Mallard Life

Fast fliers reaching car speeds of 55 mph in the air, mallards land in ponds, lakes, and rivers all over the 48 contiguous states and Alaska. Like seaplanes, they can also take off directly from the water. They accomplish these amazing activities at weights of 35 to 46 ounces, about the weight of a small textbook.

Mallards resting in a park, taken by Sherry Smith, Ashland, OR, 6/2004

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Mallards are adaptable when looking for homes. Ponds, lakes, and rivers are welcome choices. But they will visit prairie potholes, which might disappear after a few weeks, ditches beside a road, or marshlands that fill with water and drain with the tides.

Mallards make nests with what they find conveniently nearby. They pull grassy stalks right near the water banks onto their ground nests. They bend other grass stems over to try to hide what they've constructed. If you are lucky enough to have a pond in your backyard, you can put up a nest box, which mallards will seek out instead of their own grass creations.

Newborn ducks are so adapted to the water that they can paddle immediately. Despite their love of water though, the ducks tend to build nests quite a distance from the nearest water source. The first pathway to the water can be perilous for young duck families. Whenever the mother duck senses danger, she will create a splashing distraction or feign injury to draw the danger toward her rather than to the baby ducks.

A Quest to Find Mallards

It is easy to find mallards, one of the most common ducks in the United States, and a species that isn't threatened. The female bird is the only one that quacks, as she calls out to babies in the spring. She is dull brown with a bit of lapis blue on her wing.

The male bird has an iridescent emerald green head. Light bouncing off air bubbles in the feathers creates this shine. When the wavelength in green matches the size of the bubbles in mallard feathers, green light reflects back, making emerald shine even more brilliantly. The other colors that don't match fade.

While mallards are known to most people, the world of duck identification can be intense since there are such a variety of ducks beyond mallards. Ducks can live at sea, in bays, in marshes, and in freshwater ponds. Mallards are classified as marsh ducks. They feed by turning upside down in the water and may also eat on land. They can take off into the air straight from the water, much like seaplanes. Diving sea ducks, or scoters, are some of the most difficult to identify. Just as I get my binoculars focused on a duck, suddenly it dives leaving just a frustrating patch of water behind. Then I can never figure out where the duck will resurface.

A Quest to Find Mallards

A song for children has the cute lines: "Down by the river they would go, wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble to and fro."

To me, ducks symbolize a love of, and adaptation to, the water. I love marshes, bays, and the open ocean, and I can see ducks in all of those places.