Thursday, January 15, 2015

Watching Mallards: Part II

'Head up - tail up' -- one of several courting displays made by drake mallards to impress a hen.  She is low in the water.

This is a continuation of last week’s blog.  We’ll see if I can stay on subject this time! 

Most, if not all, ducks form their pair bonds during the winter.  When life is good they can often be found performing a variety of courtship displays far from their breeding grounds, sometimes as early as in September.  By the time they reach their nesting grounds, most of the pair bonds are formed.  Once the eggs are laid the drakes will leave their ladies to carry on alone or to go pick on another female.  Geese drakes stay with their families, but not ducks.

My photos were taken late December.  The mallards on our local duck pond have been all fired up, showing off several of the behaviors I’ve been reading about.   I don’t pretend to be an expert but many of my photos fitted perfectly with behaviors described.

I’ll start with the hen.  They have at least two behaviors designed to generate interest by the males.  One I didn’t catch:  the hen swims head up and displays by nodding her head back and forth.  But I did see the other several times.
Steaming:  Head low, the hen rushes through the water, sending nearby drakes into a frenzy of displaying.  Not many pair bonds have formed yet, so a handful of drakes vie for the hen’s attention, often all displaying at once.  The drake just beyond this hen is performing a ‘down-up.’  First he dips down and then he flicks water, usually towards the hen.  The drake in the upper right is doing a ‘grunt-whistle.’  He rears up, dropping his head in the process – that’s how I heard the whistling that first caught my attention (see last blog post).
Four drakes are surrounding another hen.  Often they end a display with a little steaming (head low the duck rushes through the water for a short distance – just like the hen) and if he is really lucky, the hen steams with him. 
 Another example of a ‘grunt – whistle.’
The introductory body Shake:  the male is trying to catch the hen’s attention by stretching his neck out and shaking his head ….  Remember the head is iridescent, so this might be quite striking from the hen’s point of view. 
Jump flight:  here a drake does a little short flight, trying to make himself stand out from the other drakes.  It is just a brief pop up out of the water.

When a hen is interested in a particular drake, she shows her interest by swinging her head to her side and dabbling her bill in the water.  The drake responds by pointing his bill away from her.

Once a pair bond has formed the two often take off on courtship flights that may last a few minutes.  When they land they perform the ‘pumping’ ritual.

Pumping:  a bonded pair face each other and pump their heads up and down.  Sometimes the pumping is in unison (both heads up, both heads down) and sometimes they alternate.  Copulation is usually preceded by pumping, but pumping doesn’t always mean they are going to copulate. 

Even though I spent about several hours photographing the ducks displaying I didn’t see any copulations.  I know breeding starts long before they reach the breeding grounds, but the mallards I was watching hadn’t done much pair bonding yet. 

And speaking of breeding, I was really surprised at what I learned during my fact finding.  This may be more than you ever wanted to know on the subject  -- but it is fascinating. 

97% of male birds don’t have a penis, but ducks and geese often breed in the water and have the necessary equipment.  I didn’t find any figures for mallards, but the penis of various duck species is a corkscrew appendage ranging from a few inches to over a foot.  Furthermore the penis propels itself in a moment upon contact with the female.  Meanwhile the female has a long curving vagina.  She is fairly successful at thwarting the sperm of unwanted males and allowing passage of the sperm from her mate.  So, even though it is reported that up to a third of duck mating would be considered rape, only 3 % of the ducklings come from these unions.  If you want to see more about breeding, just Google the subject.
These two appear to have made their choice.  


  1. Fascinating! Now I have to go watch the mallards I found nearby in a small pond much closer for more displaying behavior. Great photos! Of course, you piqued my curiosity so I have to do some Googling, too, ha!

  2. Great post ..I have seen much of this activity and never knew what it all meant. Now I will check it out next time. Great photos too.

  3. Your photographs are amazing, and interesting to know more facts about their pairings.

  4. A really wonderful post about a specie so common we often take if for granted. We will certainly be looking for these behaviors when we see mallards in the future. Your ability to augment your commentaries with fine photography make this page an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about wildlife.

  5. Thanks for a wonderful post, Elva, it didn't turn up in my reading list so I'm pleased that you highlighted it for us.

  6. This post just popped up in my dashboard? Kinda took a long detour.:))

  7. I don’t know how should I give you thanks! I am totally stunned by your article. You saved my time. Thanks a million for sharing this article.