Mallard Project Q & A

Frequently Asked Questions about The Mallard Release Program


 Where do SCWA mallards come from?

The mallards that SCWA uses in the Mallard Release Program come from the Frost Waterfowl Hatchery in Darlington, S.C. The Frost Waterfowl Trust manages the genetics of their flock to ensure that their breeders are of the highest genetic quality. These birds exhibit similar plumage, body size and fledging characteristics as their wild reared cousins. When given proper nutrition all Frost mallards are capable of flight at 8 weeks of age. This is identical to the fledging period of Mallards reared in the wild. All Frost mallards are USDA health certified prior to shipment.


How do I get enrolled in the MRP?

First, contact the SCWA Executive Director/waterfowl biologist David Wielicki at 803-452-6001. There are several factors that will need to be addressed in the initial conversation such as, plant and flood capability of your habitat, water sources, pumping potential, and release pond locations. These are key factors that must be addressed before moving forward.


How much does it cost to get into the Mallard Release Program?

A $500 mallard project membership fee must be paid in order to receive an annual site visit and phone consultation.


When do I get my ducks and how old are they when I get them?

The distribution season runs from the end of May through the middle of August. The ducks are transported directly from Frost waterfowl to your release pond.  The ducks will vary in age from 4 to 6 weeks old at the time of distribution.


    Should you have any questions about The Mallard Research Program please contact:

David Wielicki – SCWA Executive Director and Waterfowl Biologist – SCWA

Office: 803-452-6001 ext. 102

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Hybridization Issues Regarding Mallard and Black Ducks

by Dr. Frank C. Rohwer and Dr. David B. Smith


Inner_hybridThere is little doubt that the population of American black ducks (Anas rubripes, hereafter black ducks) has shown a long and serious decline from when state and federal biologists first started conducting mid-winter inventories. However, the causes of that decline have been debated for decades. Traditional explanations for wildlife population declines, such as loss and degradation of critical winter habitat and overharvest, certainly have advocates. Overharvest is unlikely, but there is no doubt that there has been serious loss of wintering habitat. It is also clear that breeding habitats, especially areas in the southern segment of eastern Canada and New England have been greatly altered. One of the most interesting and likely explanations of population declines is that black ducks have suffered from interactions with their closest relatives, namely mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Wildlife managers often face situations where management aids one species while it has an adverse affect on other species. Sometimes these trade-offs are obvious. On a 36-square mile area in North Dakota in spring 2001 we have bumped nesting success for dabbling ducks from 18% to something above 70% with seasonal predator control. While that is remarkably good for ducks, it is obviously bad management if you like skunks, raccoons, and red fox. Habitat management may appear less controversial, but it has the same sorts of trade-offs. Managing forests so that there are openings in the canopy to promote edge provides good cover and forage plants for traditional game species like quail, rabbits, and deer, but the same canopy openings are very detrimental for many forest interior birds, such as hermit thrushes. Thus, many bird watchers favor different habitat management than do consumptive users of wildlife, most of which like white-tails more than thrushes. What is interesting about the mallard-black duck situation is that one user group, namely eastern seaboard wildfowlers, may have to decide which of the two prized species they want to favor. Clearly, we need to know if managing for mallards comes at the detriment of black ducks.

Biology students learn that two species can interact in several ways, including as predator-prey, host-parasite, competitors, or partners for hybridization. Mallards have not been accused of being predators or parasites of black ducks, but they present threats on three other fronts: as competitors for resources; sources of diseases; or undesirable mates leading to hybridization. The disease question mostly relates to captive-reared mallards, but there are scant data on this subject and the issue has been reviewed by Dr. James Pearson in another article on the SCWA web site, so we shall focus on competition and hybridization.

 Do mallards usurp vital resources from black ducks?

