Species Up­date

Milder win­ters across the world mean fewer Mal­lards mi­grat­ing to the UK dur­ing the colder months, says Kate

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - KATE RISELY’S Kate Risely is the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy’s Gar­den Bird­watch Or­gan­iser

Kate Risely on the Mallard – a fa­mil­iar bird that can pose an iden­tifi­cation chal­lenge

Their adapt­abil­ity means it’s sur­pris­ingly hard to get a han­dle on how many breed­ing Mal­lards might be dis­persed across dif­fer­ent habi­tats

DE­SPITE BE­ING ONE of our most fa­mil­iar birds, com­mon or gar­den Mal­lards can oc­ca­sion­ally pose an iden­tifi­cation chal­lenge. For gen­er­a­tions, this species has been bred into an ar­ray of do­mes­ti­cated strains, which, as well as be­ing dif­fer­ent colours, can be much larger or smaller than true wild Mal­lards. Es­capees will freely min­gle and in­ter­breed with their nat­u­ral cousins, and this mixed stock can lead to wild ducks dis­play­ing odd char­ac­ter­is­tics, oc­ca­sion­ally catch­ing out be­gin­ner bird­watch­ers. In their wild form, drake Mal­lards are un­mis­tak­able, and, be­ing both adapt­able and ha­bit­u­ated to hu­mans, they are found in nearly all ar­eas and habi­tats across Bri­tain and Ire­land, ab­sent only from re­mote moun­tain­ous re­gions. They are com­fort­able in sub­ur­ban and even ur­ban ar­eas and may live their whole lives in towns and cities, breed­ing in gar­dens and in­hab­it­ing ponds and other wa­ter bod­ies. They nest on the ground, some­times even in gar­den flowerbeds; a nest of up to 14 large duck eggs may sound con­spic­u­ous, but they rely on cam­ou­flage and con­ceal­ment as their de­fence from preda­tors, and nest­ing fe­males may go un­no­ticed. After the eggs have been in­cu­bated for about a month, the duck­lings will hatch, and they can im­me­di­ately for­age for them­selves. Their mother will lead them to the near­est wa­ter to find food, and for some pro­tec­tion from land preda­tors, though in ur­ban ar­eas they may have to ne­go­ti­ate traf­fic and other per­ils on their way to the rel­a­tive safety of the wa­ter. As well as be­ing do­mes­ti­cated for meat and eggs, Mal­lards also have a long his­tory as a quarry species, and were orig­i­nally caught us­ing duck de­coys. These were a ma­jor in­dus­try in the 17th and 18th Cen­turies, mainly in east­ern ar­eas of Eng­land, and worked by lur­ing birds to land on an invit­ing pond, of­ten through the pres­ence of tame birds, and then fun­nelling them into cages. Rather than at­tempt­ing to herd the ducks into the cages from be­hind, the trap­pers ex­ploited an odd as­pect of duck psy­chol­ogy that com­pels them to band to­gether and walk to­wards a preda­tor, per­haps in or­der to keep vis­ual con­tact and pre­vent them­selves be­ing am­bushed. The trap­pers would use spe­cially trained dogs to run along­side the fences and lure the birds into the fun­nels. This hunt­ing method died out with the rise of shoot­ing, but is still used to­day in some ar­eas to catch wild­fowl for ring­ing. It’s al­ways tricky to es­ti­mate ac­tual num­bers of very com­mon bird species, and their adapt­abil­ity means it’s sur­pris­ingly hard to get a han­dle on how many breed­ing Mal­lards might be dis­persed across dif­fer­ent habi­tats. Their na­tional pop­u­la­tion is very broadly es­ti­mated at be­tween 60,000 and 150,000 breed­ing pairs, and the win­ter­ing num­bers at around 700,000 in­di­vid­u­als, but these fig­ures are thought to be pretty un­re­li­able. The breed­ing pop­u­la­tion is reg­u­larly sup­ple­mented by cap­tive-bred birds for shoot­ing pur­poses, and has in­creased steadily from the 1960s to the 2000s, though num­bers have re­mained sta­ble for the last 20 years. On the other hand, win­ter­ing num­bers, mon­i­tored for decades by the Wet­land Bird Sur­vey, have been de­clin­ing since the 1980s. It is now an Am­ber Listed species of con­ser­va­tion con­cern. Mal­lards ar­rive here for the win­ter from northerly ar­eas in­clud­ing con­ti­nen­tal Europe, Scan­di­navia and Rus­sia. It’s thought that the de­cline in win­ter­ing num­bers seen in this coun­try could be due to the gen­er­ally milder win­ters in re­cent years, mean­ing that fewer birds are driven to mi­grate.

CON­FUS­ING Mallard species are dif­fi­cult to iden­tify and it’s not known ex­actly how many we have in the UK

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