[Published in 1923: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 34 - 47]
Spring.--With the first signs of the breaking up of winter, when the February sun, mounting higher in the heavens, exerts its genial power on winter's accumulations of ice and snow, and when the warm rains soften the fetters that have bound the lakes and streams of the middle west, the hardy mallards, the leaders in the migrating hordes of wild fowl, leave their winter homes in the southern states and push northward whenever they can find water, about the margins of the ponds, in open spring holes, and among the floating ice of rivers and streams, flushed with the spring torrents from melting snow banks. Because they follow so closely in the footsteps of retreating winter the earliest migrants have been termed "ice mallards" by the gunners. The spring migration starts in the Central Mississippi Valley soon after the middle of February and advances north as fast as conditions will permit. By the second week in March the advance guard has reached the northern states, and large flocks may be seen circling about over the lakes in search of open water or dropping into sheltered pond holes to feed on the first tadpoles and other small fry thawed out by the warm rays of the advancing sun. It is usually three weeks or a month later before they penetrate into central Canada and they do not reach the northern limits of their breeding range in the Mackenzie region until the first week in May, or in Alaska until the middle of May.
Throughout all the central portions of its range, in the Great Plains region of the northern states and central Canada it is one of the most abundant and most widely distributed of the ducks, as well as the best known and most important of our game birds; eastward of the prairie states it diminishes in abundance and is almost wholly replaced by its near relative, the black duck.
Courtship.--The plumage of the mallard drakes is at its highest stage of perfection before the end of winter, and the first warm days stimulate these vigorous birds to migrate to their northern homes. Many of them are already mated when they arrive and the flocks of mated birds soon break up into pairs and fly about in search of suitable nesting sites. Others are busy with their courtships, which are conducted largely on the wing. I have seen as many as three males in ardent pursuit of one female flying about, high in the air, circling over the marshes in rapid flight and quacking loudly; finally the duck flies up to the drake of her choice, touches him with her bill and the two fly off together, leaving the unlucky suitors to seek other mates.
Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1916) describes the courtship of this species as follows:
When the mallard drake courts, he swims restlessly about following or sidling up to a duck. She may lead him quite a chase before she vouchsafes to acknowledge his presence, although he is continually bowing to her, bobbing his head up and down in nervous jerks so that the yellow bill dips into the water for a quarter of its length and comes up dripping. He also rears himself up in the water and from time to time displays his breast. She occasionally turns her head to one side and carelessly dabbles her bill in the water, but sooner or later, if all goes well, she begins to bow also, less vigorously at first--not touching the water at all--and to the empty space in front of her. Suddenly she turns and the pair bow to each other in the same energetic nervous jerks, and, unless a rival appears to spoil the situation, the drake has won his suit.
Mr. H. Wormald (1910) has given a detailed account of the courtship of the mallard, illustrated with excellent drawings, to which I refer the reader. He says:
The performance usually begins by four or five drakes swimming round a duck with their heads sunk, and their necks drawn back, and in this attitude they have the appearance of being most unconcerned. This I will call action No. 1. After swimming round in this fashion for some little time, the mallards will suddenly lower their bills so that the tips of them are under the surface, and as they do so they stand up in the water and then rapidly pass their bills up their breasts. This motion is performed with somewhat of a jerk, and if one observes very closely, a tiny jet of water will be seen to be thrown out in front by the bill being jerked from the water; this is interesting, as one also finds this jet of water in the spring "show" of the golden-eye, but in this case it is made by the drake kicking out a small jet of water with his foot while he quickly throws back his head.
The mallard while performing action No. 2 as I will designate it, utters a low note rather difficult to describe, but I think it may be said to be a low whistle with a suspicion of a groan in it, as though it caused the bird an effort to utter. following this, the mallards lower their breasts and raise their tails two or three times in quick succession; and this, which we may call Action No. 3 is often followed by a repetition of actions Nos. 1 and 2. A quick "throw up" of head and tail, with the feathers of the head puffed out, is action No. 4, and this is followed quickly by action No. 5 in which the drakes stretch out their necks with their throats just over the water and swim rapidly about in different directions, when, apparently by common consent, they all come back to action No. 1, and go through the whole performance over again.