Mallards and black ducks are genetically and ecologically very similar, so there is plenty of potential for competition. However, the evidence for competition is not particularly strong. First we will focus on events during the breeding season. The eastern expansion of breeding populations of mallards has been mirrored by an eastern retreat for breeding black ducks in Ontario and Quebec. These concomitant population changes may reflect the outcome of competition for breeding habitat, with mallards as the clear winners. We agree with that assessment, but we note that it is difficult to rule out the alternative idea that habitat changes in southern Ontario were favorable to mallards and made the habitat unsuitable for black ducks. In this scenario competition plays no role in the black duck population changes.

Assessing whether mallards or black ducks compete for limited resources where they share wintering sites is even more difficult than on breeding areas. There is essentially no data to directly assess competition in the winter. However, our research in Maryland on mallard release sites provided information on habitat use that is relevant to the issue. When individuals or clubs release captive-reared mallards on the eastern shore of Maryland they will only retain those birds on their property when they also provide habitat with abundant food, such as flooded agricultural fields. Aerial surveys we conducted showed that wild ducks make extensive use of habitats that are intensively managed for released mallards, yet wild ducks comprise only a small fraction the harvest on these intensively managed Regulated Shooting Areas. Capital investment into captive-reared mallards motivates management of habitat to provide food to hold birds in the area. That management certainly benefits wild waterfowl as well. Thus, it seems unlikely that released mallards are competing with black ducks. We did many behavioral observations of birds on these highly managed areas and almost never saw black ducks and mallards interacting; we certainly did not see exclusion of black ducks from prime feeding areas.

 Hybridization

There is absolutely no doubt that hybridization poses a serious threat to black ducks. The fraction of black ducks that are hybrids with at least partial mallard ancestry ranges from 10% to almost 50%. The concern is that far more abundant mallards will eventually hybridize black ducks out of existence. The pressing management issue is whether releases of mallards exacerbates the hybridization problem. It seems logical that releasing captive-reared mallards in areas with black ducks would increase hybridization rates. However, data from Maryland do not readily support this idea.

Maryland has a long tradition of large scale releases of mallards, with numbers approaching 100,000 in peak years. When we initiated research in 1991 we expected, based on published work, to encounter frequent pairings between captive-reared drake mallards and wild black duck females. However, in three years we examined 492 mallard and 159 black duck pairings and saw few mixed species pairs. Three black duck females had paired with male mallards. The single drake mallard that we could positively identify was of wild origin. Three female mallards paired with males that were mallard-black duck hybrids. The only female of those three with known origin was a wild bird. Our pairing data suggest that mixed species pairings are only 1.6% for black ducks, but harvest data reveal that at least 8.4% of black ducks are actually black duck-mallard hybrids. This suggests that mixed species matings are more common than winter pairing behavior suggests. Perhaps repairing or forced copulation at northern breeding sites explain the discrepancy between the low occurrence of mixed species pairs in the winter in Maryland and the actual frequency of hybrids. Our pairing data clearly contradict the findings of Brodsky and Weatherhead from 1984, which suggest that as soon as the last female mallards had paired the remaining unmated drake mallards would then intensively court and form mixed species pair bonds with hen black ducks.

Our telemetry studies showed that released mallards rarely moved more than a few miles during the six months after release, during which time there was about 80% mortality. Pairing data revealed that captive-reared mallards preferentially mated with other captive-reared birds; likewise wild birds preferentially mated with wild mallards. This means that most captive-reared mallards in Maryland were shot or died long before the breeding season, they rarely moved far from their release site and the great majority of the time were on intensively managed Regulated Shooting Areas, and they preferentially form pairs with other released mallards. Accordingly, there is little probability that mallards released in Maryland increase the rates of hybridization with black ducks. Mallard releases in other eastern states have resulted in greater dispersal. For instance, 31% of band recoveries from mallards released in Pennsylvania were from out-of-state.

In summary, our intensive research on Maryland’s eastern shore revealed almost no information to suggest that the large-scale state and private releases of captive-reared mallards cause serious problems for black ducks by increasing hybridization rates or facilitating competition. Of course, the situation with released mallards is quite different in North and South Carolina, but it is also clear that wintering black ducks are far less abundant that in the Chesapeake Bay wetland. Concerns over the possible adverse impact of released mallards on black ducks could easily be addressed in North and South Carolina, by studying pair formation during the winter and spring months.

