Spot the mallard in Iceland: Most abundant duck in the world

There are known over a hundred species of ducks in the world, but the word duck and the childish words „bra-bra“ are by most Icelanders related and refer to the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). The mallard is tame, easily recognized, and found around ponds where children feed the ducks. The mallard belongs to the Anseriformes within the Anatidae family and is one of the dabbling ducks (Anatinae). They are widely distributed around the world, found in Europe, Asia, America, and in some regions of Australia.

The male is very dandy

There is an extreme difference in the plumage of males and females among ducks. The female mallard called a hen, is grayish with some brown color in her plumage, rather dull-looking but has beautiful blue wing mirrors called a speculum and orange feet. The male, or drake, is, however, very colorful. Characteristic is the bright green head on a white neck ring. The chest is dark brown, but the belly, sides, and the backlight grayish. The drake has like the hen a distinguished blue speculum, but the tail is black with a white rump. The bill is yellow, but the webbed feet are orange. The drake is slightly larger than the hen. Like other waterfowl, the mallards are molting late summer, and during that period, the sexes look similar, dull and grayish. The weight fluctuates between seasons, 24.7-52.9 oz, the length is 19.7-22.1 in, and the wingspan is 31.5-39.4 in.

Population size and behaviour

Most mallards in Iceland are stationary. However, a part of the population migrates late in fall to Great Britain along with geese and swans. The breeding population is estimated 10000-15000 pairs dispersed all around the country but mostly observed in lowlands.

Courtship of mallards starts in early winter and lasts until spring. During this period, the birds are social and often seen in groups of different sizes. Mallards pair only for a year at a time but are mostly monogamous during that period. Affairs during the breeding season are fairly common as in other duck species. The drake tries to protect his hen while other drakes attempt to mate with her; this scenario can get pretty intense.

Mallards show great adaptability

The egglaying may start at the end of April, but the main nesting period is in May and the beginning of June. The birds show high adaptability when choosing nesting sites as nests are found in wetlands, close to the sea and even within human habitats. The nest is well hidden in vegetation and insulated with down and feathers. The clutch is large, 7-12 eggs, and the incubation period is 26-28 days. The eggs are creamy or olive-green colored. As the incubation progresses, the drake leaves the hen to join other drakes while molting. The hen incubates and cares for the ducklings.

The ducklings follow the hen to the feeding grounds, and they stay together until fall. Mallards can dive, but like other dabbling ducks, they only stick the upper part of the body into the water when feeding. The menu is diverse as they feed on molluscs, crustaceans, and invertebrates at sea but mostly insects and larvae in freshwater along with water plants. In the fall, mallards are often seen feeding in cornfields and even accepting bread from humans.

Most popular duck in the world?

The mallard is the most distributed duck in the world, and variants are found everywhere. Mallards have high fecundity, become early sexually mature, and taste good. These traits early caught human attention, and the mallard has been brought to new habitats around the world and bred for human consumption. Mallard is considered the ancestor of most domesticated ducks in the world. Along with the ring-necked pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) it is the most popular game bird to hunt.

Did you know?

  1. Most domesticated ducks are descendants of the mallard.
  2. Mallard becomes sexually mature one year old and lays a large clutch, so the recruitment in the population is very high. This is a popular game bird in Iceland, and yearly, 10000-15000 birds are hunted.
  3. The mallard is also called greenhead because of the color of the drakes head
  4. The oldest wild mallard was 27 years old, but the average lifespan in nature is 5-10 years.
  5. The color of the bill and feet of the mallard gives the prospective spouse a chance to evaluate the physical condition of the bird. The brighter the color, the better is the body condition of the bird.

Links for greenheads

Learn about Mallards on All About Birds

Cool facts from National Geographics 

Great info from the National Audubon Society 

More to read from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

See the Mallard on YouTube

Learn more about Icelandic birds in our article section

Icelandic Version – Íslenska

Author: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson
Photographer: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson

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