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Duck of the Month: Mallard

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Anas platyrhynchos

With a distribution that spans the northern regions of the world, the mallard is most likely the best-known duck, as well as the most numerous.  In North America, in years of good water and production, mallards number about 9 million birds.
 
The drake’s unmistakable glossy blue-green head with its white neck ring gives it its common name, greenhead.  The drake has a chestnut-colored breast, abruptly ending at its silver sides and underbelly, a feature readily discernible even in flight.  A rim on white-edged tail feathers on the rump of both sexes is also distinct, as is the white-edged purplish blue speculum.  The back is gray, the bill greenish yellow, and the legs orange or red.

The female has a cryptic camouflage coloration that is mottled brown.  Her head is a darker brown on top and light brown on the cheeks, and has a dark stripe that runs through the eye.  The hen’s bill is orange, as are her legs.  She shares the male’s white-edged, iridescent blue speculum.  Young and eclipse-phase males resemble the female.

In North America, the mallards breed regularly from the mid-latitude states north to Alaska, but are most numerous west of the Mississippi and Hudson Bay.  Historically, the highest concentrations occurred in southern portions of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta.  These are also, however, the areas of highest recent mallard declines, the result of habitat loss caused by agriculture.  In all the Prairie Pothole Region (including the adjacent prairie parklands) generally sees about 60 percent of the mallard breeding population.  Thirty percent nest north of those areas, with the remainder scattered throughout North America, including as far south as Texas.  Mallards are the most adaptable of ducks.

Mallards winter in all four flyways, often migrating no farther south than they must in order to find open water and food in the form of waste grain in agricultural fields.  They will winter as far north as Montana as long as snow does not cover the farm fields.  Often, the fall flight doesn’t depart the prairie region until November.

In 2006, Mallard breeding population abundance was 7.3 ± 0.2 million birds, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 6.8 ± 0.3 million birds and the long-term average.

Mallard breeding population estimates, 95% confidence intervals, and North American Waterfowl Management Plan population goal (dashed line) for selected species in the traditional survey area (strata 1-18, 20-50, 75-77).
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