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Mallards - The Uncommonly Common Duck

Wildlife Feature: Mallards
The uncommonly common duck From the pages of Camping Life Magazine

According to Crow Indian legend, before there was land or trees or mammals, the world consisted of an enormous sea. On this sea paddled ducks, the only animals in the world. One day, Old Man came to the ducks, informing them that there was earth on the bottom of the ocean. Four ducks dove to the depths at his command. When they popped to the surface, one of them presented him a bit of mud wedged between its webbed toes. From this bit of soil, Old Man created the continents that were subsequently occupied by other birds and mammals and the Crows themselves. Many early peoples caught ducks for use as a food source, but just as many prized the duck, especially the mallard, for its beautiful plumage.

Beyond the mythologies of specific native tribes, today, people from all walks of life continue to marvel at the color and natural artistry melded in the plumage of male mallards (drakes). From Central Park in the heart of New York City to tiny ponds and prairie potholes in the hinterlands of North Dakota, springtime finds human observers enthralled with the sight of courting mallards. Oblivious to the world, a green-headed drake bobs his head up and down before a likely female. If the head-bob fails to impress his audience, the suitor may dip his bright, yellow-green bill into the water then raise it above his head to send sparkling droplets of water splashing back to the surface. He may also rear backward in the water, displaying the burnished chestnut hues of his breast to his potential mate.


With the exception of the wood duck drake, male mallards are considered by many to be the most colorful ducks of North America. In contrast to the brilliantly arrayed but relatively uncommon wood duck, though, mallards seem to be everywhere. Due to their uncanny ability to adapt to human civilization and benefit from agricultural activities, mallards are not only the most common duck in the United States, but the most widespread duck in the entire world.

Although most species of ducks are superficially similar in shape and general appearance, different species are often categorized by the manner in which they forage. Diving ducks use their powerful feet to propel themselves to the depths of lakes, ponds and streams where they glean insects and vegetation from the bottom. Mallards, on the other hand, are among the several species known as dabblers. Dabbling ducks don't normally dive, but are often seen tipped bottom-side up, with their heads submerged. Under the surface, their bills probe for vegetation or click shut on swimming bugs. Dabbling ducks will also paddle along in groups, snatching hatching insects from on top of the water.

To facilitate their feeding, the bills of mallards possess some specialized characteristics. Both the yellow-green bill of the drake and orange-colored bill of the hen are flattened, much like a spatula. Along the outer edges of the bill are a series of serrated ridges called "lamellae". As the mallard closes its bill around water or mud, the liquid is forced out between the lamellae, much like straining seeds or pulp from orange juice with a kitchen strainer. Thanks to the lamellae, mallards can efficiently feed on tiny seeds and aquatic organisms that would otherwise be nearly impossible to capture.

Along with food sources gleaned from ponds, lakes and streams, mallards are also fond of foraging in grain fields, sometimes to the chagrin of humans who would rather sell their crops than donate them to a marauding flock of mallards. Once again, the mallard's specialized bill assists its feeding. On the tip of the duck's bill is a hard, hooked, tooth-like projection that enables it to quickly pick corn from the cob or pluck kernels of other grains from the head.


Highly skilled in the art of concealing a nest in the most unlikely locations, mallard hens are capable of rearing young in city parks or backyards. However, mallards are most adapted to spring and summer life on the small ponds and prairie potholes of the Dakotas and surrounding regions of the plains. They also nest very successful along the backwaters of small creeks and streams.

For many species of waterfowl, such small bodies of water are uninhabitable due to their need for more space to launch into flight. Canada geese, for example, take to the air by flapping their wings while getting a "running start" with their webbed feet and legs. Mallards, on the other hand, are able to spring into flight immediately without running on the surface of the water. In relation to the rest of their body, the wings of mallards are very large and powerful, propelling them instantly into flight when needed. On the small ponds they inhabit or even in a city park, this adaptation is very important. When pursued by a skulking coyote or chased by an unrestrained dog, mallards' explosive launch into flight is necessary for their survival.

On the prairie wetlands of the northern plains, mallards nest with many other species of waterfowl. In autumn, great waves of migrating ducks and geese wing from the rich habitat of this region to milder climates in the south. However, mallards typically lag behind the others. Unlike their marsh-mates, mallards often remain in northern climates far into the fall or winter. In mild winters, mallards may not really make a southward migration at all. When the lakes and ponds freeze over, the greenheads simply move onto the open water of major rivers and creeks, passing the cold months of the year far to the north of the vast flocks of wintering waterfowl that blanket the southern coastline of the United States.

Declining numbers of certain species of ducks are currently a matter of concern for waterfowl biologists and conservationists. However, mallards aren't among the species of concern. Nonetheless, maintaining the wild, natural character of the prairie pothole regions of our nation is necessary to ensure the health of nearly all waterfowl species, including the pretty, plentiful mallard.

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