Regular visitors to Sudbury’s Common Lands will be used to seeing young families feeding the ducks at popular locations like the Croft and the mill pond.
So common is this sight that it is easy to pass by without taking too much notice. But beyond all the bread throwing and general scrummaging among the mallards there is much to observe.
Firstly, the sheer beauty of the breeding male mallard is worth noting. With its distinctive shiny bottle-green head brought into sharp relief by a white collar that defines the head from the purple-tinged brown breast – it is a stunning bird that is all too often taken for granted.
The female mallard is less striking – a mottling of brown and buff feathers but sharing with the male the iridescent purple-blue-white flash on the secondary feathers that is best seen in flight.
An interesting aspect of the mallards colouration happens in the summer months once breeding has been completed. The drake males moult their feathers and for a short time are unable to fly, therefore these new feathers are the same as the female’s, dull and camouflaged to protect them from predators. Indeed, in many cases you can only tell the male apart from the female because he has a yellow beak. Soon after, the males moult again and return to their colourful selves.
Among any reasonably large grouping of mallards you are likely to also see a number of birds that do not show the markings described above. At the Croft last week I watched a male mallard with rather scruffy white bib feathers jostle with others for the crusts thrown from the bank. Another had white blotches spattered across its head.
These abstractions occur because the mallard is the main ancestor of most breeds of domestic duck, including the all-white Aylesbury duck, and its naturally evolved wild gene pool has been genetically altered by mating with domestic and feral mallard populations.
It is little wonder the mallard was chosen to breed domestic ducks. Their adaptability and ease around people means they are incredibly successful breeders. You see them everywhere – in town centres, village ponds and parks, in the wilderness, and everywhere in between. It’s ironic that this omnipresence is one of the factors that make the mallard outstanding but at the same time this familiarity also means people rarely give them a second look.
The mallard’s durability is worthy of more admiration if you consider how many were hunted down during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – scared, persuaded and herded into long net tunnels in their hundreds of thousands on the Fens. In Britain, this technique became known as ‘decoy’, from the Dutch name Eendekooi, meaning duck-cage.
Nature writer Mark Cocker wrote: “It was in essence a factory of the wetland landscape, converting wild birds into food for the British dining table…for several centuries [the mallard] must have provided more protein for the nation than any other wild species of bird.”
Another thing you notice when you study a group of mallards is that it is only the female that makes the loud descending quack, quack sound that this bird is well-known for. The male drakes are less noisome and seem to be muttering to themselves.
There are numerous theories as to why the females broadcast in this way. The sound is used to gather young ducklings who will go to their mother once they hear her quack. It is also thought they use the sound to ward off unwanted attention from other drakes by telling them they have already found a mate.
There are certainly fewer females in a group because they take on all the responsibilities of rearing the young and each season females succumb to exhaustion.
As a result of this uneven number ratio – with not enough females to go round – groups of males will attempt to force themselves on a female who has strayed from her nest to feed. To the human eye it is a loud and brutal activity and females have been known to die as they are pecked and pushed underwater.
I remember my wife being horrified by such a scene shortly after we moved to Sudbury and the experience has put her off mallards ever since.