Archive for Hybrids and introgressants

Nov
01

In Search of the Maximum Duck

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It happens two or three times a day most days. Someone ‘posts’ or sends me a photo of a mystery waterfowl, and I respond, almost without the need to think, in one of three ways:

This is a domestic mallard.

This is a domestic muscovy duck.

This is an apparent hybrid between the mallard and the muscovy duck.

Ninety years ago today, on November 1, 1924, Joseph P. Bell shot two unknown birds in Wallen County, Texas. He showed one of them to Robert B. Lawrence of Houston, who

identified it as the so called “Violet Duck, Anas maxima” of Gosse, supposed to be a cross between the Mallard and Muscovy.

The bird Lawrence examined weighed almost eight pounds — three times the size of a normal wild mallard drake.

Photo: Spectrum Ranch.

Photo: Spectrum Ranch.

This hybrid combination is a frequent one, thanks to the abundance of both species in captivity and to their unbounded concupiscence. The snazzy bird in the center of the photograph above is of known parentage, and he shows all the classic signs of a hybrid: the mallard-like head and neck pattern, the glossy green back and rump, the long tail of his muscovy forebear.

And he’s enormous.

If ever I knew it, I’d entirely forgot that this mix had been assigned a scientific name — and more than once, at that. Three quarters of a century before Bell took to the field with dog and gun, Philip Henry Gosse described a “magnificent Duck” taken near Savanna le Mar, Jamaica. No less a leading light than George Robert Gray had already affirmed that he thought the bird a hybrid, but Gosse was unconvinced: the local gunners were familiar with ducks of this sort, and had been for nearly a hundred years, suggesting that this was no mere incidental crossbreed but a new species, the green-backed mallard, Anas maxima.

Gosse described his maxima in 1847, in disregard not only of Gray’s opinion but of Charles Lucian Bonaparte’s observations, made years before in the Iconografia della fauna italicathat the muscovy duck

freely breeds with mallards, wild or domestic, producing the claimed species purpureo-viridis of Schinz,

an earlier name for this same hybrid. Edmond de Selys-Longchamps echoed Bonaparte’s suspicions in his 1842 Faune belge: Schinz’s purpureo-viridis comprises

quite likely hybrids of those two species, but I maintain some doubt in this matter, since I believe that the hybrids of these ducks produced in captivity have a small bare area between the eye and the bill which is not present in Schinz’s bird.

De Sely never saw such a bird himself, but Bonaparte certainly did. In his 1849 review of Degland’s Ornithologie européenne, the princely critic wrote, his tone decidedly one of exasperation, that

nearly twenty years ago I made the journey to Lausanne expressly to examine Schinz’s Anas purpureo-viridis, and not satisfied with just rejecting the name, as applying to a h y b r i d of the muscovy and the mallard, I continued to search out this bird everywhere and in all its forms, from Lake Trasimeno, where it was observed virtually on my doorstep, all the way to Asia and America….

without finding any reason to believe that the bird was anything but a hybrid.

Ornis caucasica, hybrid mallard x muscovy

In 1896, half a century after Gosse’s claimed discovery, André Suchetet laid out all the evidence to do with the existence and status of Anas maxima. His review of specimens sent from all over Europe, along with colored engravings of the bird, convinced him that

we are dealing here with birds escaped from captivity, but when they were killed in fact living in a feral state in a wide range of countries, some on the lakes of Switzerland and Lombardy, others along the rivers of Silesia, Russia and France, and, finally, one from a pond in Belgium.

The earliest specimen of which Suchetet was aware was one taken on Lake Geneva in April 1815; there were also American skins, including two males held in the collections of the Smithsonian. His investigation led him to affirm that the hybrid origin of all these mysterious ducks from such far-flung places was at the very least “probable.”

That hasn’t stopped us from being confused every once in a while anyway. But not as confused as these miscegenating ducks, fortunately.

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