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No, It’s Not a Game-Farm Mallard. DNA Test Confirms First-Ever Documented Leucistic Black Duck

Genetic testing of hunter-submitted ducks is helping hunters (and researchers) understand exactly what kind of hybrid duck they shot
Natalie Krebs Avatar
Mike Wec with his leucistic American black duck.
Wec with his white hen, which testing confirmed to be 100 percent American black duck; the bird's belly. Photos courtesy of Mike Wec

Mike Wec was having a tough morning.

The Massachusetts marsh he was hunting on Dec. 15 had frozen over despite the wind, and breaking 75 yards of ice just so he could paddle to his spot earned him sweat-soaked layers and a new leak in his waders. Wec had just enough time to throw out his decoys — mallards to the right, black ducks on the left — and get settled.

At legal light, the 37-year-old noticed a few ducks in the distance and gave a couple quacks. Three birds turned his way, then split at his greeting call, with a pair of mallards breaking right and the third committing.

“It looked like a hen mallard or a hen black duck, and her belly was tannish,” says Wec, who usually expects a mix of mallards, black ducks, and a few geese that time of year. “She cupped her wings and came into the black duck decoys.”

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He shot once and dropped the duck on the water. Confident it wasn’t going anywhere, he waited and killed the next single that came in, a drake black duck. Then he got into his kayak.

“I paddled about 20 yards past the first duck and glanced at it and I’m like ‘Wow that is a light colored duck.’ It flew like a mallard and looked like a mallard or a black duck, so I had a feeling maybe it was a farm-duck mixed mallard. I picked up the black duck and came back and picked up the [white] duck.”

Two American black ducks, one with mostly white feathers.
The leucistic black duck hen beside a nice drake black duck. Wec says the size comparison between the two birds as it appears here is true to life. Photo courtesy of Mike Wec

Wec went on to shoot a greenhead and a woodie — another surprise given the lateness of the season. Finally, he shot a banded greenhead and called it a morning, just one bird short of his limit.

“As I’m sitting there,” says Wec, “I’m also thinking, ‘What do I have here and I am I legal?’” 

Wec put the banded drake and what he thought of as the “blond mallard” on the passenger seat and called his wife, Ashley Wec.

“I knew I had something special and I knew I had to wrap it and put it in the freezer,” says Wec. “I‘m like, ‘I don’t know what this is, and I’ve been told to mount so many birds before and I haven’t. This is the bird I’m gonna mount.’ So she’s like, ‘Well can’t they DNA test it?’ and I’m like, ‘I doubt it.’”

Mike Wec with two great ducks.
The ducks that kicked off and concluded his hunt: a leucistic black duck and a banded greenhead. Photo courtesy of Mike Wec

Undeterred, Ashley performed a quick Google search and turned up the University of Texas at El Paso’s duckDNA project, a new pilot program for 2023 designed to collect genetic data on wild waterfowl. The program is particularly interested in the westward spread of game-farm mallard genes in wild duck populations. 

So, Wec reached out. And although duckDNA applications were closed at the time, the photos of the blond duck were intriguing enough to researchers that they sent his taxidermist a vial for collecting a tissue sample (in this case, from the tip of the duck’s tongue).

Now, about five months later, Wec has received the results of the DNA test. The white bird was a hen, and 100 percent American black duck. In other words, there was no trace of game-farm mallard or even lineage from old-world ducks introduced from Europe years ago. According to the program and its partner, Ducks Unlimited, this is the first verified instance of a leucistic, fully wild American black duck.

Five ducks on a kayak, including a leucistic black duck.
A good comparison of the white black duck beside two greenheads, a drake black duck, and a hen woodie. Photo courtesy of Mike Wec

“This is a huge showcase of what duckDNA provides to hunters and scientists in cooperation at a level we’ve never had before,” Dr. Phil Lavretsky, who leads duckDNA, told DU in a statement. “No more assumptions and biases, there is no hiding DNA.”

Leucism is an inherited trait that results in loss of pigmentation. In birds this can range from just a few white feathers to all-white plumage, according to DU. Leucistic ducks retain normal eye color and vision (unlike albino birds). Previously hunters and even researchers have only speculated that ducks with the appearance and coloration of Wec’s white duck were leucistic mallards or wild-domestic hybrids.

The plumage of a leucistic black duck.
A close up of the duck’s plumage. Photo courtesy of Mike Wec
The head of a leucistic black duck.
A close up of the head. Photo courtesy of Mike Wec

In its first season, duckDNA tested 721 genetic samples from ducks submitted by 309 hunters in 47 states. Analysis of those samples revealed 19 different hybrid combinations, including the following hybrids:

  • Wild mallard x game-farm mallard
  • Wild mallard x American black duck
  • Wild mallard x American wigeon
  • Wild mallard x gadwall (called Brewer’s ducks, these are the result of a male gadwall breeding a female mallard)
  • Wild mallard x wood duck
  • Florida mottled duck x wild mallard
  • Muscovy x wild mallard
  • Domestic goose x Canada goose

Researchers even identified three-species hybrids, which were the result of hybrid duck breeding with a species unrelated to either of its parent species. One triple hybrid included a duck with wild mallard, game-farm mallard, and Mexican duck genes. (You can find the full list of the 2023 to 2024 hybrids here.)

A graph depicting mallard dna distribution.
This graph illustrates the relative distribution of pure wild mallards and wild x game-farm hybrids within the sample of “mallards” submitted to duckDNA during the 2023–24 pilot season. Because this data wasn’t obtained from a truly random sample of harvested ducks, it’s fortunately not representative of the larger population of mallards in the U.S. Graph courtesy of duckDNA

“Research from the University of Texas at El Paso has revealed that over a century of game-farm mallard releases in the Atlantic Flyway has led to widespread hybridization with wild mallards,” reports DU. “Other studies have uncovered potential differences in behavioral, physiological and ecological traits between game-farm hybrids and pure wild mallards, which may impact reproduction, movements and duck distributions across their range.”

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The program has proved so popular with hunters (4,200 applied last year) that duckDNA caps its submissions each season. Hunters who are interested in participating in the program this duck season should apply at duckDNA’s website.