Nesting.--In North Dakota I found the mallard breeding quite commonly, in 1909, about the lakes and sloughs of Nelson and Steele Counties, although it was outnumbered by at least three other species, the blue-winged teal, the pintail, and the shoveller. It begins laying in that region early in May, though fresh eggs were found as late as May 31. The locality there chosen for its nest is generally on or near the edges of a slough or lake, either among dry, dead flags where the ground is dry or only slightly marshy, or upon the higher land not far from the water and among thick dead reeds. It also nests on the open prairies and often at long distances from any water. Two of the nests we found were on an island in Stump Lake in the middle of a patch of tall, dry, reedlike grass, locally called "queen of the prairie" (Phragmites) which grows higher than a man's head. The nest is usually well hidden and consists of a hollow in the ground, well lined with broken dead reeds or flags, apparently picked up in the immediate vicinity, mixed with dark gray down and a few feathers from the bird's breast; the down is thickest around the edges of the nest and increases in quantity as incubation advances.
During my two seasons spent in southwestern Saskatchewan, 1905 and 1906, mallards were frequently seen flying about in pairs up to the middle of June, indicating that they had not all finished laying at that time. They were not as common as several other species of ducks, but were seen on many of the lakes and nearly all of the creeks. Only seven nests were found during the two seasons and five of these found on the great duck island in Crane Lake on June 17, 1905; these five nests contained 1, 2, 6, 8, and 9 eggs, respectively, showing that they breed later in that region than farther south, although these may have been exceptional cases.
While my own personal experiences with the nesting habits of the mallard undoubtedly illustrate its normal habits, certain departures from customary manners of nesting are worth mentioning. Dr. Morris Gibbs (1885) mentions finding a nest "placed in a hollow stub, similar to the wood duck's nest."
Mr. L. E. Wyman says of its nesting habits in the vicinity of Nampa, Idaho:
Breeds in the tules and swampy creek bottoms, and to some extent around the reservoir, where lack of that sort of vegetation essential to its breeding operations has led to its nesting in some cases in alfalfa fields a quarter of a mile away, a well-beaten path connecting the nesting site and water.
Mr. J. Hooper Bowles (1909) describes the nesting habits of the mallard in Washington as follows:
West of the Cascades the nest is often built at a considerable distance from water, a nest found near Spanaway Lake serving for an example. It was situated 150 yards from the lake under a pile of brush on a bushy hillside. The duck, when flushed, tumbled along the ground, feigning a broken wing, but she soon flew quacking to the lake, where she was shortly joined by the drake. Other nests are built in the heavy fir timber, being placed at the base of a giant tree in exactly the same manner as nests of the sooty grouse.
Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) thus describes a rather unusual nest which he found in the Barr Lake region of Colorado:
On May 11, 1907, while wading out from shore through a sparse, burn'd-over growth of cat-tails, skirting a small lake, a female mallard flushed noisily from a large muskrat house and revealed a beautiful set of 11 eggs deposited in a hollow, scraped in the dead cat-tails and debris forming the house, and well lined with down. The house was very conspicuous, standing over 2 feet above the surface of the water surrounding it, and the nest was an open one, as can plainly be seen from the accompanying illustration. There was no apparent attempt at concealment. The female flushed when we were fully 30 yards from the nest, and the male swam about well out of gunshot. A week later (on the 18th) we succeeded in approaching to within 10 feet of the brooding female, who was in plain sight even from a considerable distance. The nest was in much the same condition as on the preceding visit, but the downy lining was much less in evidence. On the 24th we found that the muskrats had been adding to the house, with the result that the mother bird, in order to keep her treasures from being buried, had been forced to move her nest over toward the edge of the pile. In fact four of the eggs were missing on this date, and we surmised that they had been pushed off into the water during the moving process. A week later (May 31) the house had been built up much higher, and the nest was on the ragged edge of the pile, with the eggs apparently far advanced in incubation. On June 8 the eggs had been hatched, and in our examination of the nest we were surprised to find the four missing eggs deeply buried in the debris at almost the exact spot where the nest was located when first found. A fascinating bit of the family history would have undoubtedly been revealed had we been enabled to observe the attitude of the busy muskrats toward the brooding mother bird, and the process of moving the nest.
Mr. J. Hooper Bowles has sent me the following interesting notes:
In the vicinity of Tacoma, Washington, the mallards have an extremely wide range in their nesting habits, both as to date and locations for nesting sites. Many of them are paired by the middle of January, and the first eggs are usually deposited during the last week in February. Fresh eggs may be found from this date up to the middle of June, but the great majority are hatched by the latter part of April.
