It walks and quacks like a mallard, but does it look like one?

This is a mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). It is your basic duck, familiar from park wetlands. A mallard quack is also the classic duck sound.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard

A wintering mallard flock is quite colourful: males have green heads with yellow beaks and both sexes have blue wing spots.

Age and season affect plumages

But mallards do not always look like those in the picture above. Males do not always have green heads, nor are females always brownish grey. Depending on the season, and the age and genes of an individual, mallards can look a little different. Downy ducklings resemble the ducklings of all other dabbling duck species. However, they rapidly develop species-specific characters, and young drakes for example develop a hint of green on their head even before all the down has disappeared. In the summertime males briefly change into summer (eclipse) plumage that looks like female plumage. Except that a male beak is still yellow.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard male_sinisorsa

A young male mallard still has down on his back, while some green is already glittering on his head. Both female and male mallards are brown during summer and autumn. The yellow beak reveals that this individual is a male. © Sari Holopainen

Beak reveals sex

In addition to normal changes in plumages caused by seasons or growth, weird looking mallards can also be found. Their plumages might be different due to changes in their genes or hormones.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard female_sinisorsa

Light female mallard.

Various phenotypes are rather typical among animal species. These variations are common in mallards, and peculiar individuals can be found especially in cities. For example, females might be light due to mutations. Mutations can work in several ways causing changes in pigment production or in its appearance traits. Lightly coloured mallards produce pigments, but their colour appearance has changed. If an individual does not produce melanin pigments at all, it becomes a completely white albino.

Colour variations are thought to be typical in mallards in city environments, where predator pressure is lower and thus exceptional individuals survive better. On the other hand, mallard farming has potentially produced weird-looking individuals that have escaped and spread their genes to natural populations.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard_intersexual

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard_intersexual_male_female

These peculiar mallard males in wintering flocks are actually females. The pictures show intersexual females together with two normal males and a female. Moulting males changing their eclipse plumage into nuptial plumage can look similar, but their beak colour once again reveals the actual sex. These pictures were also taken in the middle of winter, when males have already changed to their nuptial plumage.

The beak has an important role in identifying mallard sexes because males have yellow beaks and females have orange-spotted beaks around the year. The beak can also reveal intersexual females. They are individuals that express both female and male outfit. This can be caused by disturbances in female hormone production, or then an individual has both female and male features. Hormones regulate the outfit, and if large quantities of testosterone are produced, male plumage may result. Beak colouration is not as sensitive to hormonal changes and even though a female displays male characteristics, it will still have a female beak.

Hybrid ducks

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard_teal_sinisorsa_tavi

This common teal x mallard hybrid male was coupled with a normal mallard female and defended it against clearly larger mallard males.

Mallard flocks may also have hybrid individuals. Duck species are close relatives, and can thus mix rather easily. Various species mixes are known, for example mallards can mix with common teals, Eurasian wigeons, northern pintails and black ducks. However, hybrids are quite rare, because each duck species have specific behaviours and characteristics that prevent hybridization. But sometimes these barriers collapse, and hybrid individuals are born. Hybrid individuals express characteristics from both original species. Their habits and characteristics typically do not interest individuals from the original species and therefore might not breed successfully.

Hybridization can cause several problems, which in the worst-case scenario can lead to the extinction of the original species. The hybridizations of mallard and black ducks in North America is becoming more common after shifts in their distribution. Hybridization is now threating black duck populations. Alien mallards can also cause a serious risk for endemic duck species and to their gene pool. For example, the Hawaiian duck (Anas wyvilliana) is unfortunately going extinct because of non-native mallards. Survival of the species now depends on protection actions that target the extirpation of all mallards and hybrids from the islands

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mallard_intersexual_male_female_sinisorsa

Four naturally different mallards wintering in southern Finland. The normal type male was coupled with a normal female. An intersexual and a light female are in the upper part of the picture.

It looks like a duck

This white domestic duck is a descendant of a mallard. © Sari Holopainen

This white domestic duck is a descendant of a mallard. © Sari Holopainen

Mallards are commonly farmed, and several different colour variations exist among the domestic breeds. A white duck known by everyone is also a mallard variant. Farmed mallards have sometimes escaped, and now breed with natural mallards. Extraordinary ducks, resembling mallards more or less, are a fairly common sight in Southern and Central European parks. Alien genes in the natural mallard population become more rare in the northern parts of Europe.

Extraordinary ducks in European parks are probably related to mallards: Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. © Sari Holopainen

Extraordinary ducks in European parks are probably related to mallards: Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. © Sari Holopainen

Read more:

Pär Söderquist: Large-Scale Releases of Native Species: the Mallard as a Predictive Model System

Pictures by Harry J. Lehto, intersexual mallards

Pictures by Pekka Sarvela, colour variations

Ducks Unlimited: Waterfowl Hybrids


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