Duck Molting

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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 bird species 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.

molted drake curl tail feather

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.

“Hellllloooo Ladies!”  Alexander looking handsome in his lovely spring nuptial plumage & drake curl

Summer Molt

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 nature, for wild ducks, this works out perfectly as during this post breeding season period, most wild hens are busy raising ducklings this time of year anyway (and who has time to lay eggs when you are chasing after ducklings?).

Hard to believe this is the same duck! Alexander at the end of August in his eclipse plumage.  I know ladies, it looks like he really let himself go after breeding season, but his dull colors keep him safer from predators so we can’t entirely blame him

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.

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  1. Doreen says:

    my Khaki Campbell female has gone very that for camouflage while nesting or prep for molting..she’s a pet with all day freedom to roam..but no mate..would she be healthier if I got a drake

    1. It is possible she is getting ready for molting season, the paler colors naturally help camouflage her while on a nest during mating season. She definitely doesn’t need a drake to be healthier, but having a duck friend (another female) to hang out with will make her happy 🙂

  2. Brittany Keplinger says:

    How long does it take for them to start laying again?

    1. They should resume laying as soon as they are done molting, which could be anywhere from a week or so to several weeks depending on how big of a molt they are doing (some years will be light molts and others a heavy molt)

  3. liz, I have 3 cayuga ducks, 1drake and 2 hens. one of the hens feathers are looking ruffled and fluffy while the other two are still very smooth. Is it possible she’s showing the beginnings of a molt ? this is my first experience with ducks and they ate about 9 months old.

    1. Hi Sharon, it sounds like she is starting a molt. It is normal for their feathers to look a little rough for a couple weeks. The spring molt is often a lot of the “under” feathers so it can make them look a little disheveled

  4. Hi Liz. I have a male Muscovy Duck that turned up on our property last August. He is a large bird but likely quite young as his mask keeps growing. He didn’t look great when he turned up in winter, kind of soaked but after a few weeks of being fed he became a beautiful white colour. We live in New Zealand so it is nearing the end of what has been a hot summer. We feed Mo veggie scraps, oats, rice, meat etc and live on a large rural property so he has plenty of room to forage. Mo is usually white, a few yellows feathers likely from his oil, but lately he is looking very messy, yellow, stringy tail and wing feathers and there are down feathers everywhere-it would appear he is molting but from everything I’ve read it sounds like Muscovys don’t molt .. or do they ? I’m just concerned that may be he is unwell, although will still eat anything and everything and still so happy to see me everyday! Do you have any ideas?

    1. Hi Wendy, I have never kept Muscovys but from what I understand they don’t have the breeding plumage molt that other domestic Mallard descendant ducks have. So the male color patterns stay consistent throughout the year. But they still have a regular feather maintenance molt where worn out feathers and under-feathers will molt off so they can regrow new ones. This usually happens towards the end of summer/early fall so that they will have nice, new warm feathers for winter. Sounds like that is what is going on with Mo. Sounds like he gets lots of insects while out foraging, but if you want support him during the molt with extra protein snacks like dried mealworms he would appreciate it. Regrowing feathers takes a lot of protein!

    2. I also have a Muscovy that adopted us. He came last fall (2018), almost a year ago. He started by making brief visits. He’d sometimes stay the entire day then leave just before sundown, or arrive late afternoon to stay the night. But he’d mostly always leave, with a few “sleepovers” here and there. We believe he started visiting because of our pool. We have a pool technician who keeps it immaculate every week, and we never use it anyway so we’re not worried about any contamination.

      But this August he arrived one day at the beginning of the month and never left. We were worried he hurt himself. Finally, about 2/3 of the way through August, we woke up and saw him out back. He looked like he exploded overnight! Feathers were everywhere in our backyard! And the feathers on his body were askew and poking this way and that. We assumed the worst, but he seemed just fine.

      So this is how we learned about molting. But the problem with Muscovy molts is that I can’t get a definitive answer on the internet.

      Anyway, he had tiny little chicken wings for about two weeks, then we saw his flight feathers starting to regrow. He previously had a large wingspan with thunderous flapping. It looks like the flight feathers may eventually return to their previous glory, but I’m clueless.

      I felt he stayed this time because he knew he’d be molting, and I have to figure he felt safe in our backyard. I jus wish I knew for sure if Muscovies do this every year, and how long it will take. Also, I have no idea if he will be able to fly afterward. We hope he can. We really love this guy.

