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.
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.
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.
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.
It is a subtle, but obvious difference. Once you know the difference, you will have little difficulty telling a Mallard drake from a hen.
Have a great time birding in Orange County!
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