Mallards are some of the most common wild ducks in North America.
Their behavior also overlaps significantly with many other common duck species, making mallards an excellent place to start learning about the world of wild ducks.
So today let’s take a dive into the exciting world of mallards.
For a video introduction you can check out the following video that highlights some common mallard behaviors:
Or keep reading for a list of common behaviors and tips for observation:
1. Difference Between Male And Female Mallards (Essential For Behavior Interpretation)
If you want to understand mallard behavior, it’s important to start by identifying the differences between males and females.
This is because so much of their behavior relates to courtship, nesting & territorial activity, which all have very defined gender roles.
Luckily, it’s actually very easy to see the difference between male and female mallards.
Male mallards are easy to identify because of their shiny green head and white neck ring. They also have a brown throat, yellow bill and whitish body and wings.
Female mallards have a much more basic mottled brown appearance that can be easily confused with the females of other duck species.
The unique feature of female mallards is their purple wing patch on the lower side of their wings, shown below.
The purple female mallard wing patch isn’t always easy to see, so typically the easiest way to quickly identify female mallards is by their association with the green-headed males.
2. Mallards Are Dabbling Foragers (NOT Divers)
It’s also important to understand that Mallards belong to a larger category of ducks that all share a common foraging strategy known as dabbling.
Dabbling ducks find food by poking their heads under water to grab shallow plant material while their tails and feet stick up above the water.
This dabbling strategy for finding food is distinct from diving ducks that will dive down and submerge their entire body for a period of time while swimming and feeding under water.
Other dabbling ducks include:
- American Black Duck
- American Wigeon
What Do Mallards Eat?
Mallards mostly eat plant material like aquatic vegetation and seeds, but they also seasonally eat some animal material including aquatic insects and frogs.
3. Male And Female Mallard Calls
Throughout the nesting season, female mallards have a call that entices the males to follow her. I call this sound “The Following Quack” because it describes the call and response behavior of female and male mallards.
Female Nesting Call (The Following Quack)
If you listen carefully at 6 seconds, you can hear the lower pitched response call of the male joining in. Then the sound fades as the female swims off to find a suitable nest location.
This call was recorded immediately following mating, but it is also used anytime the female wants her partner to follow.
4. Mallard Courtship Displays
Unlike most birds, Mallard courtship lasts for a very long period of time throughout the entire winter and early spring.
These common ducks have one of the most diverse arrays of courtship behavior that can be easily seen at local wetlands and ponds throughout North America.
This long period of courtship makes mallards some of the most exciting and eventful birds to watch. If you want to see video examples of the following displays, remember to watch the mallard video from the introduction above.
Courting Mallards swim together in a pair and take turns dipping their bills in the water and letting it cascade back down from their bills. They watch each other attentively while this is taking place.
From a distance this behavior just looks like two ducks swimming together, but in binoculars or at close range it is a very obvious activity.
Neck Forward Swimming
At times you will see Mallards jut their necks forward almost parallel to the water and swim forward in a dashing motion.
They may also do circles around each other with their necks forward. This behavior is prominently featured in the mating dance described in a later section.
Both males and females can be seen shaking their tail feathers as they swim along the water. This is done to attract the attention of their mate (or potential mates if they haven’t yet found a partner).
This behavior is so common and subtle that most people probably don’t even recognize it as a visual communication.
Look for this behavior whenever you see a male and female swimming together in open water.
Both males and females can be seen flapping wings to attract the attention of a mate.
Wing flapping could have several different meanings depending on the context so it’s important to consider other behavioral factors when interpreting this behavior.
Aside from courtship situations, wing flapping can also have functional purposes related to flying and drying themselves off.
It’s certainly debatable whether bathing is necessarily a courtship behavior or just something that ducks do to stay clean, healthy & comfortable.
The fact is that when a male and female are courting together, they will also bathe together, so this can be a helpful clue for spotting mated pairs of ducks.
Bathing is distinct from feeding behavior because mallards are dabbling ducks that do not dive for the purpose of foraging.
- If their tails are above the water – they’re most likely feeding.
- If they dive fully underwater – they’re most likely bathing.
5. The Mating Dance
The mallard mating dance is actually a complex integration of multiple courtship behaviors in rapid succession that culminates in copulation.
Mallard mating commonly includes:
- An extended sequence of bill dipping
- Followed by female neck forward body language as they mate
- After mating the male does neck forward swimming and circles around the female while she bathes
- And finally she makes her characteristic nesting call as the male follows her lead.
Mallards mate for both procreation and as part of their ongoing relationship through the breeding season.
Mallards find a new partner each fall and engage in a long courtship process through the winter.
6. Territorial Aggression
Mallards have varying degrees of territorial behavior that mostly revolve around protection of mates and nest sites.
They will often share communal feeding areas, but take action to keep possible invaders out of their core nest area.
In the territorial behavior example from the video, this male mallard was able to communicate his territorial claim on a female by swimming quickly and directly towards an approaching male.
The invader then changed his trajectory to swim away from the female.
The most striking example of aggressive behavior in mallards occurs later in summer as unpaired males will try to force copulation with females.
These encounters can result in some very loud and intense exchanges of vocalizations and distressed activity from the female and her partner.