Hey guys, welcome back! The Mallard. Probably the most recognizable bird worldwide, or one of at least. The Mallard is also among the most widespread, with its natural range covering most of the Northern Hemisphere, in addition to it having been introduced in parts of Africa, South America, and Australia and New Zealand. Additionally, most domestic ducks come from Mallard lineage.
Identification is easy. Well, it’s easy if you’re looking at a drake (male.) Well, it’s easy if you’re looking a drake in breeding plumage. The drake displays his unmistakable, signature green head, while the hen (female) is a mottled brown. (But don’t confuse her with a Mottled Duck!) In late summer, you may head to your local park and wonder where all the drake Mallards have gone! There used to be a bunch, but it seems like every year for about a month, they disappear. Well, the answer is they didn’t go anywhere, they’re just being eclipsed! All birds molt. Over time their feathers become worn, and they need to grow new ones. Different birds molt at different times of the year, with some molting more than once. Different species also molt in different ways. Most ducks molt in such a way that they lose and re-grow their flight feathers pretty much all at once. While this process is happening, they are unable to fly far distances, if at all. Since the drake Mallard is normally so brightly colored, being unable to fly puts him at a disadvantage, since he’s unable to hide, or escape from predators. So, during this molt, drakes take on a look similar to a female. This intermediate plumage is referred to as eclipse plumage. That’s why they might seem like they disappear. Looking at the bills gives them away. Female Mallards have orange bills usually with darker mottling, while drakes have a clean, yellow or olive-ish bill. The bill color doesn’t change during eclipse plumage! When I worked in Central Park, I had a woman (regular park visitor) come to me with what she thought was a shocking discovery. She thought the duck she was seeing was actually changing genders, she even referred to it at a transexual duck. In her mind, it was a female duck that changed and became a male. I told her about eclipse plumage. I’m not sure if she believed me haha. But then again, I’m not that duck, I don’t know how it identifies itself haha. True story.
I have plenty of Mallard stories, and I’m not sure which one(s) to mention here. There’s the woman mentioned above that thought ducks could pick a gender, there’s the countless people feeding them bread in Central Park despite the fact that it’s bad for them. “Well they’re going to be hungry!” No they’re not, they’ve been feeding themselves since before bread existed, they’ll be fine. There’s the couple I used to see every spring in my neighborhood growing up happily swimming along what was at times barely a waterbody (it was a rainwater run-off ditch that ran between my street and the next street over.) But one that comes to mind happened last June, in East Hampton, NY and involved some ducklings.
As a side note, let’s talk about baby birds for a sec. They’re ugly. Sorry, but they are. Baby animals are by and large cute. I mean, go to the zoo and look at a little cheetah cub, or a baby elephant. Cute. Look at a baby bird. Dinosaur. Seriously, look at a baby heron and tell me it’s not a straight up dinosaur from Jurassic Park. Ducks (and most waterfowl) are the exceptions. A duckling is about the cutest thing, a baby robin, horrifying. Anyway, while in East Hampton, my friend Marieke took my boyfriend and I to a little park. There, we saw a bunch of Mallards, with quite a number of ducklings. after we circled back to the ducks on our way out, Marieke had decided she wanted one of the ducklings (don’t try this at home kids!) The waterway was narrow, and she came up with a plan wherein I would create a distraction, and try to flush the ducks toward her, and she would try to hide amongst the tall grass at the waters edge. I say try because mama Mallard wasn’t buying it for one second. After a couple of somewhat halfhearted attempts, (and a mom and her kid arriving at the park) we decided it was not meant to be. I’m not sure what she would have done if she actually caught one. I mean it was a couple hours drive back to her house in Rockaway. But I digress…
Remember how I mentioned earlier that most domestic ducks come from Mallard lineage? Well, if you’ve ever been at a pond or somewhere looking at the Mallards, you may have noticed some that looked a little….off. Like they still had a green head, but the coloration elsewhere was different. Those are domestic Mallards. They can range in colors, and are usually larger than Mallards (though they are sometimes smaller.) So, if you see a duck that looks a little off, chances are that’s probably what you’re seeing. With that, I think I’ll wrap things up. I know this post was a little longer, so thanks for hanging in there. Check back next time when we finally get to our first raptor, the most widespread in North America, the Red-tailed Hawk!