Generally speaking, male mallards are hard to miss. Because of their characteristic green heads and disturbing sexual habits, they’re among the more noticeable birds around the Hill. But at this time of year, they all seem to disappear. Have they flown away? Nope. They’re just dressed up like ladies.
In the fall, nearly all species of birds molt their feathers and grow a whole new set. While mallards go through this process, they spend about six weeks unable to fly. During this period, the males wear dull, camouflaged plumage–called eclipse plumage–that makes them difficult to distinguish from their female counterparts.
Female mallards have mottled brown feathers, a dark line across the eye, and a blue patch on the wing. If you want to tell them apart from males in eclipse plumage, note their muddy-looking orange and black bill. The male’s bill is mustard yellow, even during the eclipse period.
Behavior can also help you tell the difference between female and eclipse male mallards. If you see a mallard caring for a group of juveniles, it’s female. The males do not help rear young, and sometimes they chase younger ducks out of their territory.
You can find mallards almost anywhere with permanent water in or near the Hill. If you don’t want to make a trip all the way to Lake Washington or Portage Bay, try a spot like Denny Blaine Lake Park.
Interested in Learning More?
- Check out the mallard’s page at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Listen to the differences between male and female mallard quacks here.
- To read about other confusing duck plumages, including intermediate and hybrid plumages, check out this article.
Bonus Owl Coverage
This barred owl was spotted hanging out near Volunteer Park earlier this week. We wrote about the area’s barred owls here in May 2012.
More Capitol Hill Aviary