‘NOT’ MADE IN HOLLAND. The not-so-Dutch Duck waddling in canals and souvenir shops of the Netherlands

This blogpost was written by Neha Mungekar.  

The tour guide, holding his travel agency’s flag up in the air, confidently describes the history of the brick-lined water canal as part of his rehearsed and solemn narrative about the small city of Delft, in the Netherlands. The camera flashes and its clicks capture the linear canals in their frame, occasionally spotting the Mallard and Ruddy ducks. Mallards swim during the summer and skate during the winter. Countless videos can be found on YouTube showing the mother duck waddling with her babies through the houses of Delft, reaching to the celebrated Dutch network of water canals. The ducks, intrinsic parts of the canal culture, are very much hard to miss. This blog post, which was written in the context of the Urban Waters Module, looks at the ways in which foreign ducks adapted to the “Dutch” way of living –and in turn made the Dutch accustomed to them!

The duck who tamed the Dutch

A foreign student like me, who has been living in Delft for over six months, finds the Mallards homogenous and camouflaging in the brick-lined canals. These ducks not just survive on the bread scraps fed by different inhabitants of the city, but they are also familiar with the timing when their masters (or servants?) will be arriving with the food. These wild but urbanised ducks have tamed the Dutch who obediently keep up with their meal routines. A quick google search about these species throws out information on how they prefer to live in swamps and grow well on slimy worms and plants which can be found in the surface of the pond. The winter frozen period does not worry them as they are well taken care of by Delft habitants themselves. Such is the relation! This ownership, a sense of belonging by the citizens towards the ducks is surprising, especially when one realises that these ducks were not even born here, but they came all the way from other continents!

Duck, who travelled

The Ruddy duck was introduced into Europe from North America in 1948. Due to its aggressive courting behaviour and willingness to interbreed with European species it became known as an invasive species. The Mallard duck also travelled to a great extent. Some conjectural history suggests that this duck was first seen in Egypt. Later, the Spaniards brought it to Europe, and the rest is history. The Romans relished duck’s roasted meat and, for this reason, they continued raising ducks and eating them. It was not until the nineteenth century that people realized that their eggs tasted well too!

Today the canals in the cities of the Netherlands seem incomplete without Mallards and Rudy ducks in them. What some do not know is that these “invasive” species may affect the endangered local White-headed ducks. Thus, White-headed ducks are close to becoming extinct. But many biologists explain that extinction of species is part of “nature” as well. At present it is difficult to imagine how it would be to live with dinosaurs and great mammoths. It is actually not the alteration, but the static-ness of nature what should be a cause for concern. There is even a chance that Ruddy ducks could form a hybrid with the White-headed ducks engendering something that Professor Jelle Reumer from Utrecht University has called “Ruddy white-headed duck”. Therefore, in coming years we might have an evolved species of multi-coloured ducks waddling fiercely in the human-made canals, while the Dutch citizens feed them with organic whole wheat bread. This fascinating new birds may then travel again around the globe, proliferating in the wetlands of Sundarbans in Asia or the Amazon Basin in South America. Imagine, this avian Dutch hybrid might soon pursue the same route that their colonizer fathers took! Interesting, isn’t it?

Duck, the brand

While we galore at this marvellous species making its presence felt throughout the country, it is interesting to compare the ducks with the other symbols adding to Dutch imageries in the touristy city of Delft, namely – Tulips and Delftware. The Tulips themselves are the reason why many global travellers visit the Netherlands, and the blue-white porcelain-ware is a preferred souvenir. And like the ducks, these two are also imported! Tulips were brought to the country during the late 16th century, when a new urban oligarchy composed of opulent merchants (the Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602) emerged. In a quest for cultural differentiation and distinction, these merchants began importing goods from the Ottoman Empire, cultivating a fascination with the “exotic” tulip. During the early 17th century, during the “Dutch Golden Age”, the East India Company also started importing pieces of Chinese porcelain. As in the case of the tulips, only the wealthy could afford the imports. Dutch potters, who had been modelling clay with more modest techniques for over a century, started imitating Chinese porcelain around 1620.

Tulip bulbs, wooden tulips, and Delftware are now offered as “Dutch souvenirs” to cosmopolitan tourists. After doing some more digging, I found out that Netherlands does not officially have any national bird, but after a democratic and publicized bird poll, the nation’s nominee was the (black-tailed) Godwit, who lives and thrives in the polders. Low-lying tracts of land enclosed by dikes, polders are artificial hydrological entities (they have no connection with outside water other than through manually operated devices). Once again, a human-made habitat constitutes the natural environment for a bird, (and again), the bird is a transnational one (not original from Holland).

Duck, the language

Both Mallards and Ruddy ducks are not deemed misfits by everyday spectators. They are only deemed invaders or foreigners when examined by certain type of biologists. Biologists, who are in turn fighting the duck globalisation wave, and are trying to save the indigenous Netherlands’ ducks. Ironically the masses, who seem to have accepted these ducks as a part of the culture, also coined the phrase “vreemde eend in de bijt”, which literally means “a strange duck in the pack”. I suppose, it was the will to admire (and possess) the exotic what made the Dutch, Dutch ­–eventually making Mallards and Ruddy ducks Dutch too..

Duck, the exotic object

After a controversy, involving Dutch nature conservation politics in the late 1990s, K. Piël from the Foundation for Critical Forest Management, argued that “nature influenced by people is always less natural than natural nature” and that “the characteristics of the primordial nature, the most original nature, include undisturbed species”. He questioned Dutch fascination with “exotic” species and sustained that “the main goal of nature conservation should be the protection or restoration of as much as possible original nature”. In this vein, the UK exterminated the Ruddy ducks from the English habitat in order to check the balance of their original species. On the other hand, Dutch urban ecologist Remco Slder argues that the country must accept historical and everyday changes in the different eco-systems which have been modified by “new” species. “We must accept man as a spread factor of nature” he sustains. These contradictory attitudes coming from scientists of once-upon-a-time empires lay bare current positionalities towards “nature” (and also tell us how much the foreign ducks have situated themselves in European day-to-day life). The takeaway question from this debate is perhaps: what exactly is “nature” according to these two countries? What constructs their imaginations of the “natural” or the “original”? Could the ducks’ migration to Netherlands have been avoided? Is it unnatural of foreign ducks to adapt to and thrive in human-made eco-systems (such as polders and canals)? And finally, are urban dwellers “unnatural” when celebrating these ducks’ presence? Are urban dwellers “abnormal” by having adapted their daily routines to the feeding rhythms of the alien ducks?

While we ponder at all these questions, one thing is for sure: Mallard and Ruddy ducks have definitely travelled a long way to become Dutch, and so have the people who live in Dutch cities –by transforming their routines and places to please the ducks.

About the Author: Neha Mungekar is an urban designer and photo-journalist from India, currently studying Water Management and Governance in IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in partnership with UNESCO.

(She wrote this blog post in collaboration with her lecturer Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero).



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Cite this blog post
Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero (2018, August 16). ‘NOT’ MADE IN HOLLAND. The not-so-Dutch Duck waddling in canals and souvenir shops of the Netherlands. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os08

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