The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
August 30, 2011
Mallards: Birds of a feather that change with the weather
Distinguishing drakes from hens is easy in the spring: Drakes have iridescent green heads, hens are brown. But by late summer their distinctive plumage is blurred by molting and an abundance of juvenile ducks that look a lot like Momma.
Early in the summer, the drake abandoned the hen and her nest and began his first molt to enter eclipse, where he became flightless, reclusive and covered in brown feathers. He has now rejoined the sord and is molting again, reclaiming his green head, ringed neck, burgundy chest, gray sides and curly black tail.
The hen molts only once, late in the summer, shedding her brown-streaked camouflaging feathers for more of the same.
Juvenile ducks can be recognized by their brown outer tail feathers. Adults' are white. First-year birds will also molt before autumn, retaining flight feathers while replacing body feathers. Young males will transform into a pale version of their fathers. Female juveniles will look pretty much the same as before.
Beak color is the most reliable way to sex a mallard. Males have greenish-yellow bills, while females sport orange bills with black splotches.