The mallard (Anas platrhynchos) is a duck that most will recognize readily. The yellow bill, green head, white neck ring, chestnut breast, gray sides, orange legs, and black tail curls of the male are familiar sights across the country. In flight, notice his white belly.
The female is less conspicuous. She is mottled brown overall. She shares orange legs in common with her mate, but note that her bill is orange with darker mottling.
When molting, male and female mallards look very similar. The mallard may retain some of his typical characteristics, however, such as his yellow bill and chestnut breast.
In flight, notice that all mallards have a white tail and blue speculum bordered with white on both front and back. They fly directly and with impressive speed for a duck.
Best Field Marks
- Yellow bill (male only).
- Green head (male only).
- White neck ring (male only).
- Blue speculum bordered in white.
- White tail.
Mallards are very vocal ducks. The ubiquitous noisy quack associated with ducks is the sound of the female, most common when nesting. The male makes rasping calls that can be described as kwek. He primarily vocalizes when fighting or courting.
Distribution & Occurrence
The mallard is a permanent resident of most of Kansas. It will inhabit just about any body of water, no matter how large or small, whether it is a generous reservoir or merely a flooded field. It is most common in the winter, when large flocks arrive from further north to take advantage of any open water available. These migrating ducks tend to arrive in the second half of December and depart in late February or early March.
Mallards frequently remain in Kansas over the summer to nest. They prefer to nest in the western two-thirds of the state, thanks to numerous irrigation ponds with suitable vegetation nearby. The wetlands of Cheyenne Bottoms are also a favorite. Nesting becomes more difficult from the Flint Hills eastward, as aquatic habitats in this part of Kansas are frequently disturbed by grazing or mowing.
The mallard is quite social, frequently associating with many other duck species. When disturbed, a flock of mallards jumps directly into the air, usually calling loudly. They continue in tight groups or V- or U-shaped flocks, depending on the number of ducks present.
Mallards generally feed twice a day—at dawn and again in the late afternoon. Their diet varies considerably throughout the year. During the breeding season, they mostly eat insects, snails, and worms. The rest of the year, they search the water for aquatic plants and seeds by skimming or dabbling, and they forage in fields for grain.
The male mallard is an aggressive breeder. He courts his mate all winter long, grunting, pumping his head, and making a noisy preening display to attract attention. While he only bonds with and defends one mate per breeding season, he will meanwhile pursue and breed with other female ducks, as well. He frequently even breeds with ducks of other species, accounting for the increasing number of hybrid ducks found in the wild.
The female selects a nesting site on her mate’s territory, usually near a body of water, but sometimes in a pasture or field as much as a mile distant. The nest itself is a shallow bowl of plants lined with down. The female lays an average of 8 to 12 buffy eggs, usually between mid-May and early June in Kansas. If predators disturb her nest, she will make a second attempt of about 6 to 8 eggs. Once she starts incubating the eggs, her mate goes into hiding to molt. Incubation lasts 26 to 30 days.
The young ducklings are ready to leave the nest within about 12 hours, tended by their mother. They mostly eat insects, mosquito larvae being a particular favorite, but they will eat crustaceans and some parts of plants. They follow their mother during the much of the summer, growing their adult feathers by the time they are about two months old. Once the ducklings are fledged, the female leaves them to find a safe place to molt herself.
Mallards frequently get more than their fair share of attention from humans, even those who are not avid birdwatchers. Bread handouts are a popular choice, but many wildlife experts feel that this leads to ducks getting hooked on simple starches (think waterfowl fast food). Dried corn kernels, however, are always an acceptable choice.
Hunters find that mallards are fairly easy to decoy. They respond readily to calls.
The problem with the female mallard is that it looks just about like any other female duck. Look at the wing patch. The female mallard has a distinctive blue speculum bordered in white, unique among ducks.
Male Northern Shoveler
With its green head, the northern shoveler may fool a casual observer into thinking he is seeing a male mallard. One look at the bill should resolve any confusion. The shoveler’s bill is dark and oddly shaped. Also note that its breast is white and its sides are chestnut, the reverse of the male mallard’s pattern.
Male Red-Breasted Merganser
The male red-breasted merganser sports some features of the male mallard—green head, white neck ring, chestnut breast. But there the similarity ends. Again, the bill is a good field mark. A merganser’s bill is red and very thin. Also note the merganser’s unkempt hairstyle.
Male Common Merganser
This toned-down version of a merganser looks a little bit like a mallard in some ways, particularly the head shape. But check the bill. The common merganser displays a long, thin, red bill. Also, his breast is white instead of chestnut.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.