Top Billing: Mallard
These friendly ducks are a backyard favorite.
By George Harrison, Contributing Editor
The male mallard has looks that should make other ducks green with envy. Its iridescent, emerald head and striking markings make it one of the most eye-catching and recognizable members of the duck family.
Mallards are the best-known and most common ducks in North America. They are regular summer residents in backyards throughout the country.
Here, There and Everywhere
"Dad, there's a pair of mallards in our goldfish pond," my son Peter announced on the phone last spring.
Pete and his family live in a subdivision in Racine, Wisconsin, and they were surprised to find the pair in their metropolitan backyard.
About a month later, Pete called me again. He had spotted some more mallards, but this time it was a hen and 10 ducklings looking for food in a busy McDonald's parking lot in Illinois.
Pete's up-close mallard experiences are not unusual. A few years earlier, I had a hen mallard nest under an arborvitae bush next to a door on my house in southeastern Wisconsin. About 3 hours after they all hatched, the hen led her little tribe of fluffy yellow quackers down the terrace to the lake, where they entered the water and disappeared into the marsh.
Duties of the Drake
Like most other duck species, mallards have only one brood per summer, but if a predator or the weather destroys the nest, the hen will attempt a second brood in a different location.
Meanwhile, the drake keeps a close watch on the nest. Once the ducklings hatch, the male will change his plumage from breeding to non-breeding garb, which is similar to that of the brown female. This short period of change is called "eclipse plumage." This lasts for a few weeks, and for a few days during that time, the male cannot fly.
As juveniles, ducklings look like their mothers. By the time they join other mallards for migration, they have their adult plumage. The migration of mallards down the four major North American flyways is a sight to behold. Millions of ducks of many species are all on the wing, leapfrogging from one lake, river or pond to another on their way to the wetlands of the South and Southeast.
Every year, about the first of November, Jim and Arlene Mahoney of Tampa, Florida begin to see mallards arriving at nearby Long Lake.
"Sometimes, we have as many as 45 to 60 ducks on the lake at once," Arlene says. "The mallards are always the first to appear, and they look so tired when they hit the water. Jim loves to watch each day to see how many more fly in."
The mallards stay most of the winter in Florida, but Arlene says it's still hard to watch them leave.
"They always know when to head back to the North in spring, and it's sad to see them go," she says.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country is just starting to see these beauties. Maybe they'll fly into your yard this spring.