The next time you find yourself kicking cans in the shop, killing time at the gas station or coffee shop with the crew, I ask you to raise a question about favorite ducks.
No doubt the wood duck would garner a share of votes, and the pintail has subtle grace and definition--that pointed tail distinguising it from the other ducks. Maybe a vote or two will crop up for the blue-winged teal, accompanied by the rationale of, "those buggers are fast and hard to hit" … and they are!
The mallard, particularly drake mallards, would likely land at the top of the list for many hunters. The greenhead truly is second to none in North Dakota when you consider about 40-50 percent of all ducks taken are mallards, and about two thirds of those are drakes.
It's a testament to the mallard's plentiful population, solid reputation as a good eatin' duck, and coloration that allows easy differentiation between drakes and hens. Let's face it, there's plenty of shovelers and late in the season the drakes are fairly easy to distinguish from hens, but most hunters will take a mallard over a spoonbill, given the opportunity.
A recent study involving thousands of ducks banded in North Dakota and other Central Flyway states and Canadian provinces produced information for biologists and hunters alike to dispel some of the myths of mallard production. One such discussion regards the production of mallards in North Dakota and Canada, as many hunters assume brown ducks that lack full color in late September and early October were raised locally, while field-feeding November mallards with all colors in place are transient late-coming migrants.
The study indicatec a solid majority of banded mallards shot in North Dakota early in the duck season were also banded in North Dakota. After Oct. 28, the proportion of birds recovered in North Dakota that were banded in Canada increased, but local birds were still well represented.
What that means is a lot of North Dakota-raised mallards are still in North Dakota in late October, despite the increased likelihood of shooting a mallard that's on its way down from Canada.
Hunters in search of picturesque plumaged drakes might assume that the ones with a full set of full-curled tail feathers and not a pinfeather are “big northern mallards, down from Canada."
That might have been the case a few decades ago when a much greater proportion of the Central Flyway's mallards nested in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, instead of North Dakota. In the last 20 years or so, due to overall loss of duck breeding habitat in Canada, and a temporary gain in North Dakota with a wet cycle coupled with the peak of the Conservation Reserve Program acreage, North Dakota has attracted a much greater proportion of mallards.
While old hunting stories don't change much over time, hunting dynamics do. These days, a plump grain-fed greenhead that decoys just before deer season could just as well have been born and raised over in the CRP across the slough, instead of hundreds of miles north on the Canadian prairie.
When you stop and think about it for a second, you'll realize a drake mallard looks pretty much the same, whether it was raised in Canada or North Dakota. In fact to shoot another hole in the myth, the young-of-the-year North Dakota birds just might even have a slight edge in size and coloration because the nesting mallards stop earlier here than farther north migrating mallards setting the stage for earlier production and longer growth period before the hunting season.
I'll also acknowledge that local mallard migration does take place and most waterfowlers have experienced many a cold front that pushes some local birds out, with migrating ducks filling in the void several days. It's little nuances like this that give duck hunters something to kick around over a cup of coffee as they anticipate their next outing in the Prairie Pothole Region of the Midwest.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org