By Charlotte Owen
If you were asked to picture a duck, you’d probably think of a mallard. This very common species can be found anywhere with enough water to paddle in, from urban ponds to wilder marshlands and flooded fields.
Winter is a great time to watch ducks because the males, or drakes, are looking their best. The mallard drake has a glossy green head which shimmers beautifully when it catches the light. He has a white collar, yellow bill and very curly tail feathers. The smaller female has an orange bill with mottled, earthy-brown plumage to help camouflage her when nesting. She may seem drab in comparison to her mate but she does share one of his showier features: a bright blue wing bar known as a speculum.
Technically, only the female actually quacks. She will make a series of two to ten quacks, often blasting out the first one at full volume and gradually toning it down. The male makes a softer, rasping “rab” and can grunt and whistle when displaying. He will also make a special rattling noise for his mate by rubbing his bill against his flight feathers, almost as if preening, which strengthens the pair bond.
Mallards are dabbling ducks so prefer shallow water where they can easily go “bottoms up” to search for food just below the surface. They are not fussy eaters and will gobble up almost anything they find, from pond weed to insects, freshwater snails, tadpoles and small fish. Bread, however, isn’t very good for them. It fills them up without providing the nutrients they actually need, and it can make them quite ill. If you enjoy feeding the ducks, try offering them healthier snacks like oats, sweetcorn, chopped lettuce or a handful of bird seed.
As the breeding season approaches, the female will use leaves and grasses to build a nest close to the water. She will line it with down plucked from her own breast to cushion up to 12 eggs, which will be laid over a two week period between mid-March and late July. They will all hatch simultaneously after around 28 days of incubation and the new ducklings will be out on the water within a few hours, staying close to mum until they’re old enough to fledge.
female mallard / Damian Waters