The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, May 25, 2003

The Mottled Duck is a True South Texas Specialty
Ro Wauer, May 25, 2003, The Victoria Advocate, © 2003

Although as many as two dozen duck species occur in South Texas during the winter months, only a few remain and nest. And only two species - wood and mottled ducks - can be expected in summer with certainty. The wood duck frequents woodland ponds, where it nests in cavities of trees, boxes, and the like. The mottled duck occurs in more open ponds and marshlands, in both fresh and brackish habitats. It nests on the ground on streambanks and similar wetlands, but it sometimes nests at considerable distance from wetland feeding sites. In a sense, the mottled duck is the typical "dabbling duck" of South Texas.

Mottled ducks seldom receive the recognition they so rightly deserve. Although they are commonplace along all the coastal areas of the state, they seldom are recognized as something special. Perhaps it is because of their very unassuming plumage. They lack the glamour of most other ducks. Even the closely related mallard seems to get more recognition, probably because the male mallard is easily identified by its all-green head and cinnamon chest. And the wood duck is considered one of the world's most beautiful ducks; males possess a myriad of colors, along with a gorgeous crest.

Mottled ducks resemble female mallards or black ducks. Black ducks do not occur in Texas, and wild mallards usually are present in South Texas only in winter. So, the female mallard look-alike, so common year-round, is the mottled duck. Its name was derived from its mottled appearance, brown to tawny color, and with a bluish speculum (wing bar) with a narrow white outer edge. Their throat is buffy, and their bill is yellowish, but not as bright as that of mallards. And in flight, mottled ducks show their all-brown to cinnamon body and silvery-white wing linings.

Another interesting characteristic of mottled ducks is the constant close association with their mate. More often than not, pairs are usually seen together, both in flight and when feeding. And because of their preferred coastal habitats, a mottled duck diet contains a considerable amount of animal food, far more than mallards and most other puddle ducks. They feed principally on mollusks, snails, crustaceans, fish, and insects, but will also take some grass, grains, seeds, aquatic vegetation, and berries. They construct their nest of grasses, rushes, aquatic vegetation, and reeds, and they line their nests with down, fine breast feathers. Females lay 8 to 10 eggs, and the female does all the incubation. During the incubation time the drakes will spend most of their time in bachelor parties. Once the young are able to leave the nest, the hen leads the young to feeding sites where they often forage independently. At about this time is when she will again associate with her mate.

Although mottled ducks are most abundant along the Gulf Coast, from Mexico to Florida, they do rarely occur inland. And in those cases, they are known to hybridize with mallards. The results are ducks that may be difficult to tell whether they are a mottled duck or a mallard. But so far researchers have not found any hybridization within the coastal plains, where mottled duck are dominant.

Our mottled ducks are not the most colorful and charismatic of ducks, but they are the single most common waterfowl found in Coastal Texas in summer.

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