Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
ANAS BOSCHAS, Linn.
PLATE CCCLXXXV.--MALES AND FEMALES.
Although it is commonly believed that the Mallard is found abundantly
everywhere in the United States, I have received sufficient proof to the
contrary. If authors had acknowledged that they state so on report, or had said
that in the tame state the bird is common, I should not have blamed them.
According to my observation, and I may be allowed to say that I have had good
opportunities, this valuable species is extremely rare in the wild state in the
neighbourhood of Boston in Massachusetts; and in this assertion, I am supported
by my talented and amiable friend Mr. NUTTALL, who resided there for many years.
Farther eastward, this bird is so rare that it is scarcely known, and not one
was seen by myself or my party beyond Portland in Maine. On the western coast
of Labrador none of the inhabitants that we conversed with had ever seen the
Mallard, and in New-foundland the people were equally unacquainted with it, the
species being in those countries replaced by the Black Duck, Anas fusca. From
New York southward, the Mallards become more plentiful, and numbers of them are
seen in the markets of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond in Virginia, and other
towns. Although they are very abundant in the Carolinas and Floridas, as well
as in Lower Louisiana, they are much more so in the Western Country. The reason
of this is merely that the Mallard, unlike the sea Ducks, is rarely seen on salt
water, and that its course from the countries where it chiefly breeds is across
the interior of the continent. From our great lakes, they spread along the
streams, betake themselves to the ponds, wet meadows, submerged savannahs, and
inland swamps, and are even found in the thick beech woods, in early autumn, and
indeed long before the males have acquired the dark green colour of the head.
Many of them proceed beyond the limits of the United States.
It would be curious to know when this species was first domesticated; but,
reader, the solution of such a question is a task on which I shall not venture.
In the domestic state every body knows the Mallard. When young it affords
excellent food, and when old lays eggs. A bed made of its feathers is far
preferable to the damp earth of the camp of an American woodsman, or the plank
on which the trained soldier lays his wearied limbs at night. You may find many
other particulars if you consult in chronological order all the compilers from
ALDROVANDUS to the present day.
Be not startled, good reader, when I tell you that many of these Ducks are
bred in the lakes near the Mississippi, nay even in some of the small ponds in
the low lands or bottoms of the States of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois; for in
many parts of those districts I have surprised the females on their eggs, have
caught the young when their mother was cautiously and with anxiety leading them
for greater safety to some stream, and have shot many a fat one before the poor
thing could fly, and when it was so plump, tender, and juicy, that I doubt much
whether you, like myself, would not much prefer them to the famed Canvass-backed
Look at that Mallard as he floats on the lake; see his elevated head
glittering with emerald-green, his amber eyes glancing in the light! Even at
this distance, he has marked you, and suspects that you bear no good will
towards him, for he sees that you have a gun, and he has many a time been
frightened by its report, or that of some other. The wary bird draws his feet
under his body, springs upon them, opens his wings, and with loud quacks bids
Now another is before you, on the margin of that purling streamlet. How
brisk are all his motions compared with those of his brethren that waddle across
your poultry-yard! how much more graceful in form and neat in apparel! The
Duck at home is the descendant of a race of slaves, and has lost his native
spirit: his wings have been so little used that they can hardly raise him from
the ground. But the free-born, the untamed Duck of the swamps,--see how he
springs on wing, and hies away over the woods.
The Mallards generally arrive in Kentucky and other parts of the Western
Country, from the middle of September to the first of October, or as soon as the
acorns and beech-nuts are fully ripe. In a few days they are to be found in all
the ponds that are covered with seed-bearing grasses. Some flocks, which appear
to be guided by an experienced leader, come directly down on the water with a
rustling sound of their wings that can be compared only to the noise produced
by an Eagle in the act of stooping upon its prey, while other flocks, as if they
felt uneasy respecting the safety of the place, sweep around and above it
several times in perfect silence, before they alight. In either case, the birds
immediately bathe themselves, beat their bodies with their wings, dive by short
plunges, and cut so many capers that you might imagine them to be stark mad.
