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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Mallard, Kentucky’s most-taken species during waterfowl season

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the ducks most often taken by hunters in Kentucky during waterfowl season.

The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is Kentucky’s top duck, the species most often taken by hunters during waterfowl season.

“Of the 144,400 ducks taken in 2017, 76,376 were mallards,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “That’s over 50 percent of our duck harvest.”

Size and Description

The male mallard, the drake, frequently called a “Greenhead” by hunters, is one of the most recognizable of all migratory waterfowl.

Last season hunters bagged 76,376 mallards in Kentucky, which represented more than 50 percent of all ducks harvested. (Photo provided)

The male’s plumage is distinctive. A white ring around the neck separates its green iridescent head from its chestnut-brown chest that contrasts with its gray sides, brownish back, and black rump.

The speculum, a bright patch of plumage on its wings, is violet-blue, bordered by black and white. The outer tail feathers are white. The bill is yellow to yellowish-green and the legs and feet are coral-red.

The female mallard, the hen, often affectionately referred to by hunters as a “Suzy,” is a mottled brownish. Her speculum, like the drake, is violet-blue, bordered by black and white.

The crown of her head is dark brown with a darker stripe running through the eye. The remainder of the head is a lighter brown. The bill is orange splotched with brown, and the legs and feet are orange.

The outer feathers of both sexes are waterproof, and beneath is a fluffy layer of down that keeps them warm in cold weather.

Adult male mallards weigh slightly more than females, averaging about 2.7 pounds, and they stand slightly taller. Wingspans for both sexes easily exceed 30 inches.

Wintering Grounds

Mallards are present in all four flyways — the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.

Mallards can fly 40 miles per hour, and with a strong tail wind, may travel 800 miles in a day, flying as high as 2,000 feet, sometimes higher. (Photo provided)

They winter, east to west, from coastal South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico to Baja California.

The greatest concentrations move from Manitoba and Saskatchewan through the Midwestern United States to the Mississippi Valley.

Mallards can fly 40 miles per hour, and with a strong tailwind, may travel 800 miles in a day, flying as high as 2,000 feet, sometimes higher.

They are one of the latest fall migrants, yet they have an extended migration period, which lasts from late summer to early winter, depending on how far north their breeding grounds are.

Preferred Habitat

Mallards are found in a variety of habitats, including lakes, rivers, and ponds, but they also frequent dry agricultural fields, shallow marshes and oak-dominated forested wetlands.

Food Habits

A mallard’s diet consists of aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and grain crops like wheat and corn.

They prefer to feed in water, dipping their heads under the water to forage in agricultural fields and woodlands flooded by backwater from streams, or standing water from heavy rains.

Breeding Grounds

Incredibly, the mallard nests throughout the northern reaches of the continent, from Alaska, throughout central Canada, to North Dakota, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, to Maine, northern New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, into Canada’s Maritime provinces.

Once Mallard ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to water for safety, where they are immediately able to swim and feed. (Photo provided)

Mallards choose new mating partners each fall, staying together throughout the winter and into the spring mating season.

Once the mating season has ended, the male mallard leaves and has no involvement in caring for their offspring.

The female builds a nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water. She may lay a clutch of as many as 13 eggs and incubates them for a month.

Once the ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to the water for safety. Mallard ducklings are precocial, meaning they know how to swim and feed right after they are hatched.

The ducklings will follow their mother for the next 50 to 60 days while maturing and developing their ability to fly. Mallards reach breeding age after a year and can live as long as 10 years in the wild.

Hunter Harvest

Nationwide, over one million waterfowl hunters in the U.S. harvested 12,115,800 ducks of all species last season, according to the Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest report for the 2017-18 hunting season, compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The total number of mallards taken by hunters in the Mississippi Flyway during the 2017 season was 1,643,472.

The annual duck harvest is based on data collected by the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP), which requires licensed migratory game bird hunters to register annually in each state in which they hunt. Hunters are asked a series of questions about their hunting success the previous year, and this information is sent to the UDFWS and compiled as an annual hunter activity and harvest report, which is released in August.

Kentucky has about 10,100 active duck hunters. Last season they spent about 78,400 days afield, according to survey data.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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