Mallard Ducks – Ray Colliers Wildlife in The North

pair of mallard ducksMallard seem to be everywhere these days from large gardens to artificial ponds and the seashore to inland lochs.  So it is interesting to compare their numbers with the wren that was the subject of these “Country Notes” last week.    Readers may recall that the wren  is the most widespread  and commonest bird in the UK and of these  there are an estimated 1.5 million breeding pairs in Scotland.    In contrast, although the mallard may be much more conspicuous, there are only an estimated  35,000 breeding pairs  in Scotland.    It is also   like comparing “little and large” as whilst the wren is only around eight gms the drake mallard may weigh in at 1.5 kms.   However, whilst the male wren may be only just beginning to build the several nests for the female to choose from, the breeding season for the mallard is well under way.

It will not be long before the first female mallard are leaving their nests with their brood of ducklings.    Already there is an indication of this as these days mallard have changed their behaviour patterns.  The pair of mallard in the photograph is a good indication of this as it was taken in my garden last week.   Up until recently a mixed bunch of mallard would come in to the mixed grain on a large bird table that is  flat on the ground.  Then the mallard split up into pairs and the female chooses a nest site.  This is normally on the ground so cover is difficult to find with  no spring growth yet under way.  Books say that the male takes no part in the incubation of the 11 to 14 eggs but he still has a role as he will escort the female away from the nest  to the nearest food supply.  The nest is a depression ringed with grasses or small twigs and then a final lining  with her down feathers.  If she leaves the nest at all she will pull some of the down feathers over the eggs to camouflage them.  When incubating she will sit very tight indeed until a predator  almost treads on her.   It has been said that as a protection against predators the female mallard  gives off no scent when she is on eggs.

So the drake in the photograph is on escort duty and you can readily see how attractive he is compared with the rather drab looking female.  This is because the female has to be so well camouflaged against predators  when she is sitting on the eggs in the nest.   So the drakes role is to see off any other drakes  and warn the female against any predators.  Interestingly, after the eggs have hatched the drake plays no role in looking after the ducklings  so the female has to try and guard them herself.  This is difficult as there are  many predators from birds such as crows and herons to mammals such as fox and pine martens.  Very young ducklings have an advantage that they can dive and fend for themselves  as soon as they hatch but it is along time between egg laying and free flying young birds.

Local  names for the mallard include wild duck and common duck whilst the   Scots name  include muir duck, moss  duck  and curly tail.  The last name is  after the  small curly tail feathers on the drake  and just visible in the photograph.  The Gaelic names include Lach raibhach meaning wild duck.    Mallard are the ancestor of the domestic ducks.