The fact, however, seems to be, that all this alacrity and gaiety only shews the
necessity they feel of clearing themselves of the insects about their plumage,
as well as the pleasure they experience on finding themselves in a milder
climate, with abundance of food around them, after a hard journey of perhaps a
day and a night. They wash themselves and arrange their dress, before
commencing their meal; and in this other travellers would do well to imitate
Now, towards the grassy margins they advance in straggling parties. See
how they leap from the water to bend the loaded tops of the tall reeds. Woe be
to the slug or snail that comes in their way. Some are probing the mud
beneath, and waging war against the leech, frog, or lizard that is within reach
of their bills; while many of the older birds run into the woods, to fill their
crops with beech-nuts and acorns, not disdaining to swallow also, should they
come in their way, some of the wood-mice that, frightened by the approach of the
foragers, hie towards their burrows. The cackling they keep up would almost
deafen you, were you near them; but it is suddenly stopped by the approach of
some unusual enemy, and at once all are silent. With heads erected on
out-stretched necks, they anxiously look around. It is nothing, however, but a
bear, who being, like themselves, fond of mast, is ploughing up the newly fallen
leaves with his muzzle, or removing an old rotting log in search of worms. The
Ducks resume their employment. But another sound is now heard, one more
alarming. The bear raises himself on his hind legs, snuffs the air, and with a
loud snort gallops off towards the depths of his cane-brake. The Ducks retreat
to the water, betake themselves to the centre of the pool, and uttering
half-stifled notes await the sight of the object they dread. There the enemy
cunningly advances, first covered by one tree, then by another. He has lost his
chance of the bear, but as he is pushed by hunger, a Mallard will do for the
bullet of his rusty rifle. It is an Indian, as you perceive by his red skin and
flowing black hair, which, however, has been cut close from the sides of his
head. In the centre of his dearly purchased blanket, a hole has been cut,
through which he has thrust his bare head, and the ragged garment, like a
horse's netting, is engaged as it were in flapping off the last hungry
musquitoes of the season that are fast sucking the blood from his limbs. Watch
him, Mallard. Nay, wait no longer, for I see him taking aim; better for you all
to fly! No--well, one of you will certainly furnish him with a repast. Amid
the dark wood rises the curling smoke, the report comes on my ear, the Ducks all
rise save a pair, that, with back downwards and feet kicking against the air,
have been hit by the prowler. The free son of the forest slowly approaches the
pool, judges at a glance of the depth of the mire, and boldly advances, until
with a cane he draws the game towards him. Returning to the wood, he now
kindles a little fire, the feathers fill the air around; from each wing he takes
a quill, to clean the touch-hole of his gun in damp weather; the entrails he
saves to bait some trap. In a short time the Ducks are ready, and the hunter
enjoys his meal, although brief time does he take in swallowing the savoury
morsels. Soon, the glimmering light of the moon will see him again on his feet,
and lead him through the woods, as he goes in pursuit of other game.
The Mallards that remain with us during the whole year, and breed on the
banks of the Mississippi or Lake Michigan, or in the beautiful meadows that here
and there border the Schuylkill in Pennsylvania, begin to pair in the very heart
of winter; and although Ducks are quite destitute of song, their courtships are
not devoid of interest. The males, like other gay deceivers, offer their
regards to the first fair one that attracts their notice, promise unremitting
fidelity and affection, and repeat their offers to the next they meet. See that
drake, how he proudly shews, first the beauty of his silky head, then the
brilliancy of his wing-spots, and, with honeyed jabberings, discloses the warmth
of his affection. He plays around this one, then around another, until the
passion of jealousy is aroused in the breasts of the admired and flattered.
Bickerings arise; the younger Duck disdains her elder sister, and a third, who
conceives herself a coquette of the first order, interposes, as if to ensure the
caresses of the feathered beau. Many tricks are played by Ducks, good reader,
but ere long the females retire in search of a safe place in which they may
deposit their eggs and rear their young. They draw a quantity of weeds around
them, and form an ill-arranged sort of nest, in which from seven to ten eggs are
laid. From their bodies they pluck the softest down, and placing it beneath the
eggs, begin the long process of incubation, which they intermit only for short
periods, when it becomes absolutely necessary to procure a little sustenance.
At length, in about three weeks, the young begin to cheep in the shell,
from which, after a violent struggle, they make their escape. What beautiful
creatures! See how, with their little bills, they dry their downy apparel!
Now, in a long Line, one after another, they follow their glad mother to the
water, on arriving at which they take to swimming and diving, as if elated with
joy for having been introduced into existence. The male, wearied and emaciated,
is far away on some other pond. The unnatural barbarian cares nothing about his
progeny, nor has a thought arisen in his mind respecting the lonely condition of
his mate, the greatness of her cares, or the sadness that she may experience
under the idea that she has been utterly forsaken by him who once called her his
only and truly beloved No, reader, not a thought of this kind has he wasted on
her whom he has left alone in charge of a set of eggs, and now of a whole flock
of innocent ducklings, to secure which from danger, and see them all grow up
apace, she manifests the greatest care and anxiety. She leads them along the
shallow edges of grassy ponds, and teaches them to seize the small insects that
abound there, the flies, the musquitoes, the giddy beetles that skim along the
surface in circles and serpentine lines. At the sight of danger they run as it
were on the water, make directly for the shore, or dive and disappear. In about
six weeks, those that have escaped from the ravenous fishes and turtles have
attained a goodly size; the quills appear on their wings; their bodies are
encased with feathers; but as yet none are able to fly. They now procure their
food by partial immersions of the head and neck in the manner of the old bird.
