Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2000

Response of Mallard ducklings to variation in habitat quality: An experiment of food limitation

Sjoberg K, Poysa H, Elmberg J, Nummi P


Occurrence of Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) pairs and broods was studied on 86 boreal lakes in two areas in south Finland during 1988-1997 (35 lakes) and 1989-1996 (51 lakes), and field experiments were conducted to determine whether food limitation is an important factor regulating population densities. In general, pairs and broods used and avoided the same lakes, but in both study areas, the proportion of lakes that were unoccupied every year was higher for broods (71% and 69%) than for pairs (26% and 31%). We hypothesized that lakes without breeding Mallards, and especially broods, were too poor to raise young in, and we tested that in field experiments on 22 lakes in boreal Sweden. Based on concentration of total phosphorus in the water, these lakes were divided into two groups: 11 "poor" lakes and 11 "rich" lakes. Mallard ducklings imprinted on humans were used to address brood-stage food limitation by studying mass change. Thirty-one individually marked ducklings were divided into three experimental groups: 12 ducklings were used in poor lakes, 12 ducklings in rich lakes, and 7 ducklings were used as controls receiving no experimental treatment in the field. Each group was studied in 11 daytime trials on 11 different lakes, except the control group which was kept in a pen with free access to food. Ducklings of all groups spent nights together as a big 31-individual group in the same pen and with free access to food. Ducklings foraging on poor lakes gained significantly less body mass than those feeding on rich lakes. At night, when ducklings of both groups had equal and free access to food, ducklings that had been feeding in a poor lake that day gained more mass than those that had been feeding in a rich lake. Overall, similar to 95% of daily mass gain was accounted for by daytime gain in the control group, the corresponding percentage was 35% in the rich-lake experimental group and 11% in the poor-lake experimental group. Thus, we have observational, as well as experimental, evidence to conclude that many boreal lakes are inferior breeding habitat for Mallards, especially during the brood stage. Our results suggest (1) that it is important to recognize at what stage of the yearly reproductive cycle food limitation may occur, (2) that brood stage may be more important than nesting stage for possible population limitation and regulation in breeding Mallards, and (3) that the reason why so many lakes in the boreal region lack breeding Mallards may be food limitation

Published in

2000, Volume: 81, number: 2, pages: 329-335

    SLU Authors

    • Sjöberg, Kjell

      • Department of Animal Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
      • Elmberg, Johan

        • Department of Animal Ecology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

      UKÄ Subject classification

      Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use

      Publication Identifiers


      Permanent link to this page (URI)