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Of all the types of ducks, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the most widespread and most familiar species in the world, and they are the ancestors of most domestic duck breeds. Found wild throughout the Northern Hemisphere, mallards have also been introduced to many other areas and can easily be found in ponds, lakes, and rivers, as well as in artificial habitats such as golf courses, parks, gardens, and even yards. Highly adaptable, these ducks are familiar to most birders, but they are always worth watching and always have something to teach both novice and expert birders.
Common Name: Mallard, Mallard Duck
Scientific Name: Anas platyrhynchos
A male mallard in breeding plumage is instantly recognizable and unmistakable. The bright yellow bill contrasts with his iridescent green head, which is bordered by a white collar. The chest is a rich chestnut and leads to grayish white underparts. The back is grayish brown, and the blue speculum on the wings is bordered by thick white lines. The rump and undertail coverts are black and contrast with white outer tail feathers, and the legs and feet are a bright orange.
While coloration is always a good field mark, molting mallards may not look quite the same. For drakes, however, a key field mark is the tightly curled tail feathers on the top of the rump. While hybrid birds or young mallard drakes may not show this feature as clearly, any lift or curl to these tail feathers will indicate a male mallard. Females, however, lack these curly tail feathers.Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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Female mallards are far less colorful than mallard drakes. Their plumage is an overall mottled brown-buff, with light centers to the largest feathers on the back and less distinct speckling on the underparts. Hens have a bright orange bill smudged with black or gray, but the nail on the tip of the bill is always black. A hen's chin and throat tend to have less speckling, and they have a clear face pattern with a dark eye stripe and dark crown. Their wings also show the blue speculum bordered with thick white lines, and their rump, tail, and undertail coverts are buff with brown speckles. Like the drakes, their legs and feet are bright orange.
This bland coloration serves female mallards well, as it provides good camouflage for tending a nest and caring for hatchlings. At the same time, other female dabbling ducks have similar plumage, including mottled ducks, gadwalls, cinnamon teals, and northern shovelers. To be positive about the identification of a mallard hen, study the bill and head markings closely and note the color of the legs.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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Because mallards are so widespread, they often crossbreed with other duck species, including escaped domestic ducks. This hybridization can create unique plumage colors and indistinct markings that make identification difficult. Hybrid mallards may have a creamy buff or allover brown plumage, or may show splotches of white or black in unexpected places. They may also have odd tufts of feathers around the head, wings, or tail.
Identifying hybrid mallards can be a challenge, but certain clues can pinpoint the bird's identity. On males, look for the distinct curled tail feathers. Also look for plumage patterns similar to the colored head bordered by a collar or the colored speculum, even if the colors on the hybrid duck don't match classic mallard plumage. Another indication of the bird's species will be others in the flock, since mallards are highly social and many flocks will have hybrid members.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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Mallard in Flight
In flight, the iridescent blue or purple speculum on a mallard's wing is clearly visible. It is found on the secondary flight feathers along the trailing edge of the inner half of the wing, and is thickly bordered by black and white on the top and bottom. While the speculum may not be visible on standing or swimming birds depending on their posture, it is always seen in flight. The amount of light, however, can affect the exact color of the speculum and how brilliant it appears.
While the speculum can be a key identification characteristic for mallards, other duck species do have a similar iridescent wing patch. Mottled ducks have a blue-purple speculum but it lacks the thick white borders, and green-winged teal have a two-tone green and black patch that also lacks white borders. Rather than using the speculum alone as a field identifier, look for a combination of field marks to positively identify mallards in flight.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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Mallards are dabbling ducks that "tip up" to feed by foraging in shallow water for aquatic plants, insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They may also feed along the surface by dipping their bills into the water without fully submerging their upper bodies. Because of this feeding preference, mallards prefer shallow freshwater habitats such as ponds, lake edges, swamps, marshes, and slow rivers. Mallards are the most familiar dabbling species, but other dabbling ducks include American black ducks, northern pintails, gadwalls, American wigeons, northern shovelers, and several species of teals.
Mallards will also feed on land, though they are less agile and have a slow waddling gait. They forage for seeds, grasses, and insects, often in grassy fields near good water sources. Overall, these ducks are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods both in the water and on land.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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Feeding Ducks Bread
Because mallards are common in urban parks, many people visit parks to feed them bread, crackers, chips, popcorn, or other bread-like scraps. Feeding ducks bread is bad, however, because bread products do not provide adequate nutrition. Bread is "junk food" to ducks and can cause unhealthy weight gain that will inhibit the birds' ability to fly properly, and poor nutrition can also lead to other health problems. Overfeeding bread, which is common at parks, can also attract rodents and lead to bacterial diseases as the bread rots and clogs the waterway.
