Mallard Life History

Habitat

Habitat Lakes and PondsMallards can be found in almost any wetland habitats, including permanent wetlands such as marshes, bogs, riverine floodplains, beaver ponds, lakes, reservoirs, ponds, city parks, farms, and estuaries. They also occur in prairie potholes and ephemeral wetlands; they may be found feeding along roadside ditches, pastures, croplands and rice fields. Back to top

Food

Food OmnivoreMallards are generalist foragers and will eat a wide variety of food. They don’t dive, but dabble to feed, tipping forward in the water to eat seeds and aquatic vegetation. They also roam around on the shore and pick at vegetation and prey on the ground. During the breeding season, they eat mainly animal matter including aquatic insect larvae, earthworms, snails and freshwater shrimp. During migration, many Mallards consume largely agricultural seed and grain. In city parks, they readily accept handouts from parkgoers. Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest Ground Mallards nest on the ground on dry land that is close to water; nests are generally concealed under overhanging grass or other vegetation. Occasionally, Mallards nest in agricultural fields, especially alfalfa but also winter wheat, barley, flax, and oats. Both urban and wild populations readily nest in artificial nesting structures. Pairs search for nest sites together, typically on evening flights circling low over the habitat. Occasionally nests are placed on floating mats of vegetation or woven into plant stems that rise out of the water.

Nest Description

The female forms a shallow depression or bowl on the ground in moist earth. She does not carry material to the nest but rather pulls vegetation she can reach toward her while sitting on nest. During egg-laying phase, she lines the nest with grasses, leaves, and twigs from nearby. She also pulls tall vegetation over to conceal herself and her nest. After incubation begins, she plucks down feathers from her breast to line the nest and cover her eggs. The finished nest is about a foot across, with a bowl for the eggs that is 1–6 inches deep and 6–9 inches across.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-13 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:2.1-2.5 in (5.3-6.4 cm)
Egg Width:1.5-1.8 in (3.9-4.5 cm)
Incubation Period:23-30 days
Egg Description:Unmarked creamy to grayish or greenish buff.
Condition at Hatching:Newly hatched birds are covered in down and alert; they are ready to leave the nest within 13–16 hours.
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Behavior

Behavior DabblerMallards are an abundant city and suburban park duck and because of constant feedings by park visitors, they can become very tame and approachable. In more natural settings and where Mallards are heavily hunted, they can be very wary of approaching people. They commonly associate with and may hybridize with other dabbling ducks. Mallards have a huge variety of displays that can be fascinating to watch and decipher. Most displays are ritualized versions of common motions: males may face off with a head-bob, threaten an aggressor with an open bill, or push against each other, breast to breast. Paired males defend their territories with vigorous acrobatic chases. Males court females by shaking or flicking the head side to side, looking over their shoulder, or raising up in the water and flapping their wings. Several males often gather around a female to display. A female encourages a male by nodding her head back and forth or paddling with her head held low. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernMallards are the most widespread and abundant duck in North America and their populations have been slightly increasing from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Their numbers increase during wet periods and decline when there are droughts in the middle of the continent—over the last 50 years their estimated numbers have cycled between about 5 million and 11 million. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the 2014 North American population at around 11.6 million breeding birds. The species is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Mallards are also the most heavily hunted North American ducks, accounting for about 1 of every 3 ducks shot. State and federal wildlife agencies keep close track of the numbers shot—visit www.flyways.us to see summaries of duck numbers and hunting statistics. Like other waterfowl, Mallards can be poisoned when they ingest lead shot while feeding. In 1977, a mandatory switch to steel shot along the Mississippi Flyway helped greatly alleviate lead poisoning in Mallards. This species can also be affected by poor water quality, including mercury, pesticide, and selenium pollution, wetland clearing or drainage, and oil spills.Back to top

Backyard Tips

If you have a pond or marshy area on your property Mallards might be attracted to your backyard. Occasionally, Mallards have been known to show up in people’s swimming pools.

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

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Credits

Drilling, Nancy, Rodger D. Titman and Frank McKinney. 2002. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook. A Field Guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2015. Waterfowl population status, 2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

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