Country diary: The dawn chorus here begins with a quack

It was like a comedy routine. I shouted “duck!”, frantically pointing out of the window as if a missile of some kind was hurtling toward the house. Before those within earshot adopted the brace position, they paused to check what I was gesticulating at. And, looking every bit as if they were in on the joke, two ducks came waddling up the lawn.

There’s something about ducks that always raises a smile. Their bowling-pin shape, their forced-laughter quacking, their swaying-speed-walker gait. It is hard to take them seriously.

When they arrived here two years ago, it felt to me like a seriously good sighting. In the 20 years I had lived on west Dartmoor, I had recorded 60-plus bird species in my back garden – but never a duck. Attracted by the pond, this pair of wild mallards had discovered there was grain under the bird feeders, a short flight from where they were nesting down in the valley.

They reappeared last March, with a hanger-on in tow, and this year the single pair are back once again. Forget the first bloom of daffodils or return of swallows – these mallards have become my garden harbingers of spring.

The male’s plumage, neatly divided by colour, has the simplicity of a children’s jigsaw – yellow beak, orange legs, green head, grey body, brown chest. The mottled female, on the other hand, is well camouflaged for sitting tight on a ground nest. Both share a small rectangle of blue in the wing, as if there were spare puzzle pieces left in the toy box.

Best of all are the male’s up-curled tail feathers. One can half imagine him in front of a looking-glass lake in the morning vainly slicking back this little black quiff. While he postures, the female looks unimpressed, hoovering up grain in the grass.

Mallard may not be beloved by all, but these unflappable ducks enable people of all ages to enjoy close contact with nature, bringing pleasure to countless urban park-goers.

And here in my Dartmoor garden, so begins the first dawn chorus of the new season – not with the uplifting melodies of a lark, but with a comical “Quack!”

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