Thursday, May 11, 2017

Make Way for Mallards

Drawing of mallard ducks in breeding plumage
   Mallards, Anas platyrhynchos, are found all over world where there are temperate and subtropical temperatures.  They are probably the most numerous of all the duck species. Mallards live in city parks, marshes, bogs, reservoirs, ponds, lakes and rivers like the ones I am drawing.  These mallards live in the Hudson River in New York near the 79th street Boat Basin.  There you can see several pairs and their ducklings.  They flock near the docks and the boats in the river.  Many residents of the Boat Basin feed the ducks and get to know them.  When Leslie Day lived on the Boat Basin, she had several mallard friends who would stop by her boat for their feeding of dog food cereal, which she pointed out is more nourishing than bread. 

Mallard ducks are in their breeding plumage now, so if you are near water, you can see pairs much like the ones in my drawing—the drake or male with his iridescent greenish blue head, grayish flanks and curly tail and the duck or female (also sometimes called a hen but that gets confusing) with her browns, tans, and creamy colored feathers along with her brightly colored speculum feathers.  This set of bright feathers occurs in both sexes but is not seen in my drawing of the male.  The difference in appearance of males and females is an example of dimorphism that is seen in many types of birds. 

Here are a few fun facts about mallards:  Mallards pair up in the fall and their courtship continues all winter. The pairs are usually monogamous, but the male has been known to pursue other females for generally consensual sex, but there have been cases of forced copulation, or alas dare I say it, duck rape. The female is the louder quacker; the male has a softer more raspy voice.  A clutch of eggs is usually from 9-13 eggs and incubation takes about 28 days.  During the incubation period the drake leaves and the family responsibility falls on the female. All the eggs hatch within the same 24-hour period.  Once the eggs have hatched, the mother duck leads the brood to water and they never return again to the nest being born with the instinct to feed themselves right from the start. But the family gets to hang out together in the water and sometimes on land as Robert McCloskey wonderful children’s book Make Way for Ducklings illustrates.  After breeding is over, there is a summer moult when the drake loses his colorful feathers and starts to look more like a female—this is called the eclipse phase.  During this time, the birds are flightless for about a month.  “All about Birds” the amazing Cornell website from which I have gotten much of this information says they are “secretive during this vulnerable time.” It made me wonder what a secretive duck would be like and what tales it might have to tell. 

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