Many a mallard

A male and female mallard duck.

An adult male and female mallard duck

Whilst being ferociously quacked at by eccentric mallard ducks on a river walk I realised that although we see these birds regularly many of us don’t know much about them. They’re very beautiful creatures – with a flash of blue on their wings, and a shimmer of iridescent green on the heads of the males (drakes).

The very fact they are so widespread and common is a testament to their ability to adapt and survive. Incredibly they are the commonest duck in the world, with a population of more than 19 million. They can be found in almost every wetland type, in a number of locations including Africa, Asia, China, Europe, Indian subcontinent, Mediterranean, North America, and the United Kingdom. I even spotted them at Plitvice Lakes in Croatia which initially felt like an isolated waterfall wonderland until I heard a familiar “quack”.

The typical quacking sound is only made by the females (called ducks or hens) and can be heard for miles, whereas the drakes have a more nasal call and a high-pitched whistle. The duck’s loud call is useful when communicating to her chicks when she’s trying to keep them all together. The chicks’ first journey down to the water can be a hazardous one, since their nest can be a couple of miles away and up to 10m high in a tree (though many nest near water in vegetation on the ground).

In the UK, some groups of mallards are resident breeders and some migrate from more northern Europe to spend the winter here after the breeding season. Drakes can be quite violent during the breeding season (between March and June), jumping on the backs of ducks and forcing them to mate when there are many males to compete with. Sometimes it appears as though the drakes are drowning the ducks, however, this behaviour rarely causes death in the wild.

In summer, after the breeding season, the drakes no longer need their bright ‘alternate’ plumage to impress the females and the feathers of both sexes are worn. They therefore enter a moulting period, during which they are unable to fly since they lose all of their flight feathers in one go. The males gather in small flocks and migrate to moulting areas; leaving the females to moult near the breeding grounds and raise the chicks (ducks only form temporary breeding pairs). The first stage of the moult leaves the ducks with a shabby brown ‘eclipse’ plumage, making the males look like the females and providing camouflage whilst they’re grounded. A few weeks later, the bright feathers of the males come back. Outside of the breeding season the mixed flocks can form up to thousands of individuals.

Male mallard duck eclipse plumage

Male mallard duck eclipse plumage

The females have a character that’s much tenderer than the males, caring for their chicks as a lone parent. They lay about a dozen eggs which they incubate for around a month. As they sit on their clutch they blend perfectly into the background with their mottled-brown feathers. The eggs take about 24 hours to hatch, then after just a few more hours the chicks are extremely capable, swimming and feeding themselves once the mother has taught them what’s edible.

However, the down of ducklings is not naturally waterproof – to stop them drowning or being chilled by water their mother applies a waterproofing oil to their down for the first few weeks, which she also uses herself on a daily basis. She produces this oil in her preen gland near her tail and eventually her chicks do too. For their first few days the chicks also depend on their mother for warmth. Once hatched, her chicks take 50 to 60 days to fledge (fly) and become independent.

The scientific name of mallards is Anas Platyrhynchos, with ‘anas’ meaning ‘duck’ in Latin and ‘platurrhunkhos’ meaning ‘broad snouted’ in Greek. Being a type of dabbling duck, their wide, flat bill is a perfect tool for dabbling – sifting through surface water, lowering their neck, leaving just their tail sticking out (upending) and rarely diving for food. They’ll happily live near both fresh and brackish (slightly salty) water and require water less than 1 metre deep for foraging. Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation and invertebrates such as such as insects, molluscs, crustaceans, worms and occasionally amphibians and fish. They also feed on vegetation and insects on land. This generalist diet helps it to survive in a variety of places.

Mallards are the ancestors of most breeds of domestic ducks and readily interbreed with them, as well as wild close relatives such as the American Black Duck. Some wild hybrids can be fertile which is an unusual occurrence in the animal kingdom and suggests it hasn’t been long since they diverged from other species within their family (Anas). The ability of mallards to so easily and willingly hybridise would be a potential threat to their survival if their population was much smaller, as it decreases genetic diversity within the thoroughbred population.

These ducks are so common that most of us would probably be much more excited about seeing a flamboyant male Mandarin duck, an introduced British species. But mallards are beautiful and impressive in their own right, with shimmering feathers and their impressive ability to survive. There are probably many things we don’t know about our most common native species. You can find out more about our birds by visiting the RSPB website.

Arkive, (2014), [online], Anas platyrhynchos, [online], available at: http://www.arkive.org/mallard/anas-platyrhynchos/ accessed 12 December 2014

BBC, 2014, Mallard, [online], available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Mallard accessed 12 December 2014

Bird Life, 2014, Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, [online], available at: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=435 accessed 12 December 2014

National Geographic, (2014), Mallard duck, [omnline], available at: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/mallard-duck/ accessed 12 December 2014

RSPB, 2014, Eclipse plumage, [online], available at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/funfactsandarticles/watchingbirds/identify/eclipse_plumage.aspx accessed 12 December 2014

RSPB, 2014, Mallard, [online], available at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/birdguide/name/m/mallard/ accessed 12 December 2014

RSPB, 2014, Mallard ducklings, [online], available at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/makeahomeforwildlife/advice/helpingbirds/nesting_mallards/ducklings.aspx accessed 12 December 2014

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Kate Dey

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