The early nests are nearly always, in my experience, placed either in trees or far back in the dense fir timber on the ground, in the latter case usually at the base of some huge fir, or under a fallen log among dense brush, often a quarter of a mile from the water. It has always been a mystery to me how a bird of the open water, like a mallard, can find its way back to the nest through timber and bush so thick that it requires all the ardor of the oologist. I well remember my first sight of mallards under these conditions, when I was hunting horned owls in some very heavy timber. It was a pair flying about ten feet from the ground and passing only a few feet from where I stood motionless. They were evidently hunting a favorable nesting site and they threaded their way swiftly, but surely, among the tree trunks, seeming as much at home as any grouse.
When building in trees the nests are never in those of the large tree-nesting birds, but are usually built in the fork of some large tree where an abundant growth of moss and tree ferns make the site both secure and well concealed. I have found such nests as high as 25 feet above the ground, the great majority of my observations being made on the estate of Dr. G. D. Shaver, who has made an especial study of these ducks and showed me all the nests that he could find.
As the season advances more open situations are often selected, sometimes at the base of a small oak on the dry prairie, at others among the rushes in a marsh over several feet of water, and again on a floating log in some small woodland pond. The mallards seem to lose much of their habitual shyness when the nesting season approaches, having little hesitation in building close to human habitations. However, they are very artful when leaving and returning to the nest, being experts at crawling and hiding, so that few people have any idea that there is such a thing as a duck within a mile of them.
The male is the most attentive to the female during the nesting season of any of our ducks, being seldom far from the nest at any time. I once saw a drake guiding a brood of downy young through a very brushy swamp, and was fortunate enough to have them pass directly under me as I was standing on a low, rustic bridge. The female was nowhere to be seen, which is so unusual under the circumstances that I believe she must have met with some accident.
The mallard occasionally lays its eggs in the nest of other ducks. I have found what were apparently mallard's eggs in nests with canvasbacks and redheads. Nearly all ducks when nesting in close proximity are more or less addicted to this habit though the mallard is less often guilty of it than several other species.
The nest of the mallard is generally well lined with large fluffy down, "bister" or "sepia" in color, with conspicuous white centers and faintly indicated whitish or light brown tips. Distinctly marked breast or flank feathers, with central brown streaks, or broadly banded with dusky and tipped with brown, are usually found in the nest, together with more or less rubbish. The nest and eggs somewhat resemble those of the pintail, but both the down and the eggs are larger and the feathers are distinctive.
Eggs.--Only one set of eggs is normally laid by the mallard which usually consists of from 8 to 12 eggs; sometimes 6 eggs constitute a full set and sometimes as many as 15 are laid. The eggs of the mallard might easily be mistaken for those of the pintail, but they average slightly larger, a little lighter in color and are not quite so much elongated. The female mallard when flushed may be readily distinguished from the pintail by its larger size, shorter neck, and by its blue speculum with conspicuous white borders. The eggs are elliptical ovate in shape and vary in color from light greenish buff to a light grayish buff, or nearly white, with very little luster. The measurements of 93 eggs in various collections average 57.8 by 41.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64 by 41.5, 63.5 by 45, 52.5 by 39.5 and 53 by 38.5 millimeters.
Young.--Incubation, which is performed wholly by the female, lasts from 23 to 29 days, usually 26; it does not begin until after the last egg is laid, so that they all hatch out about the same time. As soon as the young have dried their downy coats and are strong enough to walk, they are led by their mother to the nearest water which is often a long distance away. The watchful mother is ever on the alert and at the approach of danger gives her note of alarm which sends the little ones scattering in all directions to hide in the underbrush or thick grass, while she diverts the attention of the intruder. She is very courageous in the defense of her young; I once surprised a female with her brood in a little pond hole in the timber; although the young were well hidden in the surrounding grass and bushes, the old bird was flapping about, within a few feet of me, splashing and quacking loudly, frequently rising and circling about me, then dropping into the pond again and showing every symptom of anxiety, totally regardless of her own safety; the young were too well concealed for me to find them and I left the anxious mother in peace. The drakes usually take no interest in family cares, after the eggs are laid, but gather in small flocks by themselves, molt into eclipse plumage and hide among the rushes in the sloughs where they spend the summer in seclusion. The female, according to Audubon (1840), cares for and rears the brood alone.
