AppearanceThe mallard is a medium-sized waterfowl species that is often slightly heavier than most other dabbling ducks. It is 50–65 cm long – of which the body makes up around two-thirds – has a wingspan of 81–98 cm, and weighs 0.7–1.6 kg. Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 25.7 to 30.6 cm, the bill is 4.4 to 6.1 cm, and the tarsus is 4.1 to 4.8 cm.
The breeding male mallard is unmistakable, with a glossy bottle-green head and a white collar that demarcates the head from the purple-tinged brown breast, grey-brown wings, and a pale grey belly. The rear of the male is black, with white-bordered dark tail feathers. The bill of the male is a yellowish-orange tipped with black, with that of the female generally darker and ranging from black to mottled orange and brown. The female mallard is predominantly mottled, with each individual feather showing sharp contrast from buff to very dark brown, a coloration shared by most female dabbling ducks, and has buff cheeks, eyebrow, throat, and neck, with a darker crown and eye-stripe.
Both male and female mallards have distinct iridescent purple-blue speculum feathers edged with white, which are prominent in flight or at rest but temporarily shed during the annual summer moult. Upon hatching, the plumage of the duckling is yellow on the underside and face and black on the back all the way to the top and back of the head. Its legs and bill are also black. As it nears a month in age, the duckling's plumage starts becoming drab, looking more like the female, though more streaked, and its legs lose their dark grey colouring. Two months after hatching, the fledgling period has ended, and the duckling is now a juvenile. The duckling is able to fly 50–60 days after hatching. Its bill soon loses its dark grey colouring, and its sex can finally be distinguished visually by three factors: 1) the bill is yellow in males, but black and orange in females; 2) the breast feathers are reddish-brown in males, but brown in females; and 3) in males, the centre tail feather is curled, but in females, the centre tail feather is straight. During the final period of maturity leading up to adulthood, the plumage of female juveniles remains the same while the plumage of male juveniles gradually changes to its characteristic colours. This change in plumage also applies to adult mallard males when they transition in and out of their non-breeding eclipse plumage at the beginning and the end of the summer moulting period. The adulthood age for mallards is fourteen months, and the average life expectancy is three years, but they can live to twenty.
Several species of duck have brown-plumaged females that can be confused with the female mallard. The female gadwall has an orange-lined bill, white belly, black and white speculum that is seen as a white square on the wings in flight, and is a smaller bird. More similar to the female mallard in North America are the American black duck, which is notably darker-hued in both sexes than the mallard, and the mottled duck, which is somewhat darker than the female mallard, and with slightly different bare-part colouration and no white edge on the speculum.
In captivity, domestic ducks come in wild-type plumages, white, and other colours. Most of these colour variants are also known in domestic mallards not bred as livestock, but kept as pets, aviary birds, etc., where they are rare but increasing in availability.
A noisy species, the female has the deep "quack" stereotypically associated with ducks. Male mallards make a sound phonetically similar to that of the female, a typical "quack", but it is deeper and quieter compared to that of the female. When incubating a nest, or when offspring are present, females vocalise differently, making a call that sounds like a truncated version of the usual quack. This maternal vocalisation is highly attractive to their young. The repetition and frequency modulation of these "quacks" form the auditory basis for species identification in offspring, a process known as acoustic conspecific identification. In addition, females hiss if the nest or offspring are threatened or interfered with. When taking off, the wings of a mallard produce a characteristic faint whistling noise.
The mallard is a rare example of both Allen's Rule and Bergmann's Rule in birds. Bergmann's Rule, which states that polar forms tend to be larger than related ones from warmer climates, has numerous examples in birds, as in case of the Greenland mallard which is larger than the mallards further south. Allen's Rule says that appendages like ears tend to be smaller in polar forms to minimise heat loss, and larger in tropical and desert equivalents to facilitate heat diffusion, and that the polar taxa are stockier overall. Examples of this rule in birds are rare as they lack external ears, but the bill of ducks is supplied with a few blood vessels to prevent heat loss, and, as in the Greenland mallard, the bill is smaller than that of birds farther south, illustrating the rule.
