Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Probably the most well-known, at least to the masses, of all ducks is the Mallard and rightfully so! Its North American population puts the Mallard at around 11.6 million breeding birds (2015 DU traditional area survey). This ranks the Mallard as having the largest duck population in North America.
One of the largest puddle ducks, the Mallard weighs in at an average of 2.2- 2.7 pounds with some of the big northern birds pushing 4 pounds. The drake Mallard is easily identified by its large glossy green head, white ring around its neck, yellow bill, grey body, and those bright orange feet. The hens have brown-speckled plumage with an orange and brown bill, orange feet, and one of the more recognizable calls of all waterfowl. The call of the hen is the traditional quack, quack you remember from childhood. Take a listen!
Waterfowl hunters should be able to identify a duck in hand and, to get the most out of your hunt, identify them when they are in the air or on the water. To quickly and correctly identify a Mallard on the wing takes practice, years of watching them in flight, and knowledge of some key points. Adding in factors like low light and different field conditions can make this even more challenging. To better be able to identify the mallard in whatever situation you’re hunting we will focus our attention using what I call the “Six ID Factors”.
Before we look at identifying them on the wing there are some positive and negative identifying questions we can ask to narrow the possibilities of it being a Mallard. Positive identifiers involve the duck itself while the negative identifiers help to eliminate other species of ducks. Here are a few helpful questions and tips for the next time you are afield. Starting with the negative, or eliminating identifiers, in three main topics; Mallard Geography, Mallard Population, and Mallard Season.
- Is the mallard in the area you’re hunting? With the mallard, this doesn’t help narrow down as much as with other species. Chances are pretty good they’re in your area because of their population numbers. What fly way are you hunting? Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, or Pacific? Is the Mallard popular in this fly way? What is the setting you are hunting? Mallards can inhabit everything from drainage ditches to Great Lakes and everything in between. Are you hunting a slough, a large or small river, or flooded timber? This question may not help you narrow down a specific area for Mallards but it will help you eliminate other species. Body of water or field? Hunting a flooded corn field is a pretty great place to find Mallards but a deep rocky lake is not going to be ideal for them.
- Are there a good number of this species where you are hunting? You can learn this from past hunts, scouting, or talking with your local C.O. or other hunters. The question to answer is what are my chances of seeing Mallards? If the answer is “great” then you are most likely going to see some during your hunt. If the answer is “not much” then you may want to rule them out as a common bird you are going to see during your hunt.
- What part of the season are you hunting? Is it early? Does your area have a large population of local, breeding birds that are here until they get shot at enough or head south for the season? Is it the middle of the season and you are primarily hunting groups of migrating birds, which in turn, makes it more unpredictable? Or are you hunting late season birds that are looking for any open water they can find? Mallards are typically one of the last ducks to migrate south for the year, so this can be used as a good gauge for identification.
Now let’s take a look at the duck itself. These are the positive identifiers. The Mallard has some identifying traits that can help tip us off on identifying it during flight.
- They are a big duck in relation to many other puddle ducks. Whether it’s in flight or on the water, the Mallard appears large.
- The silhouette of the Mallard, in low light situations, is a real key to ID-ing this bird. First, look at the neck. It’s long and slender and the head is noticeably larger that the girth of the neck. It is a streamline duck that has long, broad wings and a tapered tail. One of the only ducks that appears to be longer is the Northern Pintail.
- The Mallard is a straight, smooth, and powerful flyer. They are capable of speeds up to 55-60 mph. The Mallard flies with a steady, long wing beat. They do not dart and cut from side to side like Teal or have short sporadic wing beats like a Bufflehead. Mallards will travel as singles and pairs as well as thousands of them in one flock, so numbers in a flock are not a huge help in identification but part of factoring all the scenarios.
By using the Six ID Factors, this should help you better identify North America’s most abundant waterfowl. The Mallard is in all four of the major fly ways and is a popular target for many of us. As waterfowl hunters, we owe it to our sport and the game we pursue to know what we are doing. Bag limits and management of waterfowl help to ensure a healthy population of each of our favorite ducks. Please take the time to identify your game before you pull the trigger.