She leads them along the shallow edges of grassy ponds, and teaches them to seize the small insects that abound there, the flies, the mosquitoes, the giddy beetles that skim along the surface in circles and serpentine lines. At the sight of danger they run as it were on the water, make directly for the shore, or dive and disappear. In about six weeks those that have escaped from the ravenous fishes and turtles have attained a goodly size; the quills appear on their wings; their bodies are incased with feathers; but as yet none are able to fly. They now procure their food by partial immersions of the head and neck in the manner of the old bird.
Dr. Harold C. Bryant (1914) has noted that--
when diving to escape capture they would often cling to the weeds beneath the surface, and when finally forced to come to the top for air would expose to view the top of the bill only. They tried to escape by simply diving and clinging motionless to weeds more often than they attempted to swim long distances under water.
As soon as the young birds have acquired their first plumage, in September, they gather into flocks, old and young together, and feed in the grain fields, where they become very fat.
Plumages.--The downy young mallard, when first hatched, is richly colored; and the upper parts, the crown and back, are "sepia" or "clove brown," darkest on the crown; the under parts, including the sides of the head and a broad superciliary stripe, are "napthalene yellow" more or less clouded, especially on the cheeks with "honey yellow" or intermediate shades; there is a loral and postocular stripe and an auricular spot of "clove brown"; four yellowish spots, two on the scapulars and two on the rump, relieve the color of the back. As the young birds increase in size the colors of the upper parts become duller and lighter and the yellows of the under parts fade out and are replaced by more buffy shades.
The juvenal plumage comes in first on the scapulars and flanks at an age of about 3 weeks, then a week later, on the rump and breast and finally on the head and neck, when the bird is nearly 2 months old; the tail begins to appear with the first plumage, but the last of the down has disappeared from the neck before the wings are even started; these are not completed until after the young bird is fully grown or about 10 weeks old. In this juvenal plumage the sexes are practically indistinguishable, though the male is slightly larger and has a larger bill. In this plumage the young birds resemble the adult female to a certain extent, but they are darker and more brownish, especially on the chest and back; the latter is "hazel" or even as bright as "burnt sienna" in young birds.
From this time on the sexes differentiate rapidly in their steady progress toward maturity; this is accomplished during the next two months by a continuous molt which is, perhaps accompanied by some sympathetic change of color in the growing feather. The result is that the young birds have assumed by December, or when about 6 months old, a plumage which is practically the same as that of the adults, though the highest development of the plumage is not acquired until the following year.
The annual molts and plumages of the adult consist of a double molt of all the contour feathers, into the eclipse plumage in the summer and out of it again in the fall; the flight feathers are molted but once, while the drake is in the eclipse plumage, in August. Thus instead of a nuptial plumage, worn in the spring and summer, and a winter plumage, worn in the fall and winter, we have a full plumage, worn in the winter and spring, and an eclipse, or a concealing, plumage, worn for only a month in the summer, but with much time consumed in the two transitional molts. The same thing takes place to a greater or a lesser extent, with nearly all of the ducks; the eclipse plumage is much more complete in the surface-feeding ducks than in the others, and it is more strikingly illustrated in the mallard than in any other species. It seems remarkable, indeed, that such a brilliant and conspicuous plumage, as that of the mallard drake, should disappear entirely and be completely replaced with an entirely different plumage, which only an expert can tell from that of the somber, mottled female; but such is the case; the wings and the larger scapulars, which are molted only once, are all that remain to distinguish the male. I have seen males molting into the eclipse plumage as early as May 10, but usually the molt does not begin until the latter part of that month. I have seen drakes in full eclipse plumage as early as July 20, but usually it is not complete until August. It is worn for about a month, the earliest birds beginning to molt out of it in August. Some birds regain their full plumage in October, but some not until November or even later. Mr. John G. Millais (1902), one of the greatest living authorities on ducks, has made a very thorough and exhaustive study of this subject and has written a particularly full and detailed account of the plumage changes of the mallard. Although we may not wholly agree with all of his interesting conclusions, regarding color changes without molt and control of the molt, we must accept them as probably correct until they are proven erroneous.
