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Nature Notes: The Duck that Loved me

Ed Robinson
May 20, 2018
Mallard (John Berry photo)

Yes, a duck loved me – and I loved her. In fact it was four ducks and I loved all of them. They were mallards, beautiful birds and quite friendly.

The love affair took place many years ago when I was around eight years old. For Easter our parents brought home four fuzzy, yellow and black ducklings. With mom’s help, my younger brother and I figured out how to feed the little ducklings. Next, we fashioned a bed in a cardboard box with a small light bulb to keep them warm at night. Our beagle Skippy was a little too interested in the ducklings so we had to keep an eye on him.

Mom put her foot down at our request to sleep with the ducklings, but Charlie and I spent hours every day playing with them. The ducklings grew quickly and began to develop their adult feathers. One day Dad brought home a round plastic swimming pool. When filled with water, this quickly became the favorite play area for the ducks. We had to change the water a couple times each day.

Once the ducklings were big enough to walk easily, we took regular strolls around the lawn. The ducks happily waddled along wherever we led, albeit with repeated breaks to pluck fresh grass or to snatch insects (the ducks, not me!). Our parents, friends and neighbors had many laughs at the duck parades with the four little waddlers following their adopted “mothers” around. All summer long the ducks grew larger and, with fully-developed feathers now, began taking test flights around our old barn. Life was good.

If there is one duck species that most people can identify on sight it would be the mallard. Of 150 species of waterfowl worldwide and 30 species of ducks that live in or migrate through Maine, the mallard is quite familiar. This popular bird is highly adaptable to living around humans. It is so adaptable that in some areas mallards may become pests, like the Canada geese that foul your favorite golf course.

The mallard was first described in 1758 by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who developed the modern system for naming organisms. His scientific name for the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, came from the Latin word for duck (anas) and the Ancient Greek words for broad billed (platus and rhunkhos). The name “mallard” is thought to derive from an old French word “mallart,” often used for any wild male duck.

This medium-sized duck is part of the dabbling duck family. Dabblers do not dive for food; they remain on the surface while eating or tip their heads under water to snatch food. An adult may reach two feet in length, with two thirds of that in the body. Their sturdy wings span more than three feet to carry a body that may approach four pounds (especially when tourists feed them bread and crackers). The bill is around two and a half inches long.

As in most birds, the drake or male mallard is a bright, handsome creature, while the hen is more subtly-colored. He has glossy green feathers on his head with a yellow/orange bill. A white collar marks the beginning of the neck and the breast flashes purplish colors in sunlight. The back, belly and most of the wings are grey with white tips at the ends. Prominent on the wings of both sexes are the brilliant blue/purple patches called speculum feathers that are easily noticed in flight. The rear of the drake is quite dark with a central feather that curls up on mature birds. Hens are a mix of brown, tan and grey and may be confused with female black ducks and gadwalls.

Mallards have a healthy population with their numbers up in recent decades to at least 11 million in the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They have spread or been introduced to countries around the world. In some areas, mallards have displaced or hybridized with natives such as the black duck and the northern pintail. Scientists believe that many domesticated ducks are the descendants, at least in part, of wild mallards. The ducks we see in Maine during the summer may migrate to the southeastern states or to Central and South America, flying at speeds up to 55 miles an hour. Due to their size and taste, mallards are favored by waterfowl hunters, accounting for one-third of the annual harvest in the US.

Mallards are omnivorous, meaning they able to eat a wide range of foods. Aquatic plants, seeds, tubers and agricultural crops like alfalfa and corn are staples in their diet. They also dine on worms, insects, small crustaceans, frogs and even small birds. Mallards are highly social during much of the year and will often be found on bays, ponds, crop fields or rivers in large flocks called “sords.”

Once the ducks begin pairing up in the breeding season of October and November, both males and females become more aggressive to protect territory and potential mates. Males may attack rivals with repeated hard pecks, sometimes tearing out feathers and skin. Drakes court the hens by shaking their heads, looking over their shoulder and rising in the water with vigorous flapping of wings. The hen offers encouragement to a desirable male by nodding her head and paddling around with her head held low to the water.

Once paired off, the mallards will search together for a suitable nest location. They may nest on islands, along grassy shorelines, in fields or in artificial nesting boxes raised above the water. Once the hen has been bred in early spring, the drake departs in search of other conquests while the hen prepares her nest. She uses grass, leaves and weeds and then uses down feathers from her chest for soft insulation. Up to a dozen cream-colored eggs are laid on alternating days and incubated up to one month. The ducklings are alert at birth and able to swim in less than one day. The juveniles can fly within 60 days and may be independent within four months. Life expectancy in the wild is only a few years but a banded bird recovered in Arkansas in 2008 was nearly 28 years old.

There are many predators intent upon mallards, especially their eggs and ducklings. All the raptors will take them, as will mink, crows, weasels, snakes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, foxes and dogs. In the water, mallards face large turtles, northern pike, gulls and herons. Mallards are not well equipped for defense except with flight. In a risky world mallards developed the ability to sleep with one eye open, resting one part of their brain while remaining alert to danger.

Mallards may suffer from poor water quality and pollutants such as mercury, pesticides and oil spills. The loss of wetlands is an issue for all waterfowl, but mallards are more willing than most wild ducks to move closer to human beings. This results in mallards using our shopping malls, ponds or swimming pools for habitat. They may not escape other threats, however, including lead poisoning, botulism, fowl cholera and duck virus enteritis.

Going back to my childhood story… The summer became autumn and our beautiful mallards became more independent, taking short flights around our old barn. But they always returned for food and a swim in their pool. As the fall migration of waterfowl began, our pet ducks could see and hear wild ducks flying overhead using the well-known descending hail call – “quaaack…quack, quack, quack, quack.” It was clear that our birds would soon join them, answering the wild calls of their own species and the natural world.

One September morning they were gone…

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