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Blane Klemek: Mallards are perhaps the most widespread duck on Earth

It’s hard to believe that the flock of docile mallard ducks feeding contently in the grass or at the water’s edge while you sit idly by observing them from the comfort of a city park bench are as wild of a bird as, say, a ruffed grouse, common raven, or bald eagle.

Granted, those greenheads will often readily waddle close to where you’re sitting and perhaps even take a corn chip or bit of bread and greedily gobble it up at your feet, but chances are good that those same mallard ducks, those tame, almost barnyard-like common fowl, are most assuredly wild — and will act very wild come autumn when the urge to migrate grows strong.

The mallard duck, and mallard subspecies, is perhaps the most widespread duck in the world. Ranging throughout North America, they also breed in Europe and Asia. Subspecies are found in other parts of the world including the Greenland mallard that breeds along Greenland’s coasts, and the Mexican duck, which is a local resident of the upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico.

Other species of mallard-like ducks that have been taxonomically tossed back and forth are a pair of Hawaiian species, the Hawaiian duck and Laysan teal. Presently both are treated as different species.  Meanwhile, each gender of Mexican ducks resembles hen American mallards. Moreover, and looking very much like a hen mallard, the American black duck, the mottled duck, and its subspecies, the Florida mottled duck, are considered separate species as well.

The bright colors of the mallard drake’s breeding plumage are unmistakable. In fact, the male mallard duck is probably the first duck that most children learn to identify. The iridescent green head, white neckband, reddish-brown chest, and curly dark black feathers above white tail-feathers distinguish it from all other wild ducks.

Indeed, the breeding drake mallard is an elegant-looking bird. And they are also the most sought after and hunted species by American waterfowl hunters. A large and powerful flier, the mallard challenges duck hunters, young and old alike, throughout the Octobers and Novembers of Minnesota’s waterfowl seasons. And as an added bonus, roasted stuffed mallard served on a bed of wild rice is as delectable as it gets.

Known as a dabbling or puddle duck, the mallard is one of eleven other species of dabblers. Blue-winged and green-winged teal, northern pintail, gadwall, and the wood duck are just a few of the other dabbling species.

So classified because of the way in which mallards’ and its relatives’ legs are positioned on their bodies (farther back than diving ducks) and the manner of which the flushes from the water. Puddle ducks have the ability to vault themselves straight up into the air, in full flight, from a swimming position, whereas divers, such as scaup, redheads, and canvasbacks, cannot. Diving ducks have to run, if you will, across the surface of the water while furiously flapping their wings before becoming completely airborne. Loons and coots employ the same manner to achieve flight.

During the summers of 1997-1999, I was fortunate to be able to work on various wildlife research projects throughout the prairie pothole region of central North Dakota. Ducks were simply everywhere. One of the projects I was involved with was working directly with waterfowl, assessing nesting productivity by conducting intensive nest searches across grassland and expansive pastures, or rangeland as they’re commonly called in the West.

A vast majority of the nests that we located and monitored were mallards and gadwall. And in every instance of flushing a hen from her nest, it was our job to identify the bird, find the nest, candle the eggs (determining the stage of incubation), mark, and return to the nest at a later time to determine the nest’s fate (successfully hatching or scavenged by predators). As it were, it became abundantly clear that suitable upland dense nesting cover was critical to the successful recruitment of these prairie grassland nesting ducks, in spite of the incredible wealth of water.

Even with diminishing nesting habitat, drought, and predators, mallard hens and other nesting species of ducks, have the advantage of being practically invisible to any would-be predator. Without a doubt, seeing a hen mallard sitting firmly on a nest is almost impossible to see; her cryptic plumage and motionlessness makes it so. Coupled with the ability to lay another clutch of eggs following an unsuccessful first-attempt, mallard ducks continue to be a staple in both the landscape’s wetlands and hunters’ bags.

To be sure, the mallard, a completely circumpolar species of waterfowl that occurs throughout all of North America in every state including Alaska and Hawaii and across Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia, is undoubtedly one of the most recognized, adaptable, and successful duck on the planet.

Known to be one of the earliest arriving ducks migrating to Minnesota every spring and as common of a sight on ephemeral wetlands as they are in city parks, mallards are a species of duck to be thankful for as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at