Anyone that keeps ducks can attest to the moment of shear panic every summer when they go about their morning chores only to find HUGE amounts of fluffy feathers covering the run and duck house. My mind immediately jumps to the worst conclusion – a predator attack – until my ducks waddle up to me happily quacking for their breakfast. So what is going on with the ducks and where do all these feathers come from?
Ducks are hard core molters
Molting is important for birds as their feathers are so vital to their survival, providing the means for flight, insulation, flotation, camouflage & the ability to attract mates. They want to keep their feathers in tip top shape and molting gives them the ability to regenerate and replace their worn feathers with brand new ones. Most birds will have a yearly “sequential” molt. Chickens, for instance, will molt their feathers in stages each fall, starting at the head and ending with the tail and the whole process can take a few months to complete. To learn more about chicken molting, click here! Ducks (and some other waterfowl) have a “simultaneous” molt where they drop nearly all their feathers at once and regrow new ones in a matter of weeks (worrying duck keepers with a huge mound of molted feathers!). Ducks have two main molting periods during the year, one in late winter/early spring and the other in mid summer.
Early Spring Molt
The spring time molt is the more subtle molt, and if you only keep female ducks, you might not even notice more than a few stray feathers about. When the snow begins to melt, a young drake’s interest turns to romance. To attract the highest quality mate, he is going to need better & brighter plumage than the other drakes. He will molt his drab winter feathers and they will be replaced with his bright “nuptial” plumage. You will notice your hens are also sporting slightly brighter bars & wing speculum markings. Everyone is gearing up for breeding season, and this is also when you might experience the most disharmony among your ducks. Drakes might try to chase off their competition and will try to mate (and sometimes over mate) any available hen. Hens might be protective of their favorite drake, or of their nests. Drakes will also want to really show off their flashy new feathers by strutting about the yard, flapping their wings.
The summer molt is the major molt of the year and usually happens over the course of 2-3 weeks around mid summer. With all the excitement of breeding season over, drakes will molt out of their nuptial plumage into the safer, drabber “eclipse” plumage. The drake’s eclipse plumage will be muted, duller, and similar to hen’s plumage. This dull color lets wild ducks hide from predators. This helps to keep them safe for the rest of the year, but the molting period can be quite dangerous for them. During this molt, ducks (male & female) will lose most of their downy undercoat. The undercoat is the insulating feathers just under their sleek top feathers – there is a deceptively large amount of these feathers accounting for the majority of the feather carnage you will find around the run. They also will lose all their primary flight feathers. For fat, happy, protected domestic ducks this isn’t a huge problem, but for wild ducks this means they lose the ability to fly for a couple weeks until their new feathers grow in.
You might be worried that all this molting will leave your ducks running around naked, but amazingly it doesn’t. Ducks still need their sleek, waterproof top feathers to keep them afloat in the water, so those feathers are just gradually replaced over the year. Other than your drakes changing color and the feathers about, to look at them, you might not notice the molt. If you are familiar with chicken molting, there is usually no mistaking a bedraggled, bare skinned molting chicken! Duck’s summer molt usually lasts about two weeks, compared to chicken molts which can last for months – ducks really are hard core molters! The other sign your ducks are molting is a slow down in egg production. After egg production, regrowing feathers is the next largest nutritional drain and it’s just too taxing on their system to both lay daily eggs & regrow feathers. In the natural, wild duck life cycle this works out perfectly as during this post breeding season period, most wild hens are busy raising ducklings at this time of year anyway (and who has time to lay eggs when you are chasing after ducklings?).
How can you help your ducks during molting?
Waterfowl feathers are made of 86% amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) so during molt when your duck’s body is working hard to regrow feathers, a boost of protein would be appreciated. Ducks in the wild need to eat about 1000 bugs and slugs every single day during molt to get enough protein to support feather growth! The wisdom of nature also generously coincides molting & summer time when bugs are the most plentiful. Your pet ducks have the benefit of quality feed that provides for their nutritional needs. For the 2-3 weeks or so they are molting, switching to a higher protein feed, providing extra meal worms, or extra free ranging time will give them the boost they need. Providing plenty of fresh, clean, water will help them keep their sinuses & bills clear of downy feathers preened from their body. Lastly, newly grown feathers can be very sensitive to the touch. If bent the wrong way, they can break and bleed. It’s best to not handle your ducks unnecessarily during this time.