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The resilient mallard is widespread

Northwoods Notebook

(Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo) This mallard hen probably hatched more than these three ducklings at Six Mile Lake, but predators abound for young mallards. Still, the species has been resilient enough to be the most numerous and widespread wild waterfowl in both North America and the world.

While the mallard might seem common to us, in several ways it can be considered special among waterfowl.

They are the most widespread duck in the world, naturally occurring in North and Central America, Eurasia and North Africa. They have been introduced in such places as Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, several South America countries and in South Africa. While a handful of other species — northern pintail, gadwall, northern shoveler — also can be found across the northern hemisphere, none boast the numbers and reach of the mallard population, according to several online sources.

Part of the reason for that success might be that mallards have become the most urbanized of waterfowl as well, even surpassing giant Canada geese in their ability to thrive in close proximity to humans. They are willing to nest on business grounds, in home landscaping, public places, even rooftops, often relatively far from a water source. A hen leading a string of stumbling hatchlings across streets and sidewalks to water is a common sight in spring, as are calls to rescue ducklings that have fallen into sewer drains or other grates. Mallards also can be almost as common as pigeons in community parks that have ponds, lakes or other waterways.

They can be prolific, with clutch sizes of up to 13 eggs and perhaps two broods in a season, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website at www.allaboutbirds.com.

But a Michigan Department of Natural Resources official once told me mallards in the Upper Peninsula usually nest only once in a summer; any ducklings hatched later in the season probably are a second attempt after losing a first brood to predation, he explained.

Which can happen easily, from eggs being plundered in the nest to raccoons, mink, skunks, foxes, coyotes, great blue herons, bald eagles and even some snapping turtles picking off ducklings, according to online sources. In fall, hunters will bag some of the birds — mallards, not surprisingly, are the most-harvested duck in North America, accounting for 1 in every 3 ducks shot, according to All About Birds. Estimates are more than 50% of young mallards will not survive their first year.

Still, mallard numbers have remained relatively steady from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the North American population at about 19 million breeding birds, increasing during wet periods and declining when droughts occur in the middle of the continent, according to All About Birds.

While mallards may form pair bonds in fall that last through the winter, males will mate with multiple females if they can, doing aerial pursuits that often can be witnessed in the spring, according to All About Birds. A single hen’s brood may have several sires as a result. Even if an established pair, the male takes no role in nesting or raising the ducklings.

The male in mid-summer will molt that fine green head, chocolate breast and silvery belly, taking on the drab look of the hens while being temporarily flightless until new feathers grow in.

Given its comfort with humans, it’s not surprising that almost all domestic ducks descend from mallards — only the Muscovy, native to the Americas, does not trace back to mallards. That ancestry can be seen in the coloring in some of the domestic breeds, while others may be all white but still have the mallard’s general shape, especially in the head. Several domestic varieties can be considerably larger than wild mallards, while others have been bred to be smaller or “bantam” size. They are raised for table and eggs.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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