The tendency of several species of ducks to hybridize is well known and many interesting hybrids have been described. The mallard seems to be more inclined to hybridism than any other species, particularly with its near relative, the black duck. Numerous specimens of hybrids between these two species have been collected, showing various grades of mixed blood; they freely interbreed in captivity and their offspring are perfectly fertile. Specimens have been described showing first crosses of mallard blood with the muscovy duck, the green-winged teal, the baldpate, and the pintail. In connection with plumages it may be worth mentioning that many sportsmen throughout the West recognize two varieties of mallards, the yellow-legged variety, which is the earlier migrant in the spring and the later in the fall, and the red-legged variety, which is more of a warm-weather bird; the former is supposed to breed farther north and to frequent the prairies exclusively whereas the latter is more often found in the timbered swamps and streams. Probably the differences in the two varieties are due to age rather than geographical variation.
Food.--Mallards are essential fresh-water ducks and find their principal feeding grounds in the sloughs, ponds, lakes, streams, and swamps of the interior, where their food is picked up on or above the surface or obtained by partial immersion in shallow water. In Alaska and on the Pacific coast they feed largely on dead salmon and salmon eggs, which they obtain in the pools in the rivers. On or near their breeding grounds in the prairie regions they feed largely on wheat, barley, and corn which they glean from the stubble fields. On their migrations in the central valleys they frequent the timbered ponds, everglades, and wooded swamps, alighting among the trees to feed on beechnuts and acorns or to pick up an occasional slug, snail, frog, or lizard. In the South they resort to the rice fields and savannas in large numbers, feeding both by day and night if not disturbed; where they are hunted persistently they become more nocturnal in their feeding habits.
Mr. W. L. McAtee (1918) has published an exhaustive report, based on the examination of 1,578 gizzards of the mallard by the Biological Survey, from which I quote as follows:
Approximately nine-tenths of the entire contents of the 1,578 mallard stomachs examined was derived from the vegetable kingdom. The largest proportion of the food drawn from any single family of plants came from the sedges and amounted to 21.62 percent of the total. Grasses rank next in importance, supplying 13.39 percent; then follow smartweeds, 9.83; pondweeds, 8.23; duckweeds, 6.01; coontail, 5.97; wild celery, and its allies, 4.26; water elm and hackberries, 4.11; wapato and its allies, 3.54; and acorns, 2.34 percent. Numerous minor items make up the remainder. Some of the stomachs of the mallards were interesting on account of the large numbers of individual objects they contained. For instance, one collected at Huntingburg, La., in February, revealed about 28,760 seeds of a bullrush, 8,700 of another sedge, 35,840 of primrose willow, and about 2,560 duckweeds as the principal items, a total of more than 75,200. The animal food of the mallard duck though extremely varied may be classed in five main groups: insects, which constitute 2.67 percent of the total diet; crustaceans, 0.35, mollusks, 5.73; fishes, 0.47; and miscellaneous, 0.25 percent.
Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1919) has published the following interesting note, showing the useful work done by mallards in destroying mosquitoes.
The late Dr. Samuel G. Dixon, while health commissioner of Pennsylvania, published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association for October 3, 1914, detailing results of experiments made by him along this line. Two dams were constructed on a stream so that the ponds would present exactly the same conditions. One was stocked with gold fish and in the other 20 mallard ducks were allowed to feed. After several months the duck pond was entirely free from mosquitoes while the fish pond "was swarming with young insects in different cycles of life." Ten well-fed mallards were then admitted to the infested pond. At first they were attracted by the tadpoles but soon recognized the presence of larvae and pupae of the mosquito and immediately turned their attention to these, ravenously devouring them in preference to any other food present. At the end of 24 hours no pupae were to be found and in 48 hours only a few small larvae survived.
Mr. Edward H. Forbush (1909) says:
It sometimes attacks sprouting or ripened grain but like most fresh-water fowl it is undoubtedly of service in destroying such insects as the locusts and army worms which sometimes become serious pests. Professor Aughey found in the stomachs of ten mallards taken in Nebraska 244 locusts and 260 other insects, besides mollusks and other aquatic food.
Mr. J. H. Bowles (1908) records an interesting case of lead poisoning among mallards which had been feeding in a marsh that for many years had been a favorite shooting resort. The ground must have been thoroughly sprinkled with shot for the stomachs of the dead ducks were well filled with the pellets which had probably been picked up by mistake for gravel.