      PS: And after reading more about Muscovies, I’m not sure he is a He. His voice and traits tell me otherwise ; )

  5. Hi my female runner appears to have a bare patch above her wing/at the bottom of her neck, it’s only visible when she lifts her wing or preens the area could this be a molt? She’s still ravenous when it comes to food and is laying still. Thanks

    1. Do you have male ducks? Bare spots like that are often from mating behavior (the male’s claws can pull out feathers as they try to balance and they also hold on with their bill and can pull out feathers). If it’s not mating, it can also be from other ducks picking on them and pulling feathers. If you are sure it is neither of these causes, I would check her for mites. She could be overpreening because of parasites causing her to be itchy. Part her feathers and look very closely at her skin to see if you can see the pinhead size reddish bugs running around

  6. Hi we have 2 ducks one is female one is male. We also have chickens. I am almost afraid the ducks grew faster than they should have due to mix feed. Now during molting extra protein being suggested is that true

    1. Ducks grow crazy fast – much faster than chickens. Are they full grown now? They don’t typically molt during their first year – other than losing their baby fluff and growing new adult feathers. Protein is helpful for supporting molting adult birds

  7. My ducks haven’t molted yet. Is that ok? Most of them are 1 this spring

    1. they don’t usually molt the first year, so i would bet your guys will be molting shortly

  8. Three of them this is there second year they hatched spring of 2019, and I just noticed one of the ones that hatched spring of 2019 is molting.

  9. Stan says:

    Will molting ducks still get in their pond or swim? We have a two year old Rouen that is molting now and I’ve noticed that she will not get into her pool even when I toss in her mealworms, which normally she would hop right in for. Now she’s standing at the edge of the pool sucking them up near the edge and trying to move the water around so they get pushed to the edge closer for her to grab!

    1. As their feathers fall out and regrow their natural waterproofing is going to be disrupted, especially in a heavy molt. The new pin feathers can also be really sensitive, so she might just not be in the mood for a swim. I’m sure she will be back in the pool before long!

  10. Joanne Kenney says:

    Hi, I have a female Call Duck and six chickens who all normally live in harmony but I found the duck bleeding and hiding from the chickens who were plucking out her feathers, my duck has molted all her wing feathers.
    I have had to separate her from the chickens.
    Looking for advice, how long should I keep them apart?

    1. oh no! Chickens are known for going after and picking at wounds on their flockmates. I bet your duck nicked one of her pin feathers (the pointy “feathers” that grow out as they are molting), pin feathers can bleed A LOT with just a little nick. And once they saw the blood they probably kept picking. Poor little girl. Definitely keep her separate until she stops bleeding and any scabs have healed over. Hopefully in a week or so she should be much better. Good luck!

      1. Joanne says:

        Thanks Liz, I separated her immediately from the flock and she seems to be well, the bleeding has scabbed over.
        I wasn’t sure how long to keep her in isolation so thank you so much for the advice!

  11. Neil J says:

    Hi, we have 3 peaking ducks and our male looks really dirty and his feathers towards his rear are looking discoloured and not feathery…. any ideas? Our females don’t look like this…

    1. It’s hard to say, but I would start by checking him for parasites (mites, lice, worms). Aside from parasites, you should look into a condition called wet feather. Pekins are susceptible to it. When ducks preen they stimulate their preen gland to release an oil that coats their feather, making them glossy and waterproof. When a duck has wet feather, the preen gland isn’t releasing oil and their feathers can look ragged and dirty. It can happen because of over-preening because of parasites or muddy conditions in their run, or if they don’t have regular access to open water to clean themselves. You will have to wash the duck and dry him completely. Keep him dry for a couple days (you may have to keep him inside), then reintroduce swimming water but keep an eye on him to see if he is getting clean and dry and preening afterwards. In severe cases you might need to keep drying him until he goes through a molt and regrows some new feathers

  12. Lee Nieuwoudt says:

    I loved this article. Particularly your light hearted sense of humour about Alexander. Learnt so much through reading this. Thank you.

    Lee – South Africa

  13. Keri-Ann says:

    I wish I knew what breed my 2 ducks are .. one looks like the duck in a picture here named Alexander.. my other duck looks like a mallard but no green head.. neither of them fly..

    1. Hi Keri-Ann – Alexander is Welsh Harlequin duck. Rouen drakes look pretty similar, but instead of a white based body, their body is more grey like a Mallard’s. Typically only the males have green heads, is your other duck a female? The other possibility is if you just got these ducks, the other duck might have just molted off his green headed nuptial plumage and will be growing back his green head as fall comes on. I purchased most of my ducks from Metzer Farms, maybe if you look at their duck breeds for sale you’ll find one that matches your ducks?

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