by Linda de Kort
It seems like yesterday, when our grandkids were still toddlers that we stood on the bridge overlooking the Whitefish River. It was a bright fall day and the flock of ducks that had gathered on the south side of the bridge fascinated the youngsters. The males were in their fresh breeding plumage after their late summer molt and their green heads were brilliant in the morning sun. But magic was about to happen. As the flock passed under the bridge and appeared on the shaded north side, their brilliant heads had turned purple. The kids ran from one side of the bridge to the other to confirm what they saw. This “magic”, which can be explained away by the iridescence caused by the protein structure within the head feathers, is just one example of the extraordinary characteristics of our most common duck, the Mallard.
Male and female Mallards look very different. The male with his striking iridescent head, bright yellow bill and curly tail feathers is in stark contrast to the female and juveniles, which are mottled, brown with orange-and-brown bills. Females and young also have light tan heads with dark streaks near the crown and eyes. In late summer, the non-breeding males gather in flocks and molt their brilliant plumage. In this “eclipse plumage” they look similar to the females, except that they have a yellowish bill. Even in eclipse however you can still distinguish these common residents because all adults have bright orange feet and a white-bordered, blue “speculum” patch at the hind end of the wing. By September, most males have molted again into their resplendent plumage.
The males and female also sound very different from each other. The females are the ones that make the stereotypical quack, usually in a series that start loud and get softer and shorter. Male Mallards don’t quack, and instead produce deeper, raspier one- and two-note calls. They can also make rattling sounds by rubbing their bills against their flight feathers.
Mallards are not particular about what they eat. They even accept “people food” which has caused a recent pollution problem at Woodland Park; because of this the Kalispell City Council recently outlawed feeding waterfowl in city parks. They will graze in grain field during migration and will hunt for insects and worms during breeding season. Mallards are “dabbling ducks”—they feed most often in the water by tipping forward and grazing on underwater plants and seeds. It is interesting to watch them on the West Valley Ponds where they are often threatened by Bald Eagles. Unlike Diving Ducks that can retreat into the depths of the water when they are threatened by a raptor, Mallards rise up very suddenly out of the water causing quite a commotion.
A female Mallard (hen) will pick her mate (drake) for the following year during the late winter. Her choice seems to depend on the extravagance of the male’s plumage and display. The male’s display will include head pumping, grunting and whistling, wing and tail displaying. Both male and female will show their interest in each other by swimming rapidly with neck held low grazing the surface of the water. Where there is open water in late winter you will be able to observe some of these fascinating displays.
The mated pair will build their nest on the ground close to water in April or May. The hen will lay one egg a day and will produce about a dozen light green eggs. When the clutch is complete, the drake abandons the hen and she will sit on the eggs for as many as 23 hours a day. This is an extremely dangerous time for the female, relying on camouflage to protect her. According to David Sibley, up to 30% of hens do not survive the four weeks of incubation.; the male abandons the female as soon as incubation begins. When the eggs hatch after about a month the chicks are led to water almost immediately as soon as their feathers are dry. They will stay together with the hen on the wetland until they are able to fly in mid-August.
Mallards are known to interbreed with other species such as the Northern Pintail. This is no surprise because Mallards, along with Muscovy Ducks, are considered to be the ancestors of all domesticated ducks. Those mallard genes have encompassed the planet. They are the most abundant duck in the world. Here in Montana they are found anywhere there is water, from the lowest elevations to almost 10,000 feet elevation. The population of ducks in the US is estimated at almost 12 million. They are heavily hunted, accounting for one third of all ducks shot in North America. In the wild the life span is estimated at 5-10 years, though there is a record of a female banded at Lee Metcalf NWR in 1978 and shot in Colorado in 2003 when she was at least 25 years old.
Mallards are powerful aviators, flying as fast as 55 miles per hour during migration. They usually fly at an altitude of less than 10,000 feet but there was an incidence in 1962 of a Mallard colliding with a commercial airliner at 21,000 feet.
It is easy to overlook the intricacies of the common place. But these abundant birds give us great opportunity to observe them frequently and at close range. There is nothing mundane nor unremarkable about these extraordinary ordinary ducks.