One stomach contained 19 shot, one 22, and the other 27, the large intestine was heavily leaded and seemed contracted, while the lining of the stomach could be easily scaled off in quite large crisp pieces. The gastric juices had evidently worked on the shot to some extent, as most of them were considerably worn and had taken various shapes.
Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1919) has published an interesting paper on this subject, based on investigations made near the mouth of the Bear River, Utah, in 1915 and 1916, in which he shows that lead poisoning is a real cause of mortality among this and other species of ducks, where these birds have been feeding on grounds which have been shot over for many years.***
Doctor Wetmore (1915 and 1918) has published two other papers, based on his extensive investigations in Utah, from which it appears that the great mortality among waterfowl around Great Salt Lake is due largely, if not wholly to alkaline poisoning. Countless thousands of ducks and other waterfowl have perished within recent years in this and other similar localities, apparently from disease. He explains the cause very well as follows:
After June 15, as the spring waters in Bear River recede, great expanses of mud flat are laid bare in the sun. Surface evaporation and capillary attraction rapidly draw the salts held in solution in the mud to the surface and there concentrate them. As the mud becomes drier these concentrates are visible as a white deposit or scale (efflorescence). This in many cases is exposed only an inch or so above the surrounding water level. In the large bays strong winds bank up the water and blow it across these drying flats. As it advances it takes rapidly into solution the soluble salts, largely sodium chloride, but containing calcium and magnesium chloride also. This inflow of water carries with it quantities of seeds and myriads of beetles, bugs, and spiders, washed out of crevices and holes in the dried and cracking soil. The ducks come in eagerly to feed on this easily secured food and work rapidly along at the front of the advancing water, each bird hurrying to get his fill. Many individuals in this way secure a sufficient quantity of these poisons to render them helpless. As the water recedes again small pools are left in shallow depressions, and other ducks and shore birds feeding in these are affected.
The only remedy suggested is to supply the birds with a sufficient quantity of fresh water, under which treatment they recover.
Behavior.--The wild mallard is an active, wary bird, well worthy of the prominent place it holds among the game birds of the world. It springs from the water, at a single bound, straight up into the air for several yards and, when clear of all surrounding reeds, bushes or trees, flies directly away in a swift, strong and well-sustained flight. Several loud quacks are usually uttered as the bird springs into the air. The mallard, especially the female, is a noisy bird on its feeding grounds, the loud quacking notes, suggesting familiar barnyard sounds, give timely warning to the ardent hunter, as he seeks his quarry among the reedy sloughs. The mallard is not a diving duck and ordinarily does not go below the surface of the water; when wounded, however, it is skillful in avoiding capture by swimming under water or hiding among the rushes, with only its bill protruding; it has even been known to hide under a lily pad, lifting the leaf above the surface to enable it to breathe. Dr. Wilfred H. Osgood (1904) relates the following interesting incident illustrating the hiding ability of the mallard.
One foggy morning as we were slipping down the current of one of the narrow side channels a brace of mallards flew across a small peninsula to our left and alighted in a little cove, whence they hauled out on the muddy bank. Thinking to secure a good fat duck for dinner, we quickly swung the canoe into an eddy and paddled upstream toward the little cove. One of the birds flew while out of range, and at about the same time the other somehow disappeared, although there was but a small patch of grass for concealment. Expecting the bird to rise at any moment, we paddled on but were beginning to feel baffled, when just before the canoe touched the bank, we found our game giving a very pretty exhibition of its confidence in protective coloration. It was a female mallard, and lay on the brown mud bank, strewn with dead grass and decaying matter, which blended perfectly with the markings of its back. It was not merely crouching, but lay prostrated to the last degree, its wings closely folded, its neck stretched straight out in front of it with throat and under mandible laid out straight, and even its short tail pressed flatly into the mud. The only sign of life came from its bright little eyes, which nervously looked at us in a half hopeful, half desperate manner. When a paddle was lifted, with which it could almost be reached, the bird started up and was allowed to escape with its well-earned life.