At this period they are already fit for the table, and delicate as well as
savoury food they afford. By the time that the leaves are chadging their hues,
the young Mallards take freely to their wings, and the old males join the
The Squatters of the Mississippi raise a considerable number of Mallards,
which they catch when quite young, and which, after the first year, are as tame
as they can wish. These birds raise broods which are superior even to those of
the wild ones, for a year or two, after which they become similar to the
ordinary Ducks of the poultry-yard. The hybrids produced between the Mallard
and the Muscovy Duck are of great size, and afford excellent eating. Some of
these half-breeds DOW and then wander off, become quite wild, and have, by some
persons, been considered as forming a distinct species. They also breed, when
tame, with the Black Duck (Anas fusca) and the Gadwal, the latter connection
giving rise to a very handsome hybrid, retaining the yellow feet and barred
plumage of the one, and the green head of the other parent.
I have found the Mallard breeding on large prostrate and rotten logs, three
feet above the ground, and in the centre of a cane-brake, nearly a mile distant
from any water. Once I found a female leading her young through the woods, and
no doubt conducting them towards the Ohio. When I first saw her, she had
already observed me, and had squatted flat among the grass, with her brood
around her. As I moved onwards, she ruffled her feathers, and hissed at me in
the manner of a Goose, while the little ones scampered off in all directions. I
had an excellent dog, well instructed to catch young birds without injuring
them, and I ordered him to seek for them. On this the mother took to wing, and
flew through the woods as if about to fall down at every yard or so. She passed
and repassed over the dog, as if watching the success of his search; and as one
after another the ducklings were brought to me, and struggled in my bird-bath,
the distressed parent came to the ground near me, rolled and tumbled about, and
so affected me by her despair, that I ordered my dog to lie down, while, with a
pleasure that can be felt only by those who are parents themselves, I restored
to her the innocent brood, and walked off. As I turned round to observe her, I
really thought I could perceive gratitude expressed in her eye; and a happier
moment I never felt while rambling in search of knowledge through the woods.
In unfrequented parts, the Mallards feed both by day and by night; but in
places where they are much disturbed by gunners, they feed mostly by night, or
towards evening and about sunrise. In extremely cold weather, they betake
themselves to the sources of streams, and even to small springs, where they may
be found along with the American Snipe. At times, after heavy falls of rain,
they are seen searching for ground-worms over the corn-fields, and during the
latter part of autumn, the rice plantations of Georgia and the Carolinas afford
them excellent pasture grounds. I have thought indeed that at this season these
birds perform a second migration as it were, for they then pour into the
rice-fields by thousands from the interior. In the Floridas, they are at times
seen in such multitudes as to darken the air, and the noise they make in rising
from off a large submerged Savannah, is like the rumbling of thunder. So
numerous were the Mallards while I was at General HERNANDEZ'S in East Florida,
that a single Negro whom that gentlemen kept as a hunter, would shoot from fifty
to a hundred and twenty in a day, thus supplying the plantation with excellent
The flight of the Mallard is swift, strong, and well sustained. It rises
either from the ground or from the water at a single spring, and flies almost
perpendicularly for ten or fifteen yards, or, if in a thick wood, until quite
above the tops of the tallest trees, after which it moves horizontally. If
alarmed, it never rises without uttering several attacks; but on other occasions
it usually leaves its place in silence. While travelling to any distance, the
whistling sound of their wings may be heard a great way off, more especially in
the quiet of night. Their progress through the air I have thought might be
estimated at a mile and a half in the minute; and I feel very confident that
when at full speed and on a long journey, they can fly at the rate of a hundred
and twenty miles in the hour.
The Mallard is truly omnivorous, its food consisting of every thing that
can possibly satisfy the cravings of its extraordinary appetite. Nor is it at
all cleanly in this respect, for it will swallow any kind of offals, and feed on
all sorts of garbage, even putrid fish, as well as on snakes and small
quadrupeds. Nuts and fruits of all kinds are dainties to it, and it soon
fattens on rice, corn, or any other grain. My friend JOHN BACHMAN, who usually
raises a great number of Mallards every year, has the young fed on chopped fish,
on which they thrive uncommonly well. So very greedy are these birds, that I
have often observed a couple of them tugging for a long time against each other
for the skin of an eel, which was already half swallowed by the one, while the
other was engaged at the opposite end. They are expert fly-catchers, and are in
the habit of patting with their feet the damp earth, to force ground-worms out
of their burrows.
