Birds - Mallard Duck
( Originally Published 1904 )
Called also : WILD OR DOMESTIC DUCK; GREEN HEAD Length—23 inches.
Male-Head and neck glossy green with white ring like a collar defining the dividing line from the rich chestnut breast; underneath grayish white, finely marked with waving black lines; back dark grayish brown, shading to black on lower back and tail. Four black upper feathers of tail curve back-ward; rest of tail white, black below. Speculum or wing-bar rich purple with green reflections and bordered by black and white. Bill greenish yellow with gutters on the side.
Female—Plumage generally dark brown varied with buff; breast and underneath buff, mottled with grayish brown; wings marked like male's.
Range—Nests rarely from Indiana and Iowa and chiefly from Labrador northward; winters from Chesapeake Bay and Kansas southward to Central America. Rare in New England.
Season—Winter resident in southern states; a transient visitor or migrant, during the winter months, at the north.
Small, grassy ponds, slow-moving streams, sloughs, and the labyrinths of lakes and rivers that are thickly grown with wild rice and rushes, such as abound in the interior of the United States and Canada, make the ideal resort of the mallards, or, indeed, of most ducks dear to the sportsman's heart. Here large companies gather in August and September when the ripened grain invites them to the feast they most enjoy, flying at dusk or by night in wedge-shaped battalions from their resting-grounds at the far north, to remain until the ice locks up their food and they must shift their home farther south. In Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana, they are among the first ducks to arrive and the last to leave with the hardy scaups or bluebills. And in sheltered localities a few sometimes winter, just as a few break through traditions and nest in secluded spots in the same states; but from Kansas and the Chesapeake country southward, they may be positively relied upon until the time arrives for the spring migration, however more abundant they may be in the interior than along our coast. Let no one imagine that because some ducks are classified in the books as " river and pond," and others as " sea and bay ducks," they are not often found in the same places. It is the lobed hind toe of the latter group that really differentiates them, and not always their habitats.
Well concealed in the tall sedges that literally drop food into their gaping mouths, the mallards feed silently upon the ripe grain and seeds, dabbling on the surface of the water or, suddenly tipping tail upward and stretching head downward in the shallow waters, probe the muddy bottom for the small mollusks, fish, worms, rootlets, and vegetable matter they delight in. When a good mouthful has been taken in the bill is closed tight, thus forcing out through the gutters along the sides, that act as strainers, the mud and water that were taken in with the food. Ripe corn that has dropped in the fields is a favorite cereal. Fish and animal substances form a small fraction of the mallards' diet; they are very near to being vegetarians, the fact that makes their flesh so delicious.
" In the spring and fall the Kankakee region of Illinois and Indiana is one of the finest grounds for mallards, teal, wood-duck and geese, to be found in the United States," says Maurice Thompson. " I need not say to the sportsman that the mallard is the king's own duck for the table. The canvasback does not surpass it. I have shot corn-fed mallards whose flesh was as sweet as that of a young quail, and at the same time as choice as that of the woodcock."
Instead of becoming indolent and moody after a plentiful dinner, these ducks are uncommonly lively. They jabber among themselves, spatter the water freely, half fly, half run along the surface of the lake, and are positively playful so long as the leader of the sport, that is on the constant lookout, gives no sign of warning. One might think they were mad, but often their frantic antics indicate that insects are troubling them, and all their spluttering and diving is done to get rid of the pests. Mallards dive and swim under water also to escape danger, but rarely to collect food. During the day they make many bold excursions to the centre of the lake and explore the inlets and indentations of the shore. On the first quack of alarm, however, up bounds the entire flock and, rising obliquely to a good height, their stiffened wings whistling through the wind, off they fly at a speed no locomotive can match. Perhaps the reason for most misses of the amateur hunter is his inability to conceive the rate at which ducks move, and so to hold far enough ahead of the bird he has selected. Mallards waste no time sailing, but after climbing the ski on throbbing wings they continue to flap them constantly. Before alighting it is their habit to wheel round and round a feeding-ground to assure themselves no danger lurks in ambush. They are conspicuous sufferers from the duck-hawk, whose marvelous flight so far excels even theirs that es-cape is hopeless in a long race unless the duck should be flying over water, into which a sudden plunge and a long swim under the surface to a sheltered corner in the sedges, frees it from the persecutor that lives by tearing the flesh from the breasts of hundreds of such victims every year.
Wary as these ducks are, they are also eminently inquisitive, or the painted, wooden decoys of dingy little females, gay bandana handkerchiefs fluttering from poles, that are used in the south to excite their curiosity, and other time-honored tricks of sportsmen would never have been crowned with success. The mallards are also exceedingly shy, and feel at greatest ease and liberty when the dusk of evening and dawn covers their feeding-grounds and conceals their flight that is often suspected solely by the whistling of their wings through the darkness over-head. Their loud quack, quack, exactly like that of the domestic duck, resounds cheerfully in the spring and autumn migrations.
To see the endearments and little gallantries the handsome drake bestows on his mate in spring, no one would suspect him of total indifference to her later. Waterton and other writers claim that the wild mallard is not only strictly monogamous, but remains paired for life. Perhaps polygamy cannot be fairly charged against him, however suspicious his indifference to his mate and ducklings appears. Many ornithologists claim that he is positively unable to help his mate and young, owing to the extra molt his plumage undergoes at the end of June, when he actually loses the power of flight for a time and does not regain his beautiful full plumage until the autumn. But certainly the character of the domesticated mallard must have sadly deteriorated, if this is so, for in the barn-yard, at least, he is a veritable Mormon.
In a nest lined with down from her breast, and made of hay, leaves, or any material that can be scraped together on the ground, near the water or in a bushy field back from it, the mother confines herself for twenty-eight days. It is then her gay cavalier goes off to his club, or its equivalent, with other like-minded pleasure-seekers, while she bears the full burden of the house-hold. Very seldom does she leave the pale bluish or greenish gray eggs—six to a dozen—to get food and a brief swim in the lake ; and she is careful to pull the down coverlet well over the eggs to retain their heat during her outings. As her incubating duties near their end, she usually does not stir from the nest at all. There are some few records of nests made in trees. If the nest is near the water, on the ground, the young ones instantly make for it when they leave the shell; but being unable to walk well at first, the overworked mother must carry them to it in her bill, it is said, if the nest is far back on a bank. Many pathetic stories are in circulation, showing the mother's total self-forgetfulness and voluntary offering of her own life to protect the downy brood. Water-rats and large pike, that eat her babies when they make their earliest dives, are the worst enemies she has to fear until they are able to fly, some six weeks or more after hatching, and the duck-hawk finds them easy prey.
The mallard is by far the most important species we have, as it is the most plentiful, the most widely distributed, and the best known, being the ancestor of the common domestic duck ; and although many of its habits have undergone a change in the poultry-yards, others may still be profitably studied there by those unable to reach the inaccessible sloughs, bayous, and lagoons where the wild ducks hide.