Due to the variability of the mallard's genetic code, which gives it its vast interbreeding capability, mutations in the genes that decide plumage colour are very common and have resulted in a wide variety of hybrids, such as Brewer's duck.
DistributionThe mallard is widely distributed across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres; in North America its range extends from southern and central Alaska to Mexico, the Hawaiian Islands, across the Palearctic, from Iceland and southern Greenland and parts of Morocco in the west, Scandinavia and Britain to the north, and to Siberia, Japan, and South Korea. Also in the east, it ranges to south-eastern and south-western Australia and New Zealand in the Southern hemisphere. It is strongly migratory in the northern parts of its breeding range, and winters farther south. For example, in North America, it winters south to the southern United States and northern Mexico, but also regularly strays into Central America and the Caribbean between September and May. A drake later named "Trevor" attracted media attention in 2018 when it turned up on the island of Niue, an atypical location for mallards.
HabitatThe mallard inhabits a wide range of habitats and climates, from the Arctic tundra to subtropical regions. It is found in both fresh- and salt-water wetlands, including parks, small ponds, rivers, lakes and estuaries, as well as shallow inlets and open sea within sight of the coastline. Water depths of less than 0.9 metres are preferred, with birds avoiding areas more than a few metres deep. They are attracted to bodies of water with aquatic vegetation.
ReproductionMallards usually form pairs until the female lays eggs at the start of the nesting season, which is around the beginning of spring. At this time she is left by the male who joins up with other males to await the moulting period, which begins in June. During the brief time before this, however, the males are still sexually potent and some of them either remain on standby to sire replacement clutches or forcibly mate with females that appear to be isolated or unattached regardless of their species and whether or not they have a brood of ducklings.
Nesting sites are typically on the ground, hidden in vegetation where the female's speckled plumage serves as effective camouflage, but female mallards have also been known to nest in hollows in trees, boathouses, roof gardens and on balconies, sometimes resulting in hatched offspring having difficulty following their parent to water.
Egg clutches number 8–13 creamy white to greenish-buff eggs free of speckles. They measure about 58 mm in length and 32 mm in width. The eggs are laid on alternate days, and incubation begins when the clutch is almost complete. Incubation takes 27–28 days and fledging takes 50–60 days. The ducklings are precocial and fully capable of swimming as soon as they hatch. However, filial imprinting compels them to instinctively stay near the mother, not only for warmth and protection but also to learn about and remember their habitat as well as how and where to forage for food. Though adoptions are known to occur, female mallards typically do not tolerate stray ducklings near their broods, and will violently attack and drive away any unfamiliar young, sometimes going as far as to kill them.
When ducklings mature into flight-capable juveniles, they learn about and remember their traditional migratory routes. In New Zealand, where mallards are naturalised, the nesting season has been found to be longer, eggs and clutches are larger and nest survival is generally greater compared with mallards in their native range.
In cases where a nest or brood fails, some mallards may mate for a second time in an attempt to raise a second clutch, typically around early-to-mid summer. In addition, mallards may occasionally breed during the autumn in cases of unseasonably warm weather; one such instance of a ‘late’ clutch occurred in November 2011, in which a female successfully hatched and raised a clutch of eleven ducklings at the London Wetland Centre.
During the breeding season, both male and female mallards can become aggressive, driving off competitors to themselves or their mate by charging at them. Males tend to fight more than females, and attack each other by repeatedly pecking at their rival's chest, ripping out feathers and even skin on rare occasions. Female mallards are also known to carry out 'inciting displays', which encourages other ducks in the flock to begin fighting. It is possible that this behaviour allows the female to evaluate the strength of potential partners.
