‘A Waddle Through Time’ celebrates the adaptability of ducks and calls for ensuring their survival

The exhibit is open now at the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the University of Texas at El Paso.

By Alan TiscarenoFebruary 5, 2024 12:51 pm, ,

What do we think of ducks? Most of us probably don’t think much about them at all, but we may enjoy a video of a mama duck taking her babies across the road or watching them at a local park.

History has shown that ducks have waddled alongside humanity for centuries, shaping and being shaped by our ever-changing world. A new exhibit at the University of Texas at El Paso entitled “A Waddle Through Time: Ducks, People, and the Conservation Odyssey” explores that history.

Dr. Philip Lavretsky is a professor at UTEP who researches evolution, adaptation and conservation of ducks. He spoke with the Standard about the exhibit and the historic relationship between humans and ducks. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How long have you been studying and learning about ducks?

Philip Lavretsky: Probably since I was 10-years-old.

I’ve had a fascination with waterfowl for a long time, but, scientifically studying, probably since 2010 when I started my PhD and continued to do shows when I started my program running a wildlife genetics lab here at the University of Texas – El Paso.

Alan Tiscareno / Texas Standard

Dr. Philip Lavretsky poses by one of the displays in the "A Waddle Through History" exhibit.

Well, now, what about the relationship between humans and ducks? I think some people might wonder, is it really that unique? 

Yeah, it is actually quite unique. It’s a similar parallel to wolf and humans.

Waterfowl – ducks, geese and swans – had been pursued by ancient people for food and then they were actually one of the last successful domestication events.

The Ming dynasty started to domesticate the mallard about 5,000 years ago or so, and ever since then we have created breeds just like we have of dogs. So we’ve been tied to them through many different ways.

You’re based in El Paso, as is this exhibit. I understand that that area’s been seeing a growing problem with domestic ducks. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 

It’s not just El Paso. It’s really, you know, worldwide.

We’d love to go to the park, see these fancy-looking ducks. And a lot of them are actually the problem ducks. They’re the domestic variants that people have put out. And they are part of my study to understand how domestic and wild birds… the interaction between them both genetically as well as how they might be passing on viruses or diseases onto them – you know, seeing those interactions.

And what we’re learning is that the release of these domestic birds into the wild settings are having some negative complications.

Alan Tiscareno / Texas Standard

Attendees view one of the displays in the "A Waddle Through History" exhibit.

“Problem ducks.” Almost sounds like an oxymoron there. What should be the problem? But you mentioned viruses. Anything else that makes them problematic?

There’s a few specific breeds – in particular this one breed, it’s called a “game farm mallard.”

So we know that breed – just like a Chihuahua or a lab or whatever your favorite dog is – it’s a breed of duck that people have basically pushed the traits that they want onto them, whether it’s egg production, meat production, in this case, sort of for hunting production, and they continue to be released and they are a symptomatic problem because they are interbreeding with our wild populations. And actually we’re starting to see some negative consequences on survival, offspring-making, migration and all sorts of things that might be explaining some of the declines that we’re seeing.

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Was that what you were thinking about as you were putting together this exhibit, or is that just part of the message here? 

I wanted to showcase how waterfowl and people have been connected and interconnected through a long series of events.

And to be fair, I also wanted to tell the conservation story here in North America, but using waterfowl as kind of the study system. It really took a lot of concerted efforts in conservation movements by NGOs that would eventually become Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl and others that had that foresight to say, “we need to start to do better, and we need to start enacting laws that would increase our wild populations in a sustainable manner.”

Alan Tiscareno / Texas Standard

Well, you talk about more calculated efforts to protect the ducks. I think some listeners may wonder, is there anything that we can do as lay people right now to help ducks? 

We don’t need to feed these birds bread. If we don’t need to input any more domestic birds in there, because they are actually causing serious issues to our wild population.

In fact, these birds can’t even digest bread. What happens is they get this disease called angel wing when they have too much glucose. And so you’re actually slowly killing these birds by doing the same things. So putting that message out would be great.

If you want to feed them – I mean, I think that it’s just an impulse to somehow interact with these ducks that you might see at a park or something – can you give them anything that might be healthy or might be okay, if bread isn’t?

Wild seeds would be it, you know, kind of like what you do in a bird feeder. There’s specific seeds that different species of waterfowl really like.

But in the end, honestly, the interactions should be from afar. The more they interact with humans – the more they want to be in more urban settings – the less they have predator evasion. And so there’s a lot of consequences that arise when we interact with wildlife. We got to make sure that they stay wild and that’s the main thing that we need to make sure everybody understands.

You can support UTEP’s Waterfowl Conservation Fund here.

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