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Natural Perspectives: Things are just ducky at our house

March 07, 2012|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Male and female mallard feeding.
Male and female mallard feeding. (Courtesy Lou Murray )

Vic and I have a sure-fire sign that spring has sprung. A pair of mallards has returned to our front yard.

Every year in early March, a pair of mallards has taken up residence for a few weeks. They swim in our front yard pond and scarf up greenery and slugs. But although this is their nesting season, we've never seen any evidence of a nest or eggs or ducklings.

Mallards pair bond for one season only. They bond in the fall with displays that include the female following the male closely for short distances, with tail wagging on the part of the male, and much head bobbing by both parties.

After they have bonded, the male follows the female everywhere until she is finished laying eggs. Actual mating usually occurs in the water in March or April. I call this time of year "duck drowning season."

With his bill, the male holds the swimming female by the feathers by the back of her neck and climbs onto her back. The female sinks underwater with the excess weight on her back. Often only her bill is still out of the water.

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Afterward, she quacks loudly and incessantly. Oddly enough, it is only the female mallard that quacks. The male makes another sound altogether, more of a whistle.

When a pair of mallards is mating, all the other male mallards hustle over and attempt to horn in on the action. The female can sink completely underwater with two to three males on her back. This goes on for days.

The female searches out a suitable nesting area, with her mate close on her heels. She will generally lay 8 to 10 eggs, and will mate repeatedly during the egg-laying period. That's why her chosen partner stays close by.

He's not in love. He's just trying to ensure that he will be the father of her ducklings. However, he will have no role in incubating the eggs or rearing the young.

Oddly enough, forcible mating by a male other than her chosen partner is common in mallards. Once egg-laying has commenced, or even during the period when the female has baby ducklings with her, males other than her mate will forcibly copulate with her.

Unlike with her chosen mate, there is no courtship. The intruder male just holds her down and climbs aboard. The female often attempts to flee, which is why the sight of a female mallard in erratic flight being pursued by two or more males is not uncommon this time of year. Apparently, not all males engage in this type of activity.

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