Mallard ducks are the usually affable, sometimes feisty little fowl who waddle around the prison competing for food (and PIA bread) among the much more aggressive seagulls and quite larger Canada geese. Just how much do we know about these feathered fellows, whose plumage changes from drab, or at least ordinary, to splendid with the changing of the seasons, seemingly right before our very eyes?
Mallards are the ancestors of most domestic ducks and were among the first to be domesticated for food some 4,500 years ago. They are thought to be the 56 most abundant and wide-ranging of ducks on our planet, and are found throughout Europe, most of Asia and all of North America, and on occasion even into South America. The home virtually anywhere shallow freshwater occurs.
The Mallard is by nature a migratory bird but changing global weather patterns and increased warming seem to be affecting the birds’ willingness to stay in one place throughout the year. They are primarily omnivores and eat plant food, insects, mollusks, crustaceans and, of course, PIA bread.
Prior to the annual molting season when they shed their feathers, both male and female mallards are brownish in color and at times can be quite difficult to tell apart. The males, though, have a yellowish beak and reddish breast while the females have a dark brown beak. The wing tip-feathers of both sexes have a distinctive purple-blue color visible on the ducks’ sides, much more so while in flight.
For the breeding season, males take on vibrant coloring with a bright green head, white neckband, chestnut colored chest and gray body. Female mallards are brownish all over with streaks of darker brown, white and black in their feathers.
While the male is the slightly larger of the two, mallards tend to grow to about two to three pounds in weight, and are 20” to 26” long. In the wild, their lifespan is generally five to ten years.
Mallards can cross breed with 63 other species, opening up their own species to the possibility of decline due to hybridization.
They are also monogamous by nature, though the males leave the females once the incubation period is well underway, once again joining up with a flock of other males. Nature ensures that the prone-to-wandering males stay at the nest for at least part of the incubation period as the males lose their flight features for a short time. But once their feathers are replaced, the males are off to join others of their sex while the female is left to nurture the eggs.
These ducks nest on dry ground, although not always near water. The eggs usually number five to ten or more, are laid over a two-week period and hatch in about a month. The chicks within the shells manage to communicate by using a series of clicks, thus allowing them to synchronize their hatchings within about a two-hour period. The babies, called hatchlings, are able to leave the nest, swim and begin eating insects almost immediately.
The mallards are highly social, and save for the breeding season when they pair up, they form large flocks called ‘sords.’ Once paired for breeding, it is generally the female who leads as the two walk about.
Contrary to popular belief, only the female makes the quacking sound associated with ducks. The male makes a hissing or whistling noise to communicate.
Mallards in flight can exceed 68 mph and have been observed as high as 28,000 feet up, or, the equivalent of the summit of Mt. Everest.