Deadly bread diet killing wild ducks
William Allingham remembered "with tears" four ducks on a pond, a grass bank beyond, blues skies and white birds on the wing.
The tears of this poetic snatch were no doubt prompted by sentiment. This was before a sight of a sad sail of dying birds could rend his heart.
No one had heard of 'angel wing' and maybe mid-19th Century bread crusts thrown on the waters contained more calcium than today's white pan. A century later, the sight of bedraggled pond ducks with tiny, sprouting wings dying from a mysterious ailment concentrated scientific minds on something called "bilateral valgus deformity of the distal wings" and the feeding of white bread in quantities was sourced as a cause of what was to be called 'angel wing' in waterfowl.
The bread was a high calorie diet of proteins and carbohydrates - but seriously low in vitamins D and E, calcium and manganese, vital for ducks. Angel or slipped wing is when the last wrist joint is twisted with wing feathers pointed out instead of against the body. More mature birds become hopeless cases as the disease is incurable.
Another Kennedy, the Rev PG (no relation), author and ornithologist of the last century, writing in an issue of Studies Review in 1947, told the delightful story of a Mrs Rathbone, of Castlecaldwell, Co Fermanagh, hand-rearing a clutch of common scoter (Mellanitta nigra) wild duck, the eggs being hatched by a domestic hen. The resultant brown-black ducklings proved to be great pets - and, said Fr Kennedy, "showed a dog-like affection for their mistress".
Each morning she would take the birds in a basket to a local lake where they would rush into the water and "gambol, dive and chase one another". When the lady felt the ducklings had had enough sport, she used to hide in bushes and then the little ones would miss her from the bankside and scramble ashore "running hither and tither with much anxious cheeping".
Then, when a bird found her, its call-note would change and the others would be quickly at her feet and then all would climb into the basket to be carried home!
There was a sad ending when the birds got older, became ill and died. Tests showed death was caused by bone disease due to lack of calcium. Fr Kennedy pointed out that scoters in the wild feed on molluscs and crustaceans which were vital for survival.
Scoters are sea ducks occasionally seen here in some coastal waters during winter in straggling groups offshore in sandy-bed areas where they dive for mussels and sand-eels.
The naturalist David Cabot reckons 12,000 birds winter here from northern Europe and Iceland. The last "suspicion" of Irish breeding birds I can find is in Major Ruttledge's Irish Birds for Mayo and Fermanagh.
Angel wing persists in some pond places where mallard frequent so please feed 'duck seed' to the birds instead of stale bread.