Anyone that keeps ducks can attest to the moment of sheer 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. Then 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. They provide the means for flight, insulation, flotation, camouflage, & the ability to attract mates. They want to keep their feathers in tip-top shape. 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. They start at the head and end with the tail. 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. They drop nearly all their feathers at once and regrow new ones in a matter of weeks. No wonder duck keepers worry at the huge mound of molted feathers!
Ducks have two main molting periods during the year, one in late winter/early spring and the other in late summer.
Early Spring Molt
The spring time molt is the more subtle molt. 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 the breeding season. 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 any available hen. Hens might be protective of their favorite drake, or of their nests. Drakes will want to really show off their flashy new feathers by strutting about the yard, flapping their wings.
Late Summer Molt
The summer molt is the major molt of the year. It usually happens over the course of 2-3 weeks around late 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. For wild ducks, this means they lose the ability to fly for a couple of weeks until their new feathers grow in.
Will my ducks be naked?
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. The top feathers just gradually are 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 late summer molt usually lasts about two weeks.
Slow down in egg production
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. 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?
How can you help your ducks during molting?
Waterfowl feathers are made of 86% amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). 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 they are molting, switching to a higher protein feed, providing extra meal worms, or extra free ranging time can 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.