Besides man, the enemies of the Mallard are the White-headed Eagle, the
Snowy Owl, the Virginian Owl, the racoon, the lynx, and the snapping-turtle.
Mallards are easily caught by snares, steel-traps baited with corn, and
figure-of-four traps. As we have no decays in the United States, I shall not
trouble you with a new edition of the many accounts you will find in
ornithological books of that destructive method of procuring Wild Ducks.
The eggs of this species measure two inches and a quarter in length, one
inch and five-eighths in breadth. The shell is smooth, and of a plain light
dingy green. They are smaller than those of the tame Duck, and rarely so
numerous. As soon as incubation commences, the males associate together in
flocks, until the voting are able to migrate. This species raises only one
brood in the season, and I never found its nest with eggs in autumn. The female
covers her eggs before she leaves them to go in search of food, and thus keeps
them sufficiently warm until her return.
MALLARD, Anas Boschas, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. viii. p. 112.
ANAS BOSCHAS, Bonap. Syn., p. 383.
ANAS (BOSCHAS) DOMESTICA, Mallard, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 442.
MALLARD DUCK, Anas domestica, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 378.
MALLARD, Anas Boschas, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 164.
Male, 24, 36. Female, 22.
Breeds from Texas sparingly throughout the United States. Columbia river,
and Fur Countries. Abundant during winter in all the Southern Districts. Not
found in Maine, or farther eastward.
Bill about the length of the head, higher than broad at the base, depressed
and widened towards the end, rounded at the tip. Upper mandible with the dorsal
line sloping and a little concave, the ridge at the base broad and flat, towards
the end broadly convex, as are the sides, the edges soft and rather obtuse, the
marginal lamellas transverse, fifty on each side; the unguis oval, curved,
abrupt at the end. Nasal groove elliptical, sub-basal, filled by the soft
membrane of the bill; nostrils sub-basal, placed near the ridge, longitudinal,
elliptical, pervious. Lower mandible slightly curved upwards, with the angle
very long, narrow, and rather pointed, the lamellae, about sixty.
Head of moderate size, oblong, compressed; neck rather long and slender;
body full, depressed. Feet short, stout, placed a little behind the centre of
the body; legs bare a little above the joint; tarsus short, a little compressed,
anteriorly with small scutella, laterally and behind with reticulated angular
scales. Hind toe extremely small, with a very Darrow membrane; third toe
longest, fourth a little shorter, but longer than second; all the toes covered
above with numerous oblique scutella; the three anterior connected by
reticulated membranes, the outer with a thick margin, the inner with the margin
extended into a slightly lobed web. Claws small, arched, compressed, rather
acute, that of the middle toe much larger, with a dilated, thin inner edge.
Plumage dense, soft, and elastic; of the head and neck short, blended, and
splendent; of the other parts in general broad and rounded. Wings of moderate
length, acute; primaries narrow and tapering, the second longest, the first very
little shorter; secondaries broad, curved inwards, the inner elongated and
tapering. Tail short, much rounded, of sixteen acute feathers, of which the
four central are recurved.
Bill greenish-yellow. Iris dark brown. Feet orange-red. Head and upper
part of neck deep green, a ring of white about the middle of the neck; lower
part of the neck anteriorly, and fore part of breast, dark brownish-chestnut;
fore part of back light yellowish-brown, tinged with grey; the rest of the back
brownish-black, the rump black, splendent with green and purplish-blue
reflections, as are the recurved tail-feathers. Upper surface of wings
greyish-brown, the scapulars lighter except their inner webs, and with the
anterior dorsal feathers minutely undulated with brown. The speculum on about
ten of the secondaries is of brilliant changing purple and green, edged with
velvet-black and white, the anterior bands of black and white being on the
secondary coverts. Breast, sides, and abdomen, very pale grey, minutely
undulated with darker; lower tail-coverts black, with blue reflections.
Length to the end of the tail 24 inches, to the end of the claws 23, to the
tips of the wings 22; extent of wings 36; wing from flexure 10 1/2; tail 4 1/4;
bill 2 2/12; tarsus 1 3/4; middle toe 2 2/12, its claw 5/12. Weight from 2 1/2
to 3 lbs.
Bill black in the middle, dull orange at the extremities and along the
edges. Iris as in the male, as are the feet. The general colour of the upper
parts is pale yellowish-brown, streaked and spotted with dusky-brown. The
feathers of the head narrowly streaked, of the back with the margin and a
central streak: yellowish-brown, the rest dark, of the scapulars similar, but
with the light streak on the outer web. The wings are nearly as in the male,
the speculum similar, but with less green. The lower parts dull ochre, deeper
on the lower neck, and spotted with brown.
Length 22 inches. Weight from 2 lbs. to 2 1/2.
The Young acquire the full plumage in the course of the first winter.