An Ode to Weird Duck Time

Cartoonist Rosemary Mosco reflects on a season that’s special to her—and not only because she invented it.
An illustration of 3 cartoon ducks—Surf Scoter, Northern Shoveler, and Red-breasted Merganser—each with labels describing distinctive features.
Illustration: Rosemary Mosco

As a birder living in the Northeast, I love to watch the seasons change because each one brings its own joys. In the spring I look for migratory songbirds in their dazzlingly fresh breeding plumages. During the summer I spend lazy days watching herons fish and hummingbirds zip between flowers. Fall is a time for sipping tea from a steamy thermos as southbound hawks stream by. And then there’s winter—and winter is special.

Winter is Weird Duck Time.

Many duck species nest at high latitudes, raising their young in boreal forest wetlands or on the Arctic tundra. But soon the abundance of the brief northern summer gives way to the harsh, nutrient-poor winter. The ducks head to warmer shores. Since my local water bodies rarely ice over, these birds can spend their winters diving, feeding, resting, courting, and paddling. Rafts of them fill every ice-free patch of water, from ponds and creeks to ocean bays. And that’s when the show begins.

I remember the first time I experienced it. I grew up in a part of Canada where the lakes and even most of the rivers freeze over; it was great for skating, but not for ducks. But a little over a decade ago, I headed for warmer shores, landing on the Northeast coast of the United States. In November I walked out on a beach and trained my binoculars on some drab-looking birds bobbing on the waves. I was gobsmacked. Staring back at me were the moon-pale eyes of Surf Scoters, their pinprick pupils making them look permanently shocked. They wielded bulbous candy-corn bills. These weren’t the ordinary Mallards of my childhood. They were magical.

Since many ducks choose their mates in the winter, they arrive in crisp courtship plumage. They’re a riot of colors, shapes, sounds, and strange behaviors. Red-breasted Mergansers have wild bedhead and flash crocodile smiles, their bills edged with tooth-like serrations. Northern Shovelers huddle together and swim in circles to dabble with outsized bills. Male Hooded Mergansers raise massive black-and-white crests like sails on a ship. Now and then, a rare male King Eider waltzes onto the scene, showing off a mint-green face and a bulging orange plate above its bill. Everyone dives, grooms, scuffles, honks, and bellows. I feel like I’m watching the famously extravagant birds-of-paradise of Papua New Guinea, except that I’m so, so cold. (It’s worth it.)

This is what I call Weird Duck Time. It’s not a technical term. But birders love to make up our own slang. When we encounter a species that’s new to us, we exclaim, “That’s a lifer!” We often have a nemesis bird (a species we keep missing out on), and we drop everything to look for megas (really rare birds). Each of us has our own private terminology, too. Weird Duck Time began as a goofy phrase I said only to myself. Then I made a cartoon about it and shared it online. Other folks picked up the expression, and now I meet people who use it without knowing where it came from. It’s so cool. I’m grateful that my private silliness has traveled far and found new and welcoming shores.

To be honest, though, I feel judgmental calling any bird “weird.” Ducks are perfect in every way. As someone who goes to the beach in the winter to shiver and squint through icy winds at distant birds, it’s clear that I’m the odd one, evolutionarily speaking. Weirdness is relative. We should celebrate all of our hobbies, loves, and quirks, whether we’re birding in a blizzard or wooing a mate with a display of hoots. A little strangeness is a gift, no matter the season.