Where do the ducks go in the winter? Holden Caulfield famously obsessed over this question in the classic novel Catcher in the Rye. As it turns out, New York City’s mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) often stay right here, much to the joy of the people that have shared the city with them for generations. Watching them glide across the Harlem Meer or Prospect Park Lake is a relaxing and enjoyable experience, and a favorite pastime of many New Yorkers. But despite the vibrancy these waterfowl add to New York City’s public spaces, few people know much about them beyond what they look and sound like. To fully appreciate mallards, and to be better neighbors, it is important that we understand them and their behaviors.
Most regular park visitors will be unsurprised to learn that mallards are the most abundant and widespread duck in both New York and North America. There were an estimated 11.6 million of them on the continent as of 2014. This is in no small part due to their adaptability. Mallards can live in almost any wetland habitat, including ponds, lakes, marshes, and bogs, among others. Though they are generally migratory, urban mallards will stay in the city all year due to a number of factors. Among them are the abundance of food sources in New York City, as well as the relatively warmer winters compared to areas further north.
It can be hard to stand out in a city as big as New York. Male mallards, called drakes, try their best though. Their trademark metallic green heads are eye-catching, especially when paired with their yellow, black-tipped bills, brown chests, and gray bodies. These bright, varied colors give them a better chance of attracting a female.
Speaking of female mallards— or hens—they sport a more muted look. They are generally a mottled brown color throughout, with an orange bill that is sometimes speckled with black. These colors provide good camouflage for them while they nest. Both sexes have violet metallic patches on their wings which are bordered with white. These patches are known as “speculums.”
While their colors can be captivating, watching mallards awkwardly waddling around the shores of the Central Park Lagoon might give you the impression that they are not especially graceful animals. That’s because, like most waterfowl, their bodies are uniquely adapted for a life on water. Their widely-spaced legs and webbed feet make them great swimmers. And when the water gets cold and begins to freeze in the winter, their hefty bodies, which can reach up to 26 inches in length, keep them warm with the help of their thick, waterproof feathers. Their long necks and flat bills also allow them to easily reach food below the water’s surface.
In addition to being well-suited to living on water, mallards are very strong fliers. This is thanks in large part to their relatively light weight (two to three pounds) and wide wingspan (32 to 37 inches). They can travel through the air at up to 55 miles per hour. This comes in handy for the populations in Canada and Alaska, which migrate all the way to the southern United States and northern Mexico in the fall. However, most New York City mallards stay in the area year-round.
Mallards are no strangers to the fast pace of city life, especially when it comes to breeding. Although their breeding season occurs in the spring, they begin courting very quickly—sometimes as early as the preceding fall. Males can often be spotted courting females by shaking or flicking their heads from side to side, or raising themselves up in the water and fanning their wings. After mating, hens lay up to 13 eggs, which they incubate for 23 to 30 days. Nests are built on dry land close to the water, usually in an area concealed by vegetation.
Mallard chicks take after their parents and are very fast movers. They leave their nests 13 to 16 hours after hatching, and can immediately swim and feed on insects. Chicks cannot fully take care of themselves until they are 52 to 70 days old though, so they stay with their mother until then for protection.
Mallards are foragers, and can adapt their diets based on what is seasonally and locally available. They dabble to feed. Instead of diving completely beneath the water, they simply tip themselves forward and feed on whatever aquatic plants or animals they can reach with their bills. During breeding season, they feed on animal matter including insects, worms, small fish, and aquatic invertebrates. When migrating, they mostly eat seeds and grain.
In city parks they accept food handouts from people, but this is damaging to mallards’ health. Food items commonly given to mallards, like bread and corn, are low in necessary nutrients. These handouts end up displacing healthy foods that the mallards naturally eat and cause them to become malnourished. Feeding can also promote water pollution and disease in waterfowl populations, and cause mallards to become dependent on people for their meals. In the interest of preserving mallards’ overall well-being, it is very important that New Yorkers avoid feeding them.