The Mallard is a cosmopolitan species, recognized worldwide. The male is generally more familiar than the female, even though she is just as common. Why? The male has a striking plumage: green head, yellow bill, bold white neck ring, rusty breast and a cute little tuft of feathers rising sportingly above its tail. The female is a brown, drab bird with an orangish beak and little else. Well, she does have a flashy patch on her wing, called a speculum, where she boasts a white-edged purple patch, which stands out in flight.
Found through much of North America, Europe, Asia and parts of Africa, the Mallard even has a distinct population in Greenland that is non-migratory. Breeders raise it and, as such, may be found in other areas of the world. Mallards are part of a larger family of ducks, sometimes interbreeding with other species. Most notably, they will hybridize with some domestic species producing bizarre varieties of ducks, some with pompadours, others with strange plumages. But its biggest impact is on the American Black Duck, with which it frequently hybridizes.
Well, so what, you might ask? This is an important issue because the Black Duck is becoming more scarce, while the Mallard remains abundant. As time goes by, the population of the Black Duck will be further diminished, and although it likely will never disappear, it will become quite rare. The Black Duck occupies slightly different habitats than the Mallard, and as such, is part of a complex ecosystem. Whenever anything is removed from any ecosystem, other things are affected, even if we’re not sure of these relationships.
Mallards don’t pair for life but for a few weeks in the spring, they are dedicated to each other; the male and female dutifully travelling, feeding and resting together for many days. Occasionally, they mate and then resume their paired life for a few more days. Then, all of a sudden, he’s gone, and so is she!
Did they just decide to leave? No, that’s not correct! She has started to nest. She will choose a quiet overgrown spot, often at the base of a tree in long grass or tall vegetation. This is generally in the vicinity of water but not necessarily on the shores of a lake or pond. She will lay one egg per day, for the next few days, until her clutch of 8 or 9 is produced. Occasionally, there might be up to 13 eggs, but this is usually the result of another Mallard ‘dumping’ her eggs in the nest and then letting the female foster care for them.
The construction of the nest is interesting. The female chooses a few likely spots after assessing the local terrain. Is it close enough to water but not too close? Is the cover good? How far do the babies have to travel after hatching? Are there predators nearby? Some interesting evidence shows the Mallard may use indicator clues, such as predator urine, to determine what hunters are nearby.
She uses her feet to scrape out a shallow hollow and turns her body to shape the nest. She will not carry nesting material but will use whatever she can reach while building the nest to line it. After about 28 days, from when the last egg is laid, the babies hatch within about 10 hours of each other and leave the nest the next morning! For the next several weeks or so, she will attentively watch over them and teach them about feeding and how to avoid predators. At night she will still brood them to keep them warm. In the early days, food comprises invertebrates mostly gleaned by the ducklings from the pond where they now live. Over time they will learn to feed by tipping their tail in the air and reaching for seeds and invertebrates in deeper waters.
A resilient species tolerant of people, we have a pair right now that ‘live’ in our yard by our pond, and we’re hopeful she will choose our plot to raise her family this year!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook.