Mallards--the most common, easily observed, ever-present birds in Beacon Hill Park--are more interesting than you might think. They fly incredible distances to get here and then give us a free show every day.
Daniel and Leonard Donnecke have proven that some Mallards in Victoria flew here from Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of more than 3435 km (2134 miles)! That is a lot of flying. These heavy ducks are speedy, too: one flock of Mallards was clocked flying at 25 mph.
Searching four local areas--Beacon Hill Park, Kings Pond, Swan Lake and Esquimalt Lagoon--the Donneckes found more than twenty Mallards with leg bands in 2013. They recorded numerals stamped on each band (reading all nine numerals is difficult), then reported details to the database tracking all birds banded in North America. In return, they received information about where and when the ducks were originally banded.
Ten of the twenty Mallards were banded near Fairbanks. Six were banded in Alberta, two in Washington, one in Oregon, one in B.C. and one band was too worn to read. Every duck had migrated a great distance.
In Beacon Hill Park, eight banded Mallards were found. Two of the eight ducks were banded 40 miles west of Fairbanks, four were banded in northern Alberta, one in BC and one unknown. Four of those eight ducks were re-encountered in the park in 2014.
An article by the Donneckes describing their findings was published in the Victoria Natural History Society magazine The Naturalist (May-June, 2014, p. 9-10). They explained the number of Mallards in our area varies with the season. There are more Mallards here in winter than summer, therefore, they found fewer bands in summer. The majority of banded birds recorded in winter were banded in Alaska, but there was "a more complex spectrum of Mallards" during migration, when more birds were banded in Oregon, Washington, BC and Alberta.
The oldest bird found by the Donneckes in Victoria was banded eight years ago. Mallards can live for a surprisingly long time. The oldest Mallard on record lived to be at least 27 years 7 months old. Unless birds are banded, there is no way to learn such information.
If you see a band on a bird, dead or alive, you can contribute to scientific knowledge by reporting the number, location and any other information at this website: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/bblretrv/ The website explains: “When you submit a report, we will provide you the details about when and where the bird was originally marked. A copy of your report will be provided to the researcher who originally applied the band and/or marker.”
Here are a few more facts about Mallards you see in the park.
Many visitors assume male Mallards leave the park during July and August because they see no ducks with bright green heads during the summer. The truth is, males are still there, but for a time their feathers appear identical to females. This is called "eclipse plumage," a partial replacement of feathers including the body and head but not the wings and tail. By September, a complete molt produces bright male plumage again.
Male Mallard's feathers are at their most colourful and bright in September because the most active Mallard courtship starts in the fall and continues until spring. This is extremely unusual in the bird world: most birds grow their brightest feathers and look their best in the spring to attract mates at nesting time.
Beginning in September and continuing through the winter, Mallards perform eight different visual displays and six auditory displays in their efforts to attract mates. Courtship displays are subtle and last only a few seconds but if you stand at the edge of Goodacre Lake for a few minutes, you will be rewarded by seeing them.
Two of the most common displays are the "head shake" and the "tail shake." Another display called "nod-swimming" involves a duck swimming rapidly with neck fully outstretched, head held just above the water. "Pumping" is a courtship display in which two ducks face one another and begin rhythmically bobbing their heads up and down. For drawings of these and other displays as well as excellent descriptions of Mallard behaviours, see the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume One, by Donald Stokes, pp. 31-44.