Mallards: The Weird and the WonderfulBy
Is there anything more glorious than a wild Mallard drake in his basic (=breeding =winter =bright =fancy) plumage? And the hens, though more muted, are every bit as beautiful, too.
In a way, it’s too bad that this species is so incredibly abundant and so familiar to most of us. It’s sometimes just too easy to look right past Mallards in our search for something “better,” and we wind up ignoring some things–like the bright blue secondaries–that would take our breath away in a bird less common and less quotidian.
Watching Mallards is, in fact, one of the most exciting ways a birder can spend her time: not only are they pretty, but they’re given to shamelessness in most of their behaviors, letting human eyes behold all sorts of avian activities usually conducted in private. Preening, bathing, feeding, and every stage of courtship from soup to nuts: all out on display.
It gets even better. While we often think of a big flock as just the backdrop to the star rarities we’re looking for, large congregations of Mallards are in fact anything but monolithic. Even when the search turns up no vagrants–and statistically speaking, that’s going to be most of the time–there’s almost always a “different” bird among the Mallards themselves, a hybrid or an intergrade or, heaven help us, a barnyard duck.
As the English name “Mallard” suggests, these ducks are nothing if not promiscuous, and in the heat of the moment, drakes will mate with anything with feathers. The most commonly observed hybrids are, as one might expect, those with closely related taxa such as American Black Duck (above, in New Jersey) or Mexican Duck (below, in Arizona).
Sometimes things get really out of hand, and the result can be something like this, a Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid in British Columbia.
More frequently we run across birds that don’t really fit any of the categories of thought we birders work within. And that’s because they aren’t really “wild” in the sense of the field guides. Mallards have been domesticated for thousands of years, and their sense of adventure means that such birds–bred for meat, for eggs, for ornament and companionship–regularly escape to join their wild cousins on lakes and ponds. And many populations of “feral” Mallards receive a regular infusion of new blood every Easter Monday, when it is discovered that ducklings possess not just adorability but digestive tracts.
Many of these birds–lately, it seems, described with the none too delicate adjective “manky,” a nicely alliterative coinage by Charlie Moores–are immediately recognizable as Mallards of a sort.
This very pretty bird, for example, might be mistaken for a genuine wild Mallard at a glance–he’s even got the species’ trademark “ducktail,” a feature retained in most domestic Mallard drakes–but the head shape is strange, and the plumage is oddly yellowish throughout. Somewhere in this bird’s pedigree we’re almost certain to find a domestic forebear of the breed known, aptly, as Buff.
Other individuals can lead to confusion. I’ve heard birders seriously weigh the possibility that a white-bibbed Mallard–a feature conspicuous in several domestic breeds–was in fact an eider.
And call ducks, the tiniest and cutest breed of domestic Mallard going, are continually misidentified as leucistic wigeon, thanks to their short necks, round heads, and diminutive bills.
There are dozens of domestic breeds of Mallard that can be seen “in the wild,” from bizarre runners
to equally weird crested ducks.
What they all have in common is that they’re Mallards–just like a cocker spaniel or a Labradoodle is a dog, just like an American beauty is a rose. It’s pretty amazing what a few millennia of selective breeding can do!
Check 10000 Birds for a growing gallery of domestic and just plain bizarre Mallards.