Because they are such common and charismatic birds now found nearly worldwide, and many people enjoy seeing them and adopting them, at least in spirit, I frequently get questions about mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). What follows is a small collection of mallard questions and answers.
(click on photos and graphics to expand)
1. Can this mallard hen feed her young? There is a group of mallards in my back yard/pond. There is a female with a broken bill. It appears that she has a mate, but I worry. If she has eggs will she be able to feed her young?
Submitted by: Anne, Virginia, USA
Anne, I’m sorry to hear about the female mallard. The good news is that mallard ducklings are able to feed themselves within 24 hours of hatching. The only thing the mother duck does is lead them to places where they can find food. So my concern would be whether the mother can feed herself. Does she seem to be doing that?
Anne’s response: “Yes, she can feed herself, the tip of her tongue sticks out to one side but otherwise she seems to be doing well. I put cracked corn out every morning and I make sure that she has a little extra, which seems to be working, considering she looks like she has gotten a little bigger and is holding her own against the other ducks.”
Most wildlife managers strongly discourage the feeding of wild ducks, but it’s hard to argue with your compassionate impulse for this injured hen. I hope she continues to do well. And if she does nest in the spring, her ducklings should be fine.
2. How many females per male? What is the best ratio to keep mallards if you are wanting them to lay eggs for babies? In other words, how many females per male would you put together?
Submitted by: Steve, USA
Steve, thanks for your question. Unfortunately, I’m not a duck expert, and I’ve never raised ducks. My site is really interested in the behavior of wild ducks. I would think that one male could probably take care of a lot of females, but you might want to check sites like this one: http://www.duckhobby.com/
3. How to protect a nest? Hi, I live on a lake and feed mallard ducks daily. Love ’em! There are three that return every day to be fed. I named them Peter, Paul and Mary. Mary built her current nest in the cover of several large plants directly under my front window. The only reason I knew she was there was because my dog “showed” me one day. I was devastated to come out of my home this morning and find several eggs broken and scattered all over my sidewalk and driveway. I was terrified that something happened to Mary too. Once I found her to be okay, my concern grew because my fear was that there was an animal that got to the nest. Sadly, the broken eggs revealed feathers and then my protective instinct kicked in. I know, and understand that this is how nature works, but I so want to protect Mary and what’s left of her nest. If it was another animal who got to the nest, now they know where they can find her again. Isn’t there something that can be done? According to your article, she leaves the nest once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Can I cover her and the nest at night so she is protected? What can I do?
Submitted by: Cookie, USA
Cookie, I’m sorry to hear about the trauma there. Even when a predatory situation is perfectly natural, it can still be hard to witness, or to see the aftermath. I try to remind myself that predators have babies to feed, too. But I wouldn’t blame you at all for trying to protect your friend Mary. First, I have to ask, are you sure there are any eggs or ducklings left to save? I don’t know about mallards specifically, but female birds that are brooding will often continue to sit on the nest for a few days even after all the eggs have been stolen or destroyed. Probably, the hormones that control the behavior take a little bit of time to subside. So it’s possible that even if she’s still sitting, it’s too late to do anything to help.
The second thing I have to ask is, are you sure the predator wasn’t your own dog? Dogs do like eggs, after all. And as you said, your dog knew where the nest was. Obviously, if there is any possibility that your dog is the predator, the simple answer is to keep your dog away from the nest. But assuming it was not your dog, I don’t know that there’s much you could do. Most of the typical duck nest predators – such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes – would be pretty hard to keep out in any way that didn’t imprison the hen. If you tried to put a fence around the nest, it would have to be pretty high to keep a fox out, and raccoons can climb over almost anything. I guess you could try a heavy covered wooden box, but that might just stress the hen to an extreme.
I’m afraid I don’t have a good solution. The only good news I can offer is that nest predation is a common occurrence and when a nest has been destroyed, mallard hens usually start over, typically within a week. Hopefully, Mary will try again and she’ll have better luck.
4. Are mallard drakes the worst creatures in the world? I was at a lake and was upset to see a female duck surrounded by 7-9 male ducks pecking her and nearly drowning her. She was so tired and was shaking in shock. My family told me not to be silly, it was just nature. But I am worried that she didn’t survive. Why do the males make such horrible attacks?
Submitted by: Karen, UK
Karen, I sympathize with your distress. It is pretty traumatic to watch, to be sure. I wrote about why this happens in ducks at http://askanaturalist.com/why-are-these-mallard-males-beating-up-this-female/. I’m not really sure I have much to add to that explanation.
However, it is important to remember that some of what we see is “unnatural” behavior that occurs in parks that have an overabundance of mallards. And I read an article recently about a study of the “divorce rate” in birds. This is the rate at which mated pairs separate and pair up with new mates. http://wuky.org/post/introducing-divorce-rate-birds-and-guess-which-bird-never-ever-divorces. Here’s a quote from that article: “Ducks do better than humans. Human marriages (American ones) fail at a rate of roughly 40 percent … Mallard marriages are 91 percent successful.”
So oddly enough, mallard matings in the wild are more stable than those of people. Not sure how much consolation that is, but that’s all I’ve got.
5. Are mallard drakes the most loyal widowers in the world? A mallard drake has remained by his dead mate for the last five days. Initially I thought I would bury her when he left … perhaps I should just do it? She is beside my pond and attracting flies.
Submitted by: Sarah, UK
Sarah, awww, that’s sad … and a different side of the “horrible rapist mallard drake” picture. I don’t really know how long the drake will stay there. But probably not much longer, and the sooner the female is gone, the sooner he’ll move on. I think burying it would be a nice thing to do.
Black, J.M., 1996, Partnership in Birds, the Study of Monogamy, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Drilling, N., Titman, R., and McKinney, F., The Birds of North America Online, CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY and the AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS’ UNION,http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/658/articles/breeding[cite]