NYC Mallards Court on Halloween

On Halloween morning, a flock of about fifteen mallards swam about on Morningside Park’s small pond.

Watching the birds, I realize that I’ve been a little confused about molting and plumage. I understand that differences in plumage may be attributed to the fact that some of our ducks are permanent residents, while others are migrants, just passing through. Still, I could have sworn that last month, the males on the pond  were in full eclipse plumage, looking almost like females with most of their head color gone.  Yet look at this handsome fellow with his head glowing green and shiny.  Is he already growing back his breeding plumage?  Or is he heading into eclipse?

To my surprise, this duck and his female companion proceeded to engage in some synchronized head-bobbing. This behavior, which ornithologists call “pumping,” is part of an elaborate duck courtship ritual, sometimes leading to copulation. In fact,  on several occasions in spring, I’ve seen mallards copulate right here on the pond, and it’s a somewhat disturbing business. So I watched these two with interest. (Click the arrow to watch my video.)

A visit to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s The Birds of North America clarifies all things mallard. Apparently, male mallards quickly move out of their drab, late-summer eclipse plumage. So this male is on his way back to his classic breeding appearance. And new pairs start to form as early as September with courtship behavior occurring throughout the winter.   Since the ducks are infertile in the fall, they may copulate freely without the risk of eggs being laid in the cold season.

Interesting. Very interesting.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Birds, Fall, In the City, Morningside Park, November, NYC Parks, October, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History

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8 Comments on “NYC Mallards Court on Halloween”


  1. […] For more on dabbling ducks in New York: Sex and the City Bird Fresh Ducklings and Growing Goslings in Morningside Park NYC Mallards Court on Halloween […]


  2. […] called ‘steaming’ and is one of many Mallard courtship displays. The ducks are already pairing up in preparation for spring […]

  3. Mr. Mantooth Says:

    I’m feeling kinda rambunctious today — how come I don’t have a shiny green head?


  4. […] Out walking the dog tracking nature in the city & other NYC odysseys « NYC Mallards Court on Halloween […]

  5. CGJ Says:

    I have Mallards on my site this week as well. I wasn’t aware of the male’s eclipse plumage. It sound like if you blink you miss it!


    • We have mallards on the brain. I think the eclipse plumage is part of the post-breeding season full molt when, for a brief period, the ducks can’t even fly and are so very vulnerable. I need to research it a bit more.

  6. Barbara Says:

    Love that your mallards can get it on and enjoy companionship without fear of those noisy ducklings until spring – a long courtship indeed. Great photos! and a cute story. Like this very much.


    • Yes, I was completely surprised to learn that they have a period of infertility, and yet are busy pair-bonding which includes copulation. Cornell Lab of O website said the infertility was just a couple of months, so I don’t know what that means for the rest of the winter. The mallards I’ve seen copulate in water, so I imagine that when the ponds freeze over, it gets a bit difficult. But still, so interesting. Seems to me we are taught in a general way that animals have sex only in order to procreate, but we are learning that the truth is much more complicated. Might enjoyment one day figure into the scientific view of some animals? For the pigeon pairs I watch, sex seems to be one of many companionable and mutual regular events (including grooming, sitting together, feeding, etc).


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