This is the duck most people recognize and can identify. Commonly found in parks and ponds, they are also found in almost any wetland habitat whether it be natural or artificial. In our area, you will find them at Pardee Lake and Lake Camanche. The male’s green head, gray flanks, and black tail make it easy to identify. Our domestic ducks (except for the Muscovy duck) can count the Mallard as their ancestor.
Though the male has an iridescent-green head and bright yellow bill, the females and juveniles are mottled brown with orange and brown bills. Both males and females have a white-bordered, blue “speculum” patch on the wing, and orange feet. The quack, so commonly associated with ducks, is the sound of the female Mallard. The males make a quiet, raspy sound rather than quack.
Pairs form in fall, long before the breeding season in spring and courtship continues all winter. She picks a nest site that is close to water. It may be under dense vegetation, on a stump, or even 10 feet up a tree in a shallow bowl of plant material and lined with down. The female incubates the eggs without help from the male. The 7 to 10 eggs are incubated for 26 to 30 days and within a day of hatching, the young leave the nest. Ducklings are precocial which means the young are relatively mature, able to move freely soon after hatching and need less parental care than songbirds. The female will lead them to water and continue to tend them even as they feed themselves. The young will take their first flight at 52 to 60 days.
At the end of the breeding season, Mallards shed all their flight feathers and cannot fly for three to four weeks. This makes them very vulnerable so they try to stay inconspicuous until their flight feathers grow back. Without their colorful feathers, they are difficult for you to identify during this time. Wildlife does best when left alone, so if you or your children find them trying to stay out of sight, just leave them alone.
Mallards eat a wide variety of food; seeds, stems, and roots from aquatic plants such as sedges, grasses, pondweeds and smartweeds. They also eat insect larvae and other aquatic invertebrates. These are dabbling ducks, meaning they feed in the water by tipping forward with their tails above water. They rarely dive. You may also see them on the shore picking at vegetation and prey on the ground. Though we so often feed them pieces of bread when we see them in parks or at ponds, this really isn’t good for them. They can find plenty of natural food in nature.
Mallards are strong fliers and have been estimated to travel at 55 miles per hour. Mallards live year-round in the United States. Some that breed in Canada and Alaska will migrate in fall to southern United States and Mexico.
If your property includes a pond or marshy area, you may attract a pair and have the opportunity to watch a Mallard family grow up. A nest box may attract a breeding pair if it is put up well before breeding season.
The oldest know Mallard was estimated to have lived at least 27 years and 7 months!