Bird Watcher's General Store

Mallards - 01/09/04


mallard

Dear Bird Folks:

Can you tell me something about my favorite duck the Mallard? The males are so handsome, yet they act kind of trashy. They are always found in ugly areas, like mud puddles, city parks and drainage ditches. Is the Mallard an imported bird like the pigeon or starling?

-Janet, Falmouth

You know Janet,

I've been to Falmouth and you are right, there are a lot of handsome, but trashy males around there. It must have something to do with all those ships that pull in there every day. You are also right about Mallards, they are very handsome ducks and yet they are not often admired. Why, I'm not sure. It could have to do with their abundance or it could be where they hang out. It really is hard to warm up to a bird that spends all of its life in a drainage ditch.

Mallards, without a doubt, are the most successful species of duck to ever hatch out of an egg. They are found on just about every corner of the world. It is thought that several other species of wild ducks have descended from Mallards. And that just about all domestic ducks are a direct result of man's breeding Mallards. The white barnyard ducks, the "Make Way for Ducklings" family, the headless ducks that come with orange sauce, and even Donald and Daisy are all related to Mallards. As you can imagine, having so many relatives can lead to problems, and the problems with Mallards are many. But first we should talk about how beautiful and interesting Mallards are. There will be plenty of room to write nasty things about them later.

With its stately green head, the drake Mallard is the classic wild duck. The average person, anywhere in the world, might not know what a Canvasback or a Bufflehead is, but everybody knows what a Mallard is and what it looks like. It would be hard to find a pond, bog, or marsh on Cape Cod or any place else that doesn't have a pair of Mallards floating on it. Because they are often found in pairs, many people think that Mallards are mated for life. As it turns out, the mated pairs go their separate ways after the breeding season. They have one batch of kids and then it's time to move on.

But the newly divorced ducks can't handle eating "Swanson's TV Dinners For One" for too long. After a month or so of hanging out in the singles swamp, they are all paired up again. While most birds pair up in the spring, Mallards begin courting in the fall. By the end of the Home Coming Dance they already know who they'll be spending the winter with, who they'll be mating with in May, and who they'll be taking to divorce court in July.

Now, before you all start blaming the drake mallard for the break up, keep in mind that it's the hen who is hard to live with. The voice of the male is so soft and wimpy it barely even sounds like a duck. The female Mallard's voice is that loud raucous "QUACK, QUACK, QUACK" that is stereotypical of a duck and so hard to live with. After one season of listening to that grating voice, the drake has had enough, for a while.

Mallards are known as dabbling ducks. They don't dive under water to chase fish like loons or mergansers. They forage for food by dipping their heads underwater, while their cute little duck bum sticks up high in the air. 90% of what they eat is vegetation, but they will also take insects and worms. The other things that they will eat are bread, cookies, and Fritos and that is part of the Mallard's problem.

Oh, oh Janet I lied when I said that I would have enough room to explain why a beautiful bird like a Mallard could actually be considered a problem. I guess I got caught up in all the quacking and divorce talk. It looks like this answer is going to be a two parter, to be continued next week, just like a soap opera. Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of "As the Mallard Quacks". And you thought 2004 was going to be dull.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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