Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trivia - Mallards

"... the por (sic) female was being harassed by several drakes!" Mary Osborn/

I've often heard non-birders and beginning birders who see a pair of mallards comment that the two ducks are a "couple". The truth is that in the autumn a male mallard duck (drake) often will start accompanying a female mallard (hen) as a protector, not as a potential mate. The following spring at mating time, he will attempt to fend off the amorous attentions of other male ducks who try to mate with the female - all at the same time. This is a particularly harrowing, exhausting and even dangerous time for the female ducks. The drakes will pursue a hen to the point that she may literally drop from exhaustion. Her protector will try to harass and chase off as many of the contingent of males as possible. In the photo above, the drake in the forefront is probably the hen's protector which may be why he is not attempting to mate. Evidently, he also has decided that protecting her at this point is a lost cause. Imagine if the hen was in the water while the above activity was taking place. She could easily drown! After mating season, the female is on her own, along with her hatchlings, until the cycle begins again at the end of the summer. Notice that the drake standing in the forefront has a lot of white plumage with very little rust colored feathers on his breast. Is this a hybrid perhaps between a mallard and a domestic peking duck?

Picture source - http://www.charliesbirdblog.com/

After breeding, the mallard drakes molt into their non-breeding plumage - called the eclipse plumage - which is similar to the hen's brown feathers. At this time, there are two simple ways that one can distinguish a male from a female mallard. The hen has an orange bill with dark splotches. The drake's bill is a yellow-green. Also, the drake has black tail feathers that curl up in an obvious curlique, while the female's tail feathers do not. During the molting into the eclipse plumage, the ducks cannot fly and are more vulnerable to predation. So, the brown plumage on the drakes affords them better camoflage in the reeds and grasses of the marshes while they wait until they are once more fully feathered and able to fly again. At the end of the summer, the drakes molt back into their familiar breeding plumage of gray, white, rust, and green feathers. This molt is not as extensive as the eclipse molt that occurs in the spring, and the ducks are able to fly during this second molt.

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