By Doug Leier
North Dakota has such an array of duck species nesting in the state there’s a good chance most hunters will remember a teal, gadwall, pintail or shoveler as their first duck and instead of a mallard.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with bragging about the first duck regardless of the species. It’s the story that counts more than the species, similar to the story leading up to your a first deer or first fish which just so happened to be a bullhead.
As life moves on and outdoor experiences evolve, some hunters will remain more than happy to fill a bag of ducks with a variety of birds. No matter their age, location or stage in life they are more than happy to just bring home a few ducks.
Other hunters change their expectations or pursue different experiences, like passing on many opportunities in order to fill a limit with only teal or avoiding shooting a hen the entire fall.
As the season rolls, however, many hunters will rise early and stay out late in earnest pursuit of only one kind of duck – the drake mallard.
Not that drake mallards, affectionately called greenheads, aren’t highly desirable earlier in the waterfowl season. They are. In fact, about 40-50 percent of all ducks harvested in North Dakota each year are mallards, and hunters in North Dakota bag about 2.5 drakes for every hen.
It’s just that earlier in the season it’s not as easy to target greenheads that are still transitioning into fall plummage, and some hunters are even a little disappointed to bag a fairly well-colored drake with only half of one curly tail feather.
There seems to be a higher level of satisfaction passing up on these mislabled as a “local” duck.
Late October and November hunts often produce the fully colored drakes, the ones with a full set of full-curled tail feathers and not a pinfeather to be picked. Many hunters have historically referred to these birds as “big northern mallards, down from Canada.”
However, as with many situations in nature, there’s more to the story. That fat, grain-fed greenhead that decoys just before deer season could just as well have been born and raised within the same zip code you’re hunting, instead of a thousand miles north on the Canadian prairie.
Give it a little thought and a drake mallard looks pretty much the same, whether it was raised in Canada or North Dakota. Young-of-the-year North Dakota birds might even have a slight edge in size and coloration because the nesting effort starts earlier here than it does farther north.
Duck banding studies in the Central Flyway provide some biological insight. Early in the season most mallards harvested in North Dakota were raised here. Later on, when most birds are fully colored, greenheads bagged in North Dakota are a good mix of locals that just haven’t migrated yet, and “northern” mallards making their first stop on their way south.
It’s nice to know that we produce such a significant contribution to the continental mallard migration. It’s something we can be proud of, and also something we need to work hard at maintaining … for hunters here, and for hunters down the flyways, where North Dakota mallards become the “northern” mallards that hunters anticipate every fall.