( I chose this picture rather than using one of my own because it highlights the male’s emerald green head and the blue on its feathers – gorgeous duck!)
A number of years ago I decided to raise some baby Mallards. As a child I used to feed and make friends with them, even as a toddler I was told. Because I live so close to North Pond I decided to raise some Mallards and release them on the lake, although I had never seen them here and wondered why. After doing some preliminary research I learned that this area was a breeding area for wild Mallards, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.
What an adventure! The “quackers” were characters. My dog adored them and they seemed equally fascinated with her because whenever Star visited with them they would waddle over to quack excitedly at her when she pawed their cage. I came to love them too, and although they made a horrible mess I loved the quackers enthusiastic morning greeting. When the day came to release them I felt sad.
By this time I had spent a lot of time in my kayak looking for a safe haven for the youngsters. I created a nest at the end of a peninsula, and left them there on North Pond. I saw the quackers occasionally during that summer while kayaking but when they migrated in the fall they didn’t return… I believed my experiment to re- introduce them had failed.
About a week before leaving Abiquiu I spied a Mallard couple on the river a few times. Much to my surprise, when I returned to Maine the first of April, I also spotted another Mallard couple on the North Pond – the first Mallards I had ever seen here since I let the quackers go. Was it possible that this couple had returned to breed?
When I researched this possibility I learned that Mallards choose new mating partners each fall. They stay together throughout the winter and once the mating season ends the male abandons the female to raise her family (up to13 chicks) alone. The female returns to her original waters to breed, so it was conceivable, that the female was the original “quacker” that I had raised.
All the breeds of ducks that are common today can trace their origins to the wild Mallard except the Muscovy who roosts in trees in South America. No one knows for certain when Mallards were first domesticated, but there is some evidence to suggest that the Egyptians sacrificed ducks and also bred them for food.
Breeding Mallards nest in the North Country and in Canada and Alaska. Females will build a nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water. She lays a clutch of eggs and incubates them for a month. Once the ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to water for safety. The ducklings will follow their mother for the next 50 to 60 days, maturing and developing their ability to fly. The ducks can reach breeding age after a year. Mallards frequently interbreed with Black Ducks and the Northern Pintail.
There are four major flyways that Mallards use. Migrating Mallards in Abiquiu use the Pacific Flyway; In Maine they use the Atlantic flyway. Non breeding Mallards inhabit most of the country, and some live year round in Florida and other southern most states including southern New Mexico. Many are considered pests and millions of these birds are killed each fall by hunters.
Mallards are the latest fall migrants and fly in a V-formation in order to have the lead bird break the headwinds and lower the resistance for those that follow. They migrate at night and although theories abound, no one knows how they manage to navigate such distances. Mallards can travel 800 miles in one day. They are excellent endurance fliers, sustaining speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. They usually fly at altitudes between 400 to 2,000 feet, but have been spotted much higher and have even gotten into crashes with commercial airliners above 20,000 feet.
Mallard ducks can be found in the Northern Hemisphere throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Most Mallard ducks are migratory birds, flying south to temperate climates during the winter, and northwards in the summer to nesting grounds. Mallards prefer wetlands near water sources with an abundant supply of food and cover. They can be found in many types of habitats throughout the country including lakes, rivers, streams, small ponds, swamps, marshlands, and water reservoirs.
Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and more recently grain crops like wheat and corn. They dip their heads under the water and forage for plants on the bottom. This “dabbling” is the feeding technique the ducks prefer and execute most often. When visiting the Bosque del Apache I was delighted to see so many Mallards. The heads of the males are fashioned out of shimmering emeralds, and to my mind are astonishingly beautiful to behold.
Mallards are also the most heavily hunted North American ducks, accounting for about 1 of every 3 ducks shot. This species can also be affected by poor water quality, including mercury, pesticides, and selenium pollution, wetland clearing or drainage, oil spills, etc, etc. They are losing ground. Across the continent, millions of acres of wildlife habitat have been converted to agriculture. Some have adapted and eat harvested rice, corn, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. I cannot help wondering what agricultural pesticides might be doing to these ancestral ducks.
Mallards, like so many other migrating species are migrating later and returning to breeding places earlier than ever before. And perhaps like other migrating birds their patterns are shifting.
I am anxious to learn whether the Mallards I saw for a few days were still migrating or if they will spend summer on North Pond.