The Common Wild Duck or Mallard (Anas boschas), Fig. 72, is included in the family Lamellirostres of the Natatores or Swimming Birds, and in the sub-family Anatidae or Ducks. It is found both in Europe and America, and is the original stock of the domesticated duck, which appears to have been reclaimed at a very early period. There are few fresh-water lakes and rivers of the British Islands where the wild duck is not found, while it is preserved in several ornamental lakes, and duly attended to in feeding, for affording sport, called "duck shooting." It inhabits the greater part of the northern hemisphere, reaching in winter so far as the Isthmus of Panama in the New World, and in the old being abundant in the same season in Egypt and India, while in summer it ranges throughout the fur countries, Greenland, Iceland, Lapland, and Siberia. Most of those which fill British markets are no doubt bred in more northern climes, but a considerable proportion of them are yet produced in the British Islands, though not in the numbers that used to be supplied before the draining of the great Fen country and other marshy places.

The wild duck, however, still flourishes on the Norfolk Broads, and is not as wild as in places where it lives its life without assistance from man.

The Mallard pairs very early in the year, and the couples separate from the flock in search of suitable nesting-places about the first week in March. The nest is usually placed by the side of a stream or lake, or in a marsh or bog, among coarse grass, reeds and rushes; but the spot selected is often very far removed from water, and may be under a furze bush or at the bottom of a thick hedgerow. So soon as incubation begins the mother commences to divest herself of the down which grows thickly beneath the breast feathers, and adds it to the nest furniture, so that the eggs are deeply embedded in this heat-retaining substance, a portion of which she is always careful to pull, as a coverlet, over her treasures when she quits them for food. The nest generally contains from twelve to sixteen eggs, of a dull greenish-white. When all the fertile eggs are hatched, incubation occupying about twenty-five days, the next care of the mother is to get the brood safely to the water, and so cunningly is it done that even when the distance is great, few persons have ever encountered the mother and offspring as they make the dangerous journey.

The wild duck subsists largely on insects and other animal food found in water and on land, rendering good service in keeping down weeds and confervaceous growths in the water, and in scouring the adjoining land for slugs and allied pests. About harvest the young who have survived infant perils from pike and other voracious creatures are able to shift for themselves, and after fattening on the scattered grain of cornfields, they take to the waters again, and are ready for the gun. In Lincolnshire great numbers of these birds were formerly, and are still to some extent, taken in a very ingenious trap, called a decoy, which is a perfect edifice of poles and nets, and is built in the form of a tube, very wide at the mouth and very narrow at the extremity. The ducks are induced to enter the "pipe" by the antics of a dog, and by some hempseed previously strewed on the water. They are then driven onwards to the smaller end, where they are caught and killed.

The Common Wild Duck or Mallard.

Fig. 72. - The Common Wild Duck or Mallard.

Duck shooting on the Norfolk Broads is generally practised by the "decoy," also on some ponds frequented by these birds. Five or six wooden figures - cut and painted so as to represent ducks and sunk by pieces of lead nailed on the bottom so as to float at the usual depth on the surface - are anchored in a favourable position for being raked from a concealment of brush, etc., on shore. The appearance of these usually attracts passing flocks, which alight and are shot down. Sometimes eight or ten of these painted wooden ducks are fixed on a frame in various swimming postures, and secured to the bow of the gunner's skiff, projecting before it in such a way that the weight of the frame sinks the figures to their proper depth; the skiff is then dressed with sedge or coarse grass, in an artful manner, as low as the water's edge; and under cover of this, which appears like a party of ducks swimming by a small island, the gunner floats down to the very skirt of a whole congregated multitude, and pours in a destructive and repeated fire of shot among them. Sometimes the ducks are stalked from a boat hidden by reeds.

In some wild districts, particularly in Scotland, wild ducks may often be shot without these subterfuges, especially when the land rises suddenly to the shores of a lake or loch which the duck frequents. In some salt-water lochs wild duck are numerous, though they are not much good for table; and if one takes a gun, when fishing, one generally gets fair sport during the day when one least expects it.