The Mallard is a very familiar and very abundant duck, that is found throughout Europe. It can be found in any watery location, from secluded streams to the local boating lake. Mallards are often very tame and will show no fear whatsoever in approaching people.
A hefty large-headed and long-billed dabbling duck, the Mallard is prone to interbreed with ‘farmyard’ ducks, and so produces all manner of peculiar-looking offspring. Pure Mallards are, however, easily identified, particularly the male, and even the brown female should not really present a problem: size alone rules out other dabblers. The female is responsible for the familiar ‘quack quack’ call, whereas the male gives a low nasal whistle.
The most likely species to be confused with the female Mallard is the female Gadwall. Gadwalls are smaller, slimmer and leaner looking than the portly Mallard and show a distinctive white speculum, whatever the view. The bill of the Gadwall is also a prime identification feature – dark grey on top with yellowy-orange sides.
The female Mallard is a decidedly nondescript affair but can be quite variable. The head is usually brown, with a darker crown and a dark line through the eye. The upperparts and underparts show a variegated brown and black pattern. The bill is dark brown, with orangey edges.
The male Mallard is unmistakable with a bottle-green head separated from the rusty-brown breast by a distinctive white neck ring. The bill is a bright banana-yellow colour. The eye is black and the feet are orange in both sexes.
When seen flying, the male Mallard (right) shows a bulbous green head on the end of the long rusty neck. The upperparts are greyish, except for the black rump ‘wedge’ and white tail. The upperwing is grey, except for a purple speculum along the rear wing. Two white wing bars are apparent. From above, a female (left) will look brown and black except for the dark tail, white wing bars and dark speculum.
A familiar view of Mallards is to see them upending in search of food – the male is recognisable by his orange legs and, particularly, his black and white rear end. The female exhibits a white edge to the tail and blackish spots on the undertail.
In summer months a Mallard can change appearance quite markedly. A male in eclipse plumage shows a pale brown head, with black crown and eyestripe. The upperparts change to blackish-grey, except for the paler flight feathers, and the rusty-brown breast becomes scalloped black. The bill becomes dull greyish-yellow. A female in June to September will hardly change: the crown gets darker and the upperparts are more uniform in tone.