A Guide to Waterfowl Bands

If you had a choice between shooting a nice 8 point whitetail or a banded duck which would you choose?   For me and most avid waterfowl hunters that’s an easy question to answer a banded duck.   Shooting a banded duck is something special that many waterfowl hunters never get to experience in their lifetime.   Only a very small percentage of the waterfowl population is banded and an even smaller percentage of those that are banded get harvested.  This is what makes a banded bird so special.   When most hunters think of banded waterfowl however they immediately think of the shiny silver bands that go around the legs.   This is only one of the many types of bands that are used to mark waterfowl.   Neck collars, nasal markers, colored leg bands, web tags, patagial markers and radio/GPS trackers are other types of  bands  used to mark birds.

​The most common type of band is the silver leg band that most waterfowl hunters are familiar with.   A common misconception with these bands is that the bird was banded in Laurel Maryland because many of the bands say Avise Bird Band Laurel, Maryland. Laurel Maryland is the location of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) headquarters where all of the bird bands are issued from.   From there individuals across the country band the birds and report the data back to the USGS.   In order to get the location of where the bird was banded, how old it is and who banded it you must call the band in at 1-800-327-BAND.   Many hunters, including myself, wear these bands on their call lanyards as a type of trophy just as a deer hunter might ride a nice set of antlers around in his truck.   This type of band is made from aluminum and comes in different sizes depending on the type of bird that is being banded.   The bands range in size from as small as a hummingbird band to as large as a size 14 swan band.   Most hunters are familiar with mallard bands which are a size 7A.   Other common bands are size 5 which are used on blue-wing teal and wood ducks.   Doves, Quail and green-wing teal use a size 4 while Canadian geese use a size 8.   Each year around 350,000 ducks and geese are banded across the United States and Canada.   Of those 350,000 only about 88,000 are recovered each year.   This means that each year less than 0.8% of all ducks and geese are banded and less than 0.2% are recovered.

​The next most familiar band to waterfowl hunters are neck collars.   Neck collars are made of plastic and are normally colored with a series of 3 or 4 letters, numbers or symbols.   The different colored collars typically represent a different region in which the bird was collared.   Orange collars are put on geese that come from the Canadian region of the Mississippi flyway such as Ontario and Manitoba while blue collars are used in the United States portion of the Mississippi flyway.   Other common colors include white (typically Atlantic flyway), green (used in the Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana region) and red (used in the central and pacific flyways).   Collars are used so that researchers can easily see and read the numbers on the collar with a pair of binoculars without capturing or killing the bird.   This makes it easier to track the migration pattern of geese up and down the flyway.

Wood_Duck_Drake

In recent years many studies have been done using various types of radio telemetry and GPS.   These devices are generally attached to neck collars and used in studies where waterfowl travel great distances.   I was fortunate enough to be involved with one of these studies while I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University.   We radio collared several Canadian geese and GPS collared 3 or 4 birds.   The study was used to determine the molt migration patterns of the geese in the spring.   Radio collars are several hundred dollars each while the GPS collars cost thousands of dollars each.   We would track the movements of the geese several times a week both from the ground, by airplane and by satellite.   After several months most of the geese had migrated up towards Hudson Bay in Canada and the graduate student in charge of the study finished his work by airplane in Canada.

​Nasal markers are another type of band used by researchers to mark individual birds.   They are typically made of plastic and are used widely in local breeding surveys.   These markers typically have only two letters or numbers on them since the populations that are being studied are small.   The two pieces of plastic are attached together with a wire or a piece of string through the nasal cavity.   Since many ducks do not have nasal walls this is a non-invasive procedure.   At the end of the study the ducks are recaptured and the bands taken off but obviously not all of them can be captured all of the time.   I personally have not taken a bird with a nasal marker or know of anyone who has taken one.   Since the connection between the plastic is either wire or string it is likely that many of the markers fall out within a year of being put in place.   Now you may ask if these markers effect the survival of the ducks and the answer is no.   Many studies have been done to look at the survival of ducks with these markers and it has been found that the survival rate non-marked ducks is the same as marked ducks.

