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Mallards are the most familiar and most widespread dabbling duck in the world, and knowing how to properly identify these ducks is the key to understanding the identification of all ducks, including picking out the mallard clues in hybrid ducks. Birders who can easily identify mallards—males, females, eclipse males, and mallards in flight—can use that expertise to quickly identify what birds are, and aren't, mallards in the field, making duck identification easier for all species.
Male Mallard Identification
Male mallards are distinctive and easily recognized by their rich colors and plumage patterns. When trying to identify mallards in the field, look for these clues:
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- Yellow Bill: The male mallard's bill is a rich yellow with a small black nail at the tip. The spatulate bill shape is typical of many ducks.
- Head Color: Mallard drakes have a bright iridescent green head. The green shows prominently in most lights, but in deep shadow, the head may appear black or dark rather than showing the metallic green color.
- White Collar: Male mallards have a thin white collar close to the base of the neck. The thickness of the collar may vary depending on whether the duck's neck is extended or contracted.
- Chestnut Breast: The lower neck and breast of male mallards is a rich chestnut color that can appear brighter, even metallic, in bright sunlight. A few lighter speckles may appear in the breast but are not prominent.
- Pale Flanks and Underparts: The flanks and underparts of male mallards are a pale whitish-gray. The flanks may show very fine barring at close range, but this is often not visible.
- Blue Speculum: The mallard drake's wings have a bright metallic blue or blue-purple speculum bordered by first black, then white bars. The speculum is often visible to varying degrees when the bird is at rest.
- White Tail: The male mallard's broad tail is pure white with no markings.
- Tail Curl: Male mallards have one to two strongly curved black tail feathers on the upper part of the tail that are clearly visible and are distinct to mallards. This feature frequently shows up in hybrid mallards as well, though the curls may not be as well defined.
- Orange Legs and Feet: Mallards' legs and feet are bright orange. The feet are webbed.
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Female Mallard Identification
Mallard hens are much more camouflaged than their mates, but they, too, have easy keys to proper identification. These six key field marks are essential for identifying female mallards:
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- Dirty Bill: Female mallards' bills are a dirty orange color, but the amount of gray coloration on the bill can vary widely. They have the same spatulate shape as male mallards' bills.
- Eye Stripe: All female mallards have a dark eye line that extends from the lores nearly to the back of the head. This stripe is typically the same color as the bird's crown, though the stripe's thickness and sharpness can vary between individuals.
- Mottled Upperparts: Mallard hens have heavily mottled upperparts in shades of brown, buff, and black.
- Mottled Underparts: Mallard hens' underparts are also mottled in brown, buff, and black, but with finer markings than the upperparts, which gives the underparts a generally paler appearance.
- Mottled Undertail Coverts: The undertail coverts of a female mallard are finely mottled or spotted like the rest of the underparts, and the mottling extends to the edges of the tail as well.
- Orange Legs and Feet: Like drakes, female mallards have bright orange legs and feet, and the feet are strongly webbed.
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Eclipse Mallard Identification
After the breeding season, male mallards enter a period of eclipse plumage when they are molting their old feathers. When their primary feathers are molting, they are largely flightless and tend to be very reclusive. Seeing an eclipse mallard can be quite confusing, particularly if the birds are in a mixed flock with other ducks. In addition to the marks of a typical mallard drake, looking for these key field marks can help you identify eclipse mallards:
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- Scruffy Iridescent Head: Mallard drakes in eclipse plumage still have the green iridescent head, but it is much scruffier and mixed with dark or buff feathers. It may look as though the bird has a dirty or oiled head, but in bright light, the green iridescence will show on the head.
- Mottled Breast: While the overall color of an eclipse mallard's breast remains the same chestnut color, in this type of plumage it will be mottled with a spotted or scaled pattern similar to the pattern of a female mallard's more camouflaged plumage.
- Tattered Appearance: Overall, mallards in eclipse plumage often look scruffy or tattered. Some of their feathers may be missing while others have size differences that keep them from aligning smoothly. As the bird's old, worn feathers are replaced with fresh feathers, the plumage will smooth out.
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Identify Mallards in Flight
Identifying birds in flight can be a challenge, but any birder can learn to recognize flying mallards. In addition to plumage colors, look for these clues when ducks fly nearby to see if they are mallards:
- Straight Neck and Voice: Flying mallards hold their heads and necks out straight. They are also very vocal in flight, and the distinct, characteristic "quacks" can be heard at frequent intervals while the birds are in flight.
- Speculum and Wing Beats: The iridescent blue-purple speculum is clearly visible on the upper wings in flight, along with the secondary feathers. Also, note the rapid, even wing beats that are characteristic of flying mallards.
- Leg Position: When in flight, mallards hold their legs and feet tight to their lower bodies, and the feet do not extend past the tail. The bright orange coloration of the legs and feet is often visible even when the birds are some distance away. When landing, the birds extend their legs down with their feet splayed to act as brakes on the surface of the water.
Once you learn to easily identify mallards, it will become even easier in the field to know when a duck isn't a mallard so you can focus your efforts on its identification.