Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.


Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.


And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.

Preparation for fall migration

Wood Ducks are congregating on the ponds in the backyard again.  They were wary of me, staying a good distance away across the pond, but didn’t fly away (as they usually do).

With breeding season completed, both sexes have now replaced their flight feathers and males are replacing their mid-summer dull camouflage feathers with their striking iridescent green, purple, and blue feather patterns.  (photo of eclipse (summer) plumage of males from Wikipedia)

The summer eclipse plumage of males makes them appear more similar to females, but they can still be distinguished by their red eyes, lack of  tear-drop shaped white ring around the eyes (in females), and white chin strap.

At least one male on the pond had completed his full molt and floated back and forth on the pond showing off his bright green crest.

However, at least one other male in the group was still molting his head and body feathers.  This photo of the trio of male, adult female, and molting male illustrates the differences in their plumage.

Males should complete this basic molt by late September and will then migrate south to their wintering range in the southeastern US.  Meeting energy demands for production of new feathers at the same time as the birds try to add to their fat reserves for migration means that these ducks need to not only eat more, but eat a lot of protein.  They forage for insects they find on the surface of the water, as well as vegetation along the edge of the pond.  They might even grab small fish in the shallows.