The drakes that end up being left out after the others have paired off with mating partners sometimes target an isolated female duck, even one of a different species, and proceed to chase and peck at her until she weakens, at which point the males take turns copulating with the female. Lebret calls this behaviour "Attempted Rape Flight", and Stanley Cramp and K.E.L. Simmons speak of "rape-intent flights". Male mallards also occasionally chase other male ducks of a different species, and even each other, in the same way. In one documented case of "homosexual necrophilia", a male mallard copulated with another male he was chasing after the chased male died upon flying into a glass window. This paper was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 2003.
Mallards are opportunistically targeted by brood parasites, occasionally having eggs laid in their nests by redheads, ruddy ducks, lesser scaup, gadwalls, northern shovelers, northern pintails, cinnamon teal, common goldeneyes, and other mallards. These eggs are generally accepted when they resemble the eggs of the host mallard, but the hen may attempt to eject them or even abandon the nest if parasitism occurs during egg laying.
FoodThe mallard is omnivorous and very flexible in its choice of food. Its diet may vary based on several factors, including the stage of the breeding cycle, short-term variations in available food, nutrient availability, and interspecific and intraspecific competition. The majority of the mallard's diet seems to be made up of gastropods, insects, crustaceans, worms, many varieties of seeds and plant matter, and roots and tubers. During the breeding season, male birds were recorded to have eaten 37.6% animal matter and 62.4% plant matter, most notably the grass "Echinochloa crus-galli", and nonlaying females ate 37.0% animal matter and 63.0% plant matter, while laying females ate 71.9% animal matter and only 28.1% plant matter. Plants generally make up the larger part of a bird's diet, especially during autumn migration and in the winter.
The mallard usually feeds by dabbling for plant food or grazing; there are reports of it eating frogs. However, in 2017 a flock of mallards in Romania were observed hunting small migratory birds, including grey wagtails and black redstarts, the first documented occasion they had been seen attacking and consuming large vertebrates. It usually nests on a river bank, but not always near water. It is highly gregarious outside of the breeding season and forms large flocks, which are known as "sordes."Mallards are one of the most common varieties of ducks hunted as a sport due to the large population size. The ideal location for hunting mallards is considered to be where the water level is somewhat shallow where the birds can be found foraging for food. Hunting mallards might cause the population to decline in some places, at some times, and with some populations. In certain countries, the mallard may be legally shot but is protected under national acts and policies. For example, in the United Kingdom, the mallard is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which restricts certain hunting methods or taking or killing mallards.Since ancient times, the mallard has been eaten as food. The wild mallard was eaten in Neolithic Greece. Usually, only the breast and thigh meat is eaten. It does not need to be hung before preparation, and is often braised or roasted, sometimes flavoured with bitter orange or with port.
PredatorsIn addition to human hunting, mallards of all ages and in all locations must contend with a wide diversity of predators including raptors and owls, mustelids, corvids, snakes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, turtles, large fish, felids, and canids, the last two including domestic ones. The most prolific natural predators of adult mallards are red foxes and the faster or larger birds of prey, e.g. peregrine falcons, "Aquila" or "Haliaeetus" eagles. In North America, adult mallards face no fewer than 15 species of birds of prey, from northern harriers and short-eared owls to huge bald, and golden eagles, and about a dozen species of mammalian predator, not counting several more avian and mammalian predators who threaten eggs and nestlings.
Mallards are also preyed upon by other waterside apex predators, such as grey herons, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons, the European herring gull, the wels catfish, and the northern pike. Crows are also known to kill ducklings and adults on occasion. Also, mallards may be attacked by larger anseriformes such as swans and geese during the breeding season, and are frequently driven off by these birds over territorial disputes. Mute swans have been known to attack or even kill mallards if they feel that the ducks pose a threat to their offspring. Common loons are similarly territorial and aggressive towards other birds in such disputes, and will frequently drive mallards away from their territory. However, in 2019, a pair of common loons in Wisconsin were observed raising a mallard duckling for several weeks, having seemingly adopted the bird after it had been abandoned by its parents.
The predation-avoidance behaviour of sleeping with one eye open, allowing one brain hemisphere to remain aware while the other half sleeps, was first demonstrated in mallards, although it is believed to be widespread among birds in general.
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