by Jay Sharp & Lynn Bremner
The mallard – the “Northern Hemisphere’s most abundant and cosmopolitan duck,” according to The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding – held claims, in the 19th century, to a range extending from western to central North America. With help from the human species, the mallard has since expanded its range to include virtually all of the United States as well as parts of Western Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, the Caspian and Black Sea region, India and China. The mallard’s “success in the wild,” say authorities Nancy Drilling, Roger Titman and Frank McKinney, writing for Birds of North America, “reflects its adaptability to varied habitats, its hardiness in cold climates, its catholic food tastes, and its tolerance to human activities.”
Mallard ducks average around 20" to 26" in length and can weigh 2 to 3 lbs. The male is known as a drake and the female is called a hen; the flocks are called sords when they are in flight. They are common in North American, Europe and Asia. The ubiquitous mallard is capable of cross-breeding with many other species. They are also the ancestor of most domestic ducks.
- The male has a shimmery green head during mating season
- Iridescent blue/purple wing feathers visible on sides
- Orange, webbed feet
- Male, breeding plumage: Yellowish to greenish to grayish bill; distinctive
emerald green neck and head; narrow white collar; rich brown breast; gray to
brown back, wings and belly; iridescent blue speculum (inner trailing wing feathers);
black rump; black and white tail feathers
- Female, year-round plumage: Orange to yellow, black-splotched bill; pale brown head with dark lines over the crown and through the eyes; mottled brown body with paler, more buff belly; iridescent blue speculum; light colored tail feathers
- Iridescent blue/purple wing feathers visible on sides
- Orange, webbed feet
Habitat & Diet
During the non-breeding season, the mallard leads a casual lifestyle, spending most of its time feeding, sleeping, bathing or preening. It may, however, guard a favored feeding and nesting site aggressively, chasing and pecking competitors. Always watchful, the duck opens its eyes frequently, even when sleeping, keeping watch for predators. Alarmed, it can launch itself vertically into the air from the water’s surface.
Reflecting its adaptability and resilience, the mallard makes itself at home in a diversity of habitats. For example, the female usually nests, not only in the natural cover near streams, wetlands, ponds and reservoirs, but also around farm homes, residential areas and even back yards.
The mallard belongs to the group of ducks called “dabblers.” Like its kin, it often feeds - or dabbles - on aquatic and marine life in shallow waters just a few inches beneath the surface, dipping only its head, neck and breast downward while tilting its tail feathers upward. (By contrast, other ducks -- called “divers,” for example, the Canvasback and Ring-necked Ducks -- feed on aquatic and marine life well below the surface, often remaining submerged for 20 to 30 seconds.)
An opportunistic omnivore, the mallard feeds, not only in shallow vegetated waters, but along shorelines, in grain fields, even in urban settings. Its varied diet typically includes aquatic plant seeds, riverine and shore-side plant seeds, various fish species, aquatic and terrestrial amphibians and invertebrates, mature and larval insects, worms, and cultivated cereal crop seeds.
The female duck quacks and the male duck has a more nasal sounding call.
The mallard ducks travel in large flocks. They migrate in the winter months from their northern territories to the south where warmer temperatures prevail. If they live in a climate that is warm year-round, they don’t migrate, instead staying where food is plentiful. They spend a lot of time on the water or near the water.
During courting – which takes place well before the breeding season begins – the male, competing with several other males, tries to attract a female by posturing and shaking. The female nods her head demurely as she swims, the center of male attention. The male may turn his head away from the female, sending, he hopes, an irresistible signal to the female to follow him. The female may take wing for a brief and erratic (and presumably alluring) flight, with the males following closely behind. Finally, according to Drilling, Titman and McKinney, she selects a mate, apparently based on his enthusiasm, courtship skills and plumage. She conveys her commitment by following the male, bobbing her head and pecking him. The male turns his head away from the female, now confident that the gesture will indeed entice her to follow him.
At the breeding grounds, the male selects a nesting range, which he will defend against other pairs. The female picks out a specific nest site. Instigated with head bobbing by either the male or the female, the pair will mate, often several times a day, while swimming. Often, early in the spring in the Southwest, the female begins building her nest while the male waits nearby. Typically, she digs in moist soil to form a shallow bowl-shaped nest, lining it with nearby litter and camouflaging it with surrounding vegetation. After she lays her eight to twelve eggs (usually cream-colored to grayish to greenish without markings) and begins incubating them, she plucks down from her breast to add to the nest lining. Meanwhile, the male abandons the family. Given the opportunity, the adulterous fellow may establish a new relationship with another female.
Within a day after her eggs hatch, about three to four weeks after she has laid them, the female herds her young charges to water, where she will teach them the business of being a mallard duck. Within a couple of months, she will watch the ducklings take wing, headed for independence. Normally, she will not raise more than one brood in a season.
Mallard ducks mate in pairs and the pair remains together until the female lays her eggs. At this time the male leaves the female. The female incubates the eggs on her own. The clutch of eggs normally contains 8 to 13 eggs that take 27 to 38 days to incubate. The nests are built on the ground or in a protected cavity or area. The ducklings can feed themselves and swim as soon as they hatch. Young ducklings stay with the mother for protection until they are old enough to be on their own, usually about two months before fledging (acquiring the feathers necessary for flight).
After mating, the male usually abandons the hen during the tedious time of incubation, and he seeks a secluded, food-rich spot where he will relax throughout his seasonal molt.
Hybrid breeds are occurring more frequently as the mallards breed with other species such as the American black duck and the northern pintail.
- Mallard ducks are the ancestors of almost all other varieties of domestic ducks.
- The male mallard duck is also called a drake.
- About 19% of duck mating pairs are male/male couples.
- The male mallard duck's plumage changes during breeding season, the head becoming the beautiful iridescent green that the species is known for.
- The mallard can “…sleep with one eye open and control sleep and wakefulness independently in 2 brain hemispheres…” apparently watching for predators.
- The birds can freeze “in death-feigning reaction when captured by fox, which sometimes allows escape when fox loosens its grip…”
- The male’s “…courtship skills improve with age; male-dominance relationships among rivals reflect aggressiveness, persistence, and fighting abilities of individuals…”
- The females “…lay larger eggs when they copulate with preferred males…which produce heavier ducklings that have a higher chance of survival…”
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DesertUSA is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.