Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Do Male Mallards Disappear in the Summer?

Mallard drake in breeding plumage which he wears most of the year.  Notice the curl in his tail--although it is another sign you are looking at a drake--the curl often disappears during molting. 

Group of summer Mallards.  Where are the drakes?

I was recently out birding, and another park goer and I began chatting.  When she found out I was a birder, she said she was perplexed about something.  She wondered were all the male Mallards had gone.  The only Mallards she seemed to see where groups of females.   I am frequently asked about the disappearance of Mallard males or drakes in the late summer months.  And it is true that if you look quickly at a group of Mallards at this time of year, it does seem that all the drakes have disappeared.

Female Mallard or hen.

But the answer is simple.  The drakes are still there, but incognito.  They are sporting what is called eclipse plumage.   During the summer after breeding season, drakes molt and drop their worn breeding plumage.   Their flashy feathers are temporarily replaced by drab, brown feathers that are very like the Mallard hen's usual plumage.    However, there are still small, but obvious differences between Mallard hens and drakes.  You can still spot the difference by observing the color of the bill and sometimes, but not always by a bit of green color still on the head of the drake.   And if it hasn't been dropped in the molt, you may spot the curly tail feathers of the drake.

Male Mallard or drake in eclipse plumage.  Note the yellowish bill.

The drake's breast is also a little warmer in color.    But it is the bill that stands out once you know the key.  The drake's yellow bill is always the same regardless of the change in plumage.  Although difficult to see in the picture above, the drake's bill has a small dot of black on the very tip. 

Female Mallard

Take a look at this hen in the picture above.

Female Mallard or hen--note the black and orange bill.

The hens in both pictures are a patterned, dull brown in color   Notice that their bills are  orange with a bit of black scattered over the top.  Some have a lot of black, and some have less, but all have orange and black on their bill.

 Group of Summer Mallards

So take a second look at that group of Mallards shown above.  I think you will find it is actually a co-ed group.  It won't be long before the drakes are sporting fresh, brilliant breeding plumage.  

Male Mallard in the foreground.  Female Mallards in the background and left.

It is a subtle, but obvious difference.  Once you know the difference, you will have little difficulty telling a Mallard drake from a hen.   

Male Mallard aka drake on the left.  Female Mallard aka hen on the right.

Have a great time birding in Orange County! 



OC Birder Girl Links

Mallards--Anas platyrhynchos

My post all about Mallards, their appearance, habits, and oddities.

The Wild Ducks of Orange County

My post showing wild ducks in Orange County and links to posts about them.


Odd Ducks

Do you ever see truly strange-looking ducks around the parks and wildlife areas of Orange County?  See if this post explains what you are seeing.  

Wood Duck or Mandarin Duck?

Are confused by these two species?  Especially the females?  Check out my post on telling the difference between Wood Ducks and Mandarin Ducks.




Bookwyrme said...

Interesting. I didn't know that! Will certainly look next time I'm in duck territory.

A Chalkboard of Love said...

OC Birder Girl, I am training a group of cub scout leaders this weekend. Do you or anyone you know do presentations or take scout groups bird watching? If you can give me any information that would be very helpful.

Orange County Birder Girl said...

Sea and Sage Audubon offers tours for scouts and other groups. Check out their Community Tours page http://www.seaandsageaudubon.org/Education/TEACHERS/CommunityTours.htm Contact information is listed under the second section "To schedule your tour."