Mallard: First among Dabblers

The many duck species found in North America are sometimes described as either “diving ducks” or “dabbling ducks.” During recent March walks along the river in Eliza Howell Park, I have been watching the best known of all dabbling ducks, the Mallard.

At this time of the year, Mallards are usually seen as a female-male pair.

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         Note: All bird photos included here are courtesy of Margaret Weber.

“Divers” forage for food by diving and swimming under water, while “dabblers” are surface feeders; they sometimes put their heads under water but do not submerge to seek food. Dabblers like shallow water and are also referred to as “puddle ducks.” They also feed on land at times.

In Eliza Howell, they are most commonly found on the river but are sometimes seen in the toad breeding pond in the spring (before the pond goes dry). And they are sometimes found even in a flooded roadway. In this picture, a female is surface feeding.

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Mallards are present all year, whenever there is ice-free water (I have seen them in 11 of the last 15 Januaries). Outside of the breeding season, they often congregate in small flocks.

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It seems fitting to refer to Mallards as first among dabblers for a number of reasons. They are the most common and most familiar duck, found throughout North America and Eurasia. They are the biological ancestor of almost all domesticated ducks. The Mallard is both widely hunted as a wild duck and at home in many parks.

The “quack” that most of us tend to associate with ducks in general is the sound of the female Mallard (the male vocalizes differently) and the Mallard is the first duck that many of us encounter in our lives. The picture that often comes to mind when we think of a native wild “duck” is that of the green-headed male Mallard.

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As is common among ducks, the female incubates the eggs and cares for the young entirely on her own. Her colors make it very difficult for a predator to spot her when she is on the nest half covered by the dead grasses and leaves that remain from the previous year.

Mallards nest in Eliza Howell and I occasionally find a nest – always by surprise when I happen to get so close to a hidden nest that the bird flies out. The females lay about 12 eggs (usually one a day) and incubate for about 28 days after all the eggs are laid. The young are ready to leave the nest about a day after hatching and follow the mother to water, where one of the annual joys of bird watchers is observing several young swimming behind a Mallard mother.

When I came across this nest as the hen flew out, it looked like egg-laying was still in process and she had just added an egg to an incomplete clutch.

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Mallards have lived in proximity with humans for centuries and in some parks, especially where they are fed by park visitors, they are quite “tame.” Those in Eliza Howell are in a more natural setting. They are almost always present, however, and provide an opportunity for visitors to observe their behavior.

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