Understanding Backyard Duck Behavior

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Part of the reason ducks are so fun to keep as pets is they have such fun personalities! Check out my guide to understanding your duck's behavior

Ducks are very intelligent animals with complex social relationships.  This is part of what makes keeping ducks so interesting and so rewarding!

Imprinting – Young ducklings imprint on whatever and whoever they spend time with in those first few precious hours of life.  It’s often their mother or siblings, but if you are hatching ducklings in an incubator it could be you!  When a duck imprints on you, she will want to follow you around and be with you all the time.  This is something you might want to give some thought to – while it sounds amazing to have a duck imprint on you, if this duck is destined to live outside you might want to have it co-imprint on a sibling that she can hang out with later in life.  Will she get over it when you kick her out of the house when she gets older and you can’t be with her all day?  Yes, but she will be sad and no one wants a sad duck!  It’s best to raise ducklings in at least pairs.

Should you get ducks?

Eating & Drinking – It’s no secret that ducks loves water, but did you know they shouldn’t have food without water?  You might notice that your ducks like to grab a bill full of food and then dunk it in the water, going back & forth between the two.  They aren’t just doing it to make a big mess or to waste food.  Ducks need to dip their food in water to digest it.  If they were to down a bunch of feed without having water to go with it, the feed will sit in their crop and when they drink again, the food will swell up and possibly choke them.

Duck Behavior

Flirting – Ducks are very flirty!  Drakes will rise up out of the water shaking their tail and head, flick water or play nip (like a grade schooler poking at the girl he likes on the playground!) or swimming with their neck outstretched.  Both males and females will bob their heads up and down at each other to flirt.  Ducks mate in the water, females will flatten their bodies on the surface of the water to make a flat surface for the male to stand on.  Females will assume this pose around males to flirt with ones they are interested in.

Duck Behavior

Mating – Speaking of mating, while all this duck courting & flirting seems sweet & romantic, the process of duck mating can be pretty harsh.  Ducks will only mate in water, it is easier on the female’s legs & back and minimizes the chances of her getting hurt.  The female flattens out like a surfboard and the male climbs on her back.  He grabs the back of her head with his bill to help him balance.  Ducks are one of the few birds that actually have a penis, long and corkscrew shaped to fit inside the female’s twisting and turning vaginal canal.  The complex chamber actually allows the female to reject sperm from unwanted mating, only allowing through the sperm from her chosen mate.

Duck Behavior


Why does my duck………

Tilt their head?  Ducks can give you a mean side eye, but why are they staring you down??  Ducks eyes are actually fixed in the socket, meaning to see in different directions they have to actually tilt & move their head around.  So they aren’t giving you a side eye, they just want to get a better look!

Walk in a line?  This is related to their eye placement.  With the lead duck keeping an eye to the front, the ducks behind can be scanning from side to side allowing them all to stay safer from predators.  When my ducks are crossing they yard 9 times out of 10 they are walking in line.

Duck Behavior

Wag their tail?  If your duck has just taken a swim, they will give themselves a shake to dry off usually ending with a good tail shake.  But I have also seen ducks shaking their tails when they are excited, like when I am filling up their pool or they are waiting for a tasty treat from the garden.  It reminds me of my dog when she is super happy and excited!

Blow bubbles in their water?  This always cracks me up, but sometimes you will see a duck dip their head in the water and forcibly breath out blowing bubbles into the water.  They are cleaning out any dirt, feed, feathers, etc that might be stuck in their nostrils.

Duck Behavior

Dig holes in puddles?  Ducks are pretty easy on the garden, unlike chickens who like to scratch and make a mess.  The exception is if there is a standing puddle or water.  They muck around in the puddles using their bill to dig small holes foraging for bugs.  After the puddle has dried up, you’ll have a bunch of little holes to fill in!

Duck Behavior

Sleep with one eye open?  Have you watched your duck sleep?  You will find that often their head will be tucked in their wing, one eye closed, one eye opened.  Believe it or not, they are actually asleep.  Duck’s brains are split in half with one half controlling one eye and the other half controlling the other eye.  So it is entirely possible for them to “turn off” half their brain to rest it while the other half remains alert for predators.  Ducks will usually only fully rest both halves if they are in a large group where others can be on the look out.