​Colored leg bands are used much in the same way as neck collars are used.   They are larger than the average metal leg band but smaller than a neck collar.   They have a series of 2 or 3 letters and numbers on them which is read easily from a distance.   They are made of plastic and many times break off after only a few years.   Snow geese are the most common waterfowl that have these types of bands but they are used on ducks and Canadian geese as well.   Since snow geese breed in large numbers in the boreal regions of Canada, colored leg bands are much easier to read than other types of markers.   Red, yellow and black are common colors used for these types of leg bands.

​Web tags are used on waterfowl that are too young to receive traditional leg bands.   Many studies that track growth and survival of ducklings use web tags to track the birds.   Putting a leg band on a duckling can be very dangerous.   Using a band that is to big will increase the chances of the duckling getting caught up in vegetation or debris which will in turn increase the mortality rate.   On the other hand putting a band on that is to small will physically damage the bird when its leg outgrows the band.   For these reasons a small metal clip is put into the webbing of the feet which has a number on one side to identify the bird and initials on the other to identify the bander.   If the bird is recaptured as an adult a metal leg band will be added to accompany the web tag.

​The last type of band used is a patagial tag.   This tag is attached to the wing of a bird usually at the main joint in the wing.   Although most of them are made of plastic there are some that are made of aluminum.   The ones made of plastic are very visible and are commonly used on birds of prey but are also used on swans.   Metal patagial tags are used in some types of waterfowl but are not very common.   Typically only diving ducks are tagged with patagial tags and many studies have shown that these types of tags have a negative effect on ducks.

As you can see there is much more to banding than just the typical metal leg band.   Each type of band has a specific use and therefore is utilized in different situations.   Whatever the type of band they are all very important in studying the movements and migration patterns of waterfowl.   Any time you see a bird with a band on it be sure to report it to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) center by calling 1-800-327-BAND or go to their website at  www.usgs.gov.   The next time you go hunting and the dog brings your duck or goose back, be sure to check not just for a leg band but for all types of markers.

Did you know? – All About Mallards

The Mallard ( Anas platyrhynchos ) is probably the most widely known wild duck in North America. It is a medium-to-large dabbling duck that is most recognizable by the male’s glossy green head and white collar around the neck. The female is an overall brown color, and both sexes have orange feet and a purple-blue speculum with both sides outlined in white. The length of the normal mallard is about 20.5 -28 in.

The mallard duck is found mostly in did_you_knowNorth America and Northern Central America. They prefer to nest in upland grass cover.  Mallards feed by “dabbling” and upending, meaning that they tip their bodies into water, bill first, tail in the air, to forage for food.

They also eat various seeds including corn, wheat, barley, rice, millet,  bulrushes, wild rice, primrose, willow, seeds of water elm, oak and hackberry. They will also eat mollusks, insects, small fish, tadpoles, freshwater snails, fish eggs, and frogs. They usually feed at the surface of the water and are known as “dabbling ducks”. They don’t dive all the way under the water, but just tip their heads under to feed.

To breed, the male attracts the female mate by ruffling his bright feathers in a series of displays. But the pair usually does not stay together for long. The male mallard, or drake, leaves the female when she begins incubation and forms a group with other males. Nine to thirteen eggs are laid at daily intervals. Incubation begins when the clutch is complete and lasts for 27 to 28 days. The ducklings all hatch within 24 hours, mostly during the day. Once they are hatched they are led to water. Mallards mature quickly and may breed under 12 months of age. Although mallard ducks have been known to live as long as twenty eight years of age, most of them only live for one or two years.

During the summer, mallards spend a large amount of time resting and preening on mud flats and the banks of wetlands.  The mallard has only three defenses- swimming, flying, and camouflage, and is prey to a large variety of mammal and avian predators.    Mallards can accomplish some interesting feats. They swim with their tail held above the water and, when they are alarmed, they spring directly out of the water and into the air. The sudden flight of Mallards can make quite a spectacular site.

via South Carolina Waterfowl Association.