Instead of feeding mallards bread, opt for more nutritional substitutes such as cracked corn, oats, birdseed, chopped vegetables, or grape halves. These are fine options for what to feed ducks and will help provide them more suitable nutrition, particularly for young hatchlings.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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Though mallards are not considered threatened or endangered, that does not mean they are not subject to a variety of dangerous threats. Many mallards are exposed to hazardous chemicals, particularly in urban or suburban areas, including oil, pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. These chemicals can coat their plumage, and the birds will ingest the toxins as they try to preen away the contamination. This can lead to poisoning, illness, and death.
In addition to chemical contamination, mallards are also subject to lead poisoning and tangle hazards from improperly discarded fishing gear. Feral cats and other invasive predators, vehicle collisions, and illegal poaching are also problems. Adding Easter ducklings to urban and suburban ponds when these poorly chosen pets are abandoned just makes each problem worse for wild ducks.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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Mallards can nest in many unusual locations, including planter baskets, flower beds, or brush piles, even close to human habitation. Regardless of the location, however, a mallard's nest is typically well concealed in brush or plants, and it is lined with down the female will pluck from her own breast. Other nesting materials include leaves, sticks, grasses, and twigs. On rare occasions, mallards may nest above the ground on roofs, ledges, or in hollow trees, but most mallard nests are at ground level and near water.
A typical nest will contain 4-15 eggs, but some mallard hens have been observed laying eggs in other hens' nests, resulting in even larger broods of unrelated siblings. The incubation period is 25-30 days, and the hen does the majority of the incubation.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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Mallard chicks are precocial, which means they hatch covered with down and are ready to leave the nest almost immediately. Even young hatchlings can swim immediately, and the hen will lead her chicks to water soon after hatching. It is not uncommon to see a mallard hen attempting to cross a street with a dozen or more chicks in tow. Drivers should be cautious of ducks nearby in spring and summer, particularly near ponds, rivers, and swamps. Once in water, the young chicks will begin to forage on insects, seeds, and grasses. Within a few days, the chicks will also be dabbling to feed beneath the surface.
In addition to teaching the chicks how and where to feed, the mother will also lead them away from danger and defend them from predators if necessary. Mother mallards also help insulate the chicks from poor weather, often standing over them or spreading their wings over their broods to shelter ducklings from excessive rain or hot sun.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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Mallard chicks will remain with their mother until ready for their first flight, which can take 42-50 days. During that time they grow progressively more independent, but will still rely on her guidance to be led to food sources and away from danger. Older ducklings are bolder and will venture further from their mother's care, but frequently return to the family to rest or roost at night.
Juvenile mallards stay with their family group for up to a year, even though they are independent and no longer need protection or to be led to food. They often return to the same nesting sites for each breeding season. Once nesting starts the juvenile birds from the previous year will seek their own territories and nest sites nearby to raise their own broods.Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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Mallards in Winter
Mallards can be found in a wide range of habitats, and they are one of the few duck species that will remain in an area even through winter, so long as there is open water for foraging. Winter mallards can often be found in urban parks or near large bodies of water, and they will stand on the ice or huddle into the snow when not feeding. In extreme northern areas, mallards will migrate, but only as far south as they need to find a suitable location to spend the winter months.
Mallards are well insulated against the cold, but they also have other ways to keep warm. It is not unusual to see several mallards huddling together in the coldest weather to share communal body heat. When standing, they may raise each leg off the snow or ice and bring it into their feathers to warm up, or they will nestle down over their legs to warm them both. Meanwhile, their breasts and abdomens are well insulated with feathers and down.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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Raft of Mallards
A large group of ducks is called a raft, and mallards frequently form large roosting colonies in the winter. This is not only a protection measure against predators, but also because favored food sources and open water are more scarce.
Large rafts of mallards are also common in all seasons where food sources are plentiful, such as in urban parks or popular nesting grounds. In prime feeding or nesting areas, mallards may mix with other duck species and waterfowl, including northern pintails, American wigeons, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, American coots, and Canada geese. So long as food remains plentiful, large mixed flocks are common, but the birds will begin to separate and seek better areas if resources run out.