Preen after swimming?  After swimming, ducks engage in an elaborate preening of their feathers.  You’ll see them rubbing their heads all over their body.  What they are doing is distributing natural oils on their feathers that helps keep them waterproofed.  At the base of the tail is a small preening gland that they stimulate to release the oils.  It helps the water roll off like “water on a duck’s back”

Duck BehaviorDuck Behavior

Bob their head up & down when they see me?  They love you!  As we discussed earlier head bobbing is a form of flirting, but it is used for much more than that.  Ducks bob their heads up and down, often excitedly quacking when they are happy – when they see a duck friend they haven’t seen in a while (like a whole 15 minutes), when they get some tasty treats, when their pool is fresh and clean, when they have a pool party with all their friends…..if you see a lot of head bobbing going on, you have a happy duck on your hands!

Bob their head over to the side?  This is a different kind of bobbing, not the happy up and down bobbing, but a grumpier looking front to back bob back towards her tail, usually with her head lowered.  This is more of a reprimand and it’s usually done by one of the top female ducks.  She might be reprimanding a lower duck for wandering off, but often it’s a warning to other females that this male is hers and you guys better back off my boyfriend.  For most breeds, a drake will mate with multiple females, but females will choose their favorite males and can often be a little possessive!

 

 


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6 comments

  1. Amanda says:

    Hi!
    I recently was given a pair of ducks the male has come around a lot in the week I have had them but the female does a weird movent almost grabbing her feet anytime I walk around the yard..she gets vocal and becomes distant..thus causing the male to be distant..
    Is this normal what can I do to make her comfortable with me?
    I feel they where chased a lot..
    But as it stands they get a small treat every time I cluck to them the male has caught on and even ate from my hand all while the female gabbed on doing the head motion.

    • Liz says:

      You are right that head movement is her defending her space and saying stay away. It sounds like she might take some time to come around. Try gaining both their trust by sitting quietly on the ground and putting treats a few feet from you (mealworms are pretty irresistible!). After a week or so you can try moving the treats closer and closer until hopefully she will feel safe eating out of your hand. It’s helpful that the male is friendly, hopefully she will take some cues from him!

  2. Qpeter haase says:

    Why are my two ducks i have raised as chicks 3 months ago still very shy , until now you cant go near them i’ve always tried to be around them but they s till always run away.?

    • Liz says:

      Sounds like your ducks imprinted on each other instead of you, which is really common. With patience you can win their trust though. Try sitting quietly on the ground and let them come to you. Ducks are really curious creatures. If you have some treats (my ducks go CRAZY for lettuce or mealworms), put a pile of treats near you. Let them check it out, but don’t move to try and interact. In the coming days move the pile closer, until eventually they feel comfortable taking the food from your hands. Their eyes don’t move in the eye socket, so I have found sudden movements really startle them, and they are fairly slow runners so being chased really stresses them out. Calm & quiet is the way to go!

  3. Pamela Cropper says:

    I work at an apartment community and we have a lake. I have been here for 17 years and feed all the duck. Most come and go but I have a group of 7 older ducks (none of them fly) and they have ALWAYS hung together until recently. They have always eaten together, swim in the lake together, sleep together, just always together. Now the group is shunning one of their own and I do not know why. When the shunned duck tries to join the group they run her off. Especially a large male mallard duck. I feel so bad for the shunned duck, it hangs out near the other 6 ducks but if it gets to close they chase it off. When I feed them they chase it off. I have been looking on the internet to see if I could find out why but I have not been able to find anything. So I was wondering if maybe you might be able to tell me something about this. I would greatly appreciate it very much. These ducks are VERY special to me and I hate seeing one of them being shunned when I know how social they are and I have watched and cared for them ALL for many years and it makes me so sad to see one of them left out. Thanks you for your help!!

    • Liz says:

      Aww that is so sad! Ducks are very social creatures and definitely like to be together. If they are all older, it’s probably not a mating or territory issue. Do you know if the shunned one is a male (males usually have a curly feather on their tail)? Between two males it could be a competition thing. It’s only a guess, but maybe the shunned duck is ill and the large male is trying to protect the others? Poor thing, whatever the issue, I hope they let him back in soon!

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