Creek Life: A Pair of Mallards and Facts About the Ducks

twomallards

A male and female mallard

I live near several creeks that drain off a nearby mountain. I often see one or two mallards in a particular part of the creek system. I sometimes discover that when I see only one (generally the male), the other is hiding on the bank. In March a few years ago, I found the handsome pair shown in my first two photos.

The mallard has the scientific name Anas platyrhynchos. It’s a common duck in southwestern British Columbia. The bird is found in water and wetlands and is classified as a dabbling duck. It tips its head into the water and its tail into the air to reach the aquatic plants and small animals that it eats. It gets some of its food on land, however. In park ponds, it’s happy to accept food offerings from humans. The bird usually gathers in flocks but may be seen in pairs during the breeding season.

mallardswim

The male’s curly black “tail” can be seen in this photo.

Many people would probably consider the male to be the most attractive member of the pair. He has a glossy green head, a yellow bill, a narrow white “necklace”, and a dark brown chest. He also has a curly black feathers at the end of his body above his tail.

The female has mottled brown plumage and a duller bill than the male. Both genders have orange legs and a patch of blue feathers on their wings called a speculum. The speculum is often outlined with white and black and is sometimes visible when the wings are folded, as in the female in the photos above.

duckling

My sister took this photo of a mallard duckling in a botanical garden in Vancouver.

The breeding season for the ducks starts in late March where I live. The two adults in my photos were almost certainly a breeding pair. Researchers say that a bird choses its partner in the fall while the ducks are still in a flock, long before the breeding season begins.

The male stays with the female as the pair search for a nesting site. The female constructs the nest on the ground in a hidden area near the water. The male remains with her for a short while after the eggs are laid, but at some point during the incubation he leaves. The clutch size varies considerably. The eggs hatch in around thirty days and the youngsters grow quickly. They fledge and become independent around fifty to sixty days after hatching.

At the end of the breeding season, the adults lose their flight feathers. During this stage they are said to be in their eclipse plumage and the male looks much like a female. The period lasts for three or four weeks. Some species of ducks are secretive during this potentially dangerous stage in their lives because they can’t fly away from predators. I often see mallards in eclipse in flocks, though.

After the breeding season and when the ducklings have matured, the birds stay in a flock at least until the following March. Courtship displays begin in the fall. The birds become very active and perform a wide variety of ritualistic behaviours, which are often easily observed. They are always interesting to watch.

I photographed the flock below in February at a lake fed by one of my local creeks. People often sit on the benches to feed the birds seeds. The animals are quite confident  and frequently come close to the people who are feeding them.

moremallards

The bench where people often sit to admire or feed the ducks.

Many other interesting facts about the birds have been discovered. For example:

  • The mallard gave rise to many breeds of domestic ducks.
  • Mallards easily hybridize with some other duck species.
  • The females quack but the males don’t. Instead, they produce a sound that resembles a rasp.
  • The female is known for her “decrescendo call.” She gives a series of quacks, started with the highest pitched and loudest one and ending with the lowest pitched and softest one.
  • According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, researchers have discovered that mallards can fly up to an estimated fifty-five miles an hour.

Mallards have been the most common ducks in my environment everywhere that I’ve lived on two different continents. Despite this fact, scientists are still learning more about them. As I often say, nature is always fascinating.

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