CLOSE
Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

15 Unflappable Facts About Mallards

Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images
Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Mallard ducks: It seems like they’re everywhere (spoiler alert: they pretty much are), and they’re familiar to most of us. But what do you know about them beyond “they’re the ones with the green heads”? If it isn’t much, here are 15 facts about them.

1. MALES AND FEMALES LOOK VERY DIFFERENT.

Only the male mallards have the iridescent green head feathers, white “collar” on the neck and dark brown breast. The females are comparatively drab, with mottled brown and tan plumage all over. Both sexes, though, have a dark blue-black band of feathers, bordered by white, on their wings.

2. THEY DON’T SOUND ALIKE, EITHER.

Male mallards don’t sound much like what we think ducks sound like. They don’t quack, and instead produce deeper, raspier one- and two-note calls. They can also make rattling sounds by rubbing their bills against their flight feathers. The females make the stereotypical quack, and often produce what’s called a “decrescendo call”—a series of 2–10 quacks that start loud and get softer and shorter.

3. THEY’RE VERSATILE—AND EVERYWHERE.

Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Mallards can live in nearly any wetland habitat, natural or artificial. They’ll make themselves at home in and around lakes, ponds, rivers, marshes, estuaries and coastlines, as well parks and backyards. That versatility (and a little help from humans, who likely introduced them in various locations) has allowed them to span across the globe, and they can be found across North America, Eurasia and New Zealand, and in parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Japan and Australia.

4. THEY’RE THE ANCESTORS OF ALMOST ALL DOMESTIC DUCKS.

Only two species of wild duck—the mallard and the Muscovy Duck—have been domesticated by humans. The vast majority of domestic duck breeds descend from mallards and were developed by selectively breeding different domestic birds (and sometimes domestic and wild individuals) for desired traits like plumage, growth speed, and high egg production. 

5. THEY’RE DABBLERS.

Mallards are “dabbling ducks,” a cute term that means they feed by floating on the water and tipping themselves forward, butts in the air, to graze on underwater plants or grab insects. They’re as cosmopolitan in their diet as they are in their habitat choices, and will eat plants, worms, snails, other insects and their larvae, and shrimp. On land, they’ll also eat agricultural grains and seeds, especially during migration. And, of course, they’re happy to take bread and other handouts from people in parks (though this isn’t always good for them). Their diet is generally two-thirds plant matter and one-third animal protein.

6. THEY’LL MATE WITH DUCKS FROM OTHER SPECIES.

The mallard’s wide range puts them in contact with plenty of other duck species, and they’ll readily mate with them, producing a number of hybrids like the Mallard X American Black Duck and the Mallard X Northern Pintail.

7. THEIR FAMILIES CAN BE A LITTLE COMPLICATED.

Mallards form pairs in the fall, court throughout the winter, and then breed in the spring. These pairs are generally monogamous, but “extra-pair copulations” can still happen because both paired and unpaired males sometimes mate with paired females whose partners aren’t keeping an eye on things, leading to broods with multiple fathers.

8. THEY FLY FAST AND HIGH.

Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images

Migrating mallards have been clocked flying at 55 miles per hour, slightly faster than the average waterfowl. While they usually cruise at an altitude of less than 10,000 feet, they can get much higher. In 1962, a mallard was struck by a commercial airliner at 21,000 feet—a record altitude for a bird-aircraft collision at the time.

9. THEY CAN LIVE A LONG TIME.

When a mallard was shot by a hunter in 2008, a band on its leg revealed that it had been tagged by biologists in 1981, making it at least 27 years old and the oldest known mallard on record. That bird was a lucky duck, though—the average lifespan is just 3–5 years in the wild and about a decade in captivity. 

10. THEY’VE BEEN ON THE BOOKS FOR A WHILE. 

The mallard was given its scientific description and species name, Anas platyrhynchos, back in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus, the “father of modern taxonomy.” He derived the name from the Latin word for "duck" and an ancient Greek term for "broad-billed."

11. THERE ARE A LOT OF THEM.

Mallards are among the most abundant ducks in the world, and in the U.S. alone, the mallard population is estimated to be 11.6 million birds. That’s good, because they’re also one of the most heavily hunted ducks, and account for one out of every three ducks shot in North America.

12. YOU CAN FIND THEM IN A LUXURY HOTEL.

The Peabody Memphis

In 1933, the general manager of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee came back from a hunting trip and thought it would be funny to place some of his live decoy ducks in the hotel’s fountain. The stunt was a hit with the guests, and since then, “The Peabody Ducks”—a group of one male and four female mallards, borrowed from a local farm and retired after three months to live wild again—have lived in the “Royal Duck Palace” on the hotel's rooftop and are brought down daily for a swim in the lobby. The hotel Duckmaster looks after them during their stay. 

13. ONE MALLARD IS FAMOUS FOR AN UNFORTUNATE POSTHUMOUS EVENT.

In 1995, Kees Moeliker, a curator at Rotterdam’s Natuurhistorisch Museum, documented the first case of homosexual necrophilia in mallards after he found one male mallard attempting to mate with another that had died after flying into a museum window. As Moeliker wrote in a paper about the incident—which won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2003—the mallard “mounted the corpse and started to copulate, with great force, almost continuously picking the side of the head” for nearly an hour and a half before Moeliker intervened.

14. THAT SAME DUCK IS CELEBRATED WITH AN ODD HOLIDAY.

The dead mallard that Moeliker discovered has been commemorated every year since with a holiday called, obviously, Dead Duck Day. On June 5, the anniversary of the duck’s death, Moeliker holds a brief ceremony outside the building that the duck struck (usually holding the unlucky duck, which the Natuurhistorisch Museum had stuffed), talks about animal behavior, and discusses ways to prevent bird-window collisions. The museum also has a “splat”-shaped memorial plaque designating the spot where the duck hit the glass.

15. THEIR BEAKS ARE ORANGE TO MAKE THEM LOOK GOOD.

Evolutionary biologists think that mallards and other ducks have yellow or orange bills and legs to show off for the opposite sex. The bright colors suggest that a duck has been eating right and has a strong immune system, making them attractive mates.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
iStock
iStock

People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios