that Ruddy Ducks are known as very aggressive toward each other and toward other species, and that up north in their breeding grounds they will even attack and chase rabbits. In this case, the fearlessness that seems to be inbred in the species served the injured bird as a vital defense mechanism. The dagger-like beak of the Great Egret could have quickly turned the duck’s wing damage into a terminal injury. Thanks to its boldness, this little duck may have a chance to survive.
If the worst of the bird’s injury is the loss of wing feathers, and if its bones and muscles remain functional, chances are that it will fly again. According to at least one source, ducks normally lose their flight feathers in an annual molt, and remain flightless for about a month until the feathers grow back.
Below is an excerpt from the video, above, showing just the confrontation between the two birds, in slow motion.