Game.--Local fall flights of mallards begin before the end of summer, late in August or early in September, soon after the young birds are able to fly, but these are mainly wandering, drifting flights from their breeding grounds or summer hiding places in the sloughs, to favorite feeding grounds in the vicinity, where wild rice is ripening or where grain stubble offers a tempting food supply. The real fall migration does not begin in earnest until late in September, when the first early frosts, the brilliant hues of ripening leaves and the falling crop of acorns and beechnuts remind them of advancing autumn. But the waning of the harvest moon and the crisp, clear nights of early October also remind the hunters of the glorious sport of duck shooting; in the stillness of the night they push their flat skiffs out through the watery lanes among the acres of reeds and buckbrush to the shallow ponds, overgrown with smartweed and wild rice, where the ducks are wont to feed, their wooden decoys are anchored in some conspicuous open space and their skiffs are carefully concealed in blinds of thick reeds and grasses, where they patiently await the coming daylight, listen for the quacking notes of the awakening ducks and watch for the passing flocks on the way to their feeding grounds. If they have not been shot at too much mallards come readily to the decoys, but they become wary with experience; artificial duck calls are used to imitate their notes, which are quite effective when skillfully operated; line decoys, as they are called, are fastened to long lines run through fixed pulley blocks, so that they can be made to swim towards the blind or out again, by pulling on the lines, to attract the attention of passing flocks. Large numbers of mallards are still killed in this way all through their main routes of migration, but they have decreased greatly in numbers owing to persistent shooting in both spring and fall and owing to the settlement and cultivation of their main breeding grounds in the northern prairie regions. The mallard is a splendid game bird and has always held the leading place among our wild fowl on account of its abundance, its wide distribution, and its excellent qualities as a table bird; in my estimation there is no duck quite equal to a fat, grain-fed mallard, not even the far-famed canvasback; unquestionably the mallard has always been our most important market duck and certainly more mallards have come into our markets than any other one species.
Winter.--The mallard is a hardy bird and its winter range is a wide one, reaching as far north as it can find open water. Hagerup (1891) found it "common the whole year round but most numerous in winter, when they keep in small flocks along the shore," in southern Greenland. In Alaska the mallard winters at several places at the outlets of lakes, in open streams near the seacoast and about the Aleutian Islands. Although essentially a fresh-water duck throughout its general range, the mallard is forced by circumstances in Greenland, Alaska, the northern Pacific Coast, New England, and other northern portions of its scattering winter range to resort to the mouths of rivers and bays where it can find open water. The main winter range, however, is in the lower half of the Mississippi Valley, south of the line of frozen ponds, and in the Gulf states from Texas to Florida. Here it lives and flourishes, mainly in fresh-water ponds, swamps, streams, everglades, and rice fields, fattening on the abundance of good food but still harassed by gunners and killed by market hunters and sportsmen in enormous numbers. "Big Lake, Arkansas, was and still is one of the favorite resorts, and during the winter of 1893-94 a single gunner sold 8,000 mallards, while the total number sent to market from this one place amounted to 120,000," writes Doctor Cooke (1906).
Mr. E. H. Forbush (1909) says:
In 1900 I visited a gunning preserve in Florida where northern sportsmen were shooting ducks by the hundred and giving them away to their friends and to settlers. One of these gentlemen armed with repeating guns and supplied with a man to load and others to drive the birds to his decoys is said to have killed on a wager over 100 ducks in less than two hours. Even within the last two years reports of reliable observers on the Gulf coast aver that market hunters there have been killing 100 birds each per day.
The Houston (Texas) Post of January 29, 1908, asserted that during the previous week five citizens while hunting came upon a small lake into which the fowls were flocking in great numbers. Using their repeating guns and acting by a prearranged signal they flushed the game, emptied their guns, and gathered 107 killed not counting the wounded and missing. The birds were mainly mallards.
The foregoing quotation will serve to indicate the enormous slaughter which has been going on among our game birds, of which the mallard is merely a fair sample. This was due mainly to the increasing numbers of gunners and the improved effectiveness of firearms.
Owing to the prohibition of market hunting, the curtailing of
the shooting season, and the establishment of breeding
reservations and fall and winter sanctuaries, this rapid
extermination has been checked and the birds are now holding their
own and are even increasing in some places. The big reservations
on the coast of Louisiana show the beneficial effect of
protection. Here the mallards and other ducks gather in great
numbers in the winter, feeding in the ponds or patches of open
water in the marsh, or rising, when disturbed, in immense flocks
with a mighty roar of thousands of wings.
Mallard* Anas platyrhynchos
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1923. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 34 - 47. United States Government Printing Office