Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Episode 472 (5-13-19): Mallards are Widespread, Well-known Waterfowl

Click to listen to episode (4:11).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 5-10-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of May 13, 2019.

SOUND – ~8 sec – Mallard quack

This week, that raucous sound opens an episode about the most abundant species of waterfowl in North America.  Have a listen for about 20 seconds to these mystery sounds, and see if you know this bird.  And here’s a hint: the green mineral malachite reveals both the first part of this bird’s name and the color of the males’ head.

SOUNDS - ~22 sec – various Mallard sounds

If you guessed the Mallard, you’re right!  This relatively large duck is found throughout North America and also breeds in Asia, Australia, and Europe; moreover, the species is the source of all domestic ducks, excluding the Muscovy Duck.  Male Mallards are notable for their green head, reddish breast, and white neck ring, while the females have a less conspicuous mottled brown coloration.  Both sexes, however, have a distinctive blue wing patch, or speculum.  While males have the brighter colors, the females make the loud, recognizable quacks.

Mallards inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including wetlands, ponds, lakes, estuaries, parks, meadows, and agricultural fields.  They nest in shallow depressions on the ground, concealed by tall grasses or other plants.  On the water, Mallards feed by dabbling, that is, tipping forward and dunking their head to grasp aquatic plants.  On land, they’ll graze on natural or cultivated vegetation and they’ll prey upon various insects, worms, and other invertebrates.

The species has become common and adapted to humans in many urban and suburban areas, accepting offers of food and at times stopping traffic as a mother and ducklings cross a street.  In the wild, though, fast-flying Mallards may adroitly avoid humans, as described in this passage from the 1800s by John James Audubon: “Look at that Mallard as he floats on the lake; see his elevated head glittering with emerald-green, his amber eyes glancing in the light!  Even at this distance, he has marked you, and suspects that you bear no good will towards him…. The wary bird draws his feet under his body, springs upon them, opens his wings, and…bids you farewell.”

And we say farewell for now to the bird that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has called the “standard against which all other ducks are compared.”  If anyone ever asks you to name the most abundant duck in North America, here’s a whimsical way you might answer:

VOICE - ~2 sec – “Mallard!”


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The Mallard sounds were recorded by Virginia Water Radio on December 10, 2015, at the Virginia Tech Duck Pond in Blacksburg.

The “Mallard” name call-out was voiced by a Blacksburg, Va., friend of Virginia Water Radio on November 10, 2012.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com.


Mallard painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate 221), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.  Photo taken May 13, 2019, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.

Female Mallard on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, May 8, 2019.

Male Mallards on Stroubles Creek on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, May 9, 2019.

Female Mallard at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, April 2008.  Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, made available for public use by the Service's National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/2513/rec/3, accessed 5-13-19.

Male Mallard, location unidentified, April 2008.  Photo by Erwin and Peggy Bauer, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/5184/rec/2, accessed 5-13-19.


The scientific name of the Mallard is Anas platyrhynchos.

Here are some points about Mallards, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Mallard,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040051&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18025.


“This is the most abundant duck in North America.  In the northeast over the past 100 years, it has changed from a rare migrant to a major game bird due in part to the release of game-farm birds, and also to expansion east of the breeding range.”

Physical Description

“This is a large surface-feeding duck, with a stocky build.  The adult male has a length of 24.7 inches average and a weight of 2.75 pounds average.  The adult female has an average length of 23.1 inches and an average weight of 2.44 pounds.  The adult male has an uncrested, glossy-green head, white neck ring, reddish brown breast, brownish back, white tail, and dark rump.  It has a yellowish bill, orange feet, violet-blue speculum, and recurved central tail feathers.  The adult female is mottled brown, with a whitish tail, a bill patched with orange, orange feet, and a violet-blue speculum.  In flight, a white bar on each side of speculum evident in both sexes.”

Nesting Habitat and Behavior

“In Virginia on the Coastal Plain, eggs [have been] observed as early as 10 April, with ducklings from 11 May to mid-August. In the Piedmont, young are seen from 27 April through late July.  In the western Mountains and Valleys, many broods are evident in June.  The clutch size is from 6 to 15, usually 7 to 10 with larger clutches laid earlier in the season.  There is usually 1 egg laid daily until the clutch is complete.  They have one brood per year, with re-nesting not uncommon if the first clutch is lost. Incubation is done by the female and lasts 26-30 days. …They begin establishing pair bonds as early as August, although September and October is the usual time.  As males assume nuptial plumages, courtship flights and displays reach a high level of activity continuing through winter and into spring. …Upon arrival at the breeding grounds, the flock breaks up as pairs head to small water areas. …The preferred nest site is upland and the distance to water varies greatly, depending on the availability of nesting cover, from a few feet up to 5 miles, but is usually within 100 yards.  It prefers placing the nest in high vegetation, from 10 to 50 inches tall.  It is not attracted to wooded habitats, but prefers nesting in typical grassland marsh habitat.  Other sites chosen include: marshes with nests built in marsh growth over water, under groupings of American yew and white cedar, on levees, along roadsides, and in hayfields in agricultural areas. …For the nest, the female forms a depression in plant debris or moist soil 7-8 inches across and 1-2 inches deep.  As each egg is laid, more vegetative material and some down is added.”


“They are found grazing in grain fields, marshes, and meadows, dabbling in shallow water, and diving if necessary to obtain food. ...The mallard is fitting well into park situations in urban areas.  [In such areas,] often supplemental food is provided (corn, bread) and by [these areas] offering refuge during hunting season, large numbers [of birds] assemble, especially in the winter.”


Used for Audio

John James Aububon, Birds of America, “Mallard Duck,” online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/mallard-duck.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Field Guide/Birds/Mallard,” online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/entry/mallard.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, “All About Birds, online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/.  The Mallard entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mallard/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online, at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).  The Mallard entry (Introduction) is online at https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/mallar3/introduction.

Oxford University Press, “Oxford Living Dictionaries/malachite,” online at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/malachite; and “speculum,” online at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/speculum.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Mallard,” online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040051&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18025.

For More Information on Cormorants or Other Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

BirdNote®, a daily broadcast/podcast on birds, online at http://birdnote.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “E-bird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  This program was featured in Virginia Water Radio Episode 440, 10-1-18.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID,” online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to other episodes using Mallard sounds.

Episode 118, 7/9/12 – A Summertime Virginia Sampler of Birds around Water.
Episode 294, 12/14/15 – A Holidays History of Counting Birds (about the annual Christmas Bird Count).
Episode 322, 6/27/16 – Fish, Wildlife, Habitats, and Human Interactions on the Agenda Since 1916 for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Episode 327, 8/1/16 – A Wetland Walk on a Midsummer Morning.

Following are links to other episodes on ducks.

Episode 136, 11/12/12 – Ducks at the Dance (about ducks in Virginia generally).
Episode 197, 1/20/14 – Canvasback Ducks Dive While Others Dabble.
Episode 303, 2/15/16 – Common Goldeneye's Wings Whistle Over Virginia's Winter Waters.
Episode 398, 12/11/17 – The Green and Blue of Teal.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
3.10 – impacts on survival of species, including effects of fire, flood, disease, and erosion on organisms.
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.

Life Science Course
LS.4 – organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.1 – current applications to reinforce science concepts.
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.