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Understanding Backyard Duck Behavior

Understanding Backyard Duck Behavior
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Ducks are very intelligent animals with complex social relationships.  This is part of what makes keeping ducks so interesting and so rewarding!  Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions about duck behavior and the reason behind them

Duckling 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 fun to have a duck imprint on you, you should also think about the long-term happiness of the duck.  Ducks need nearly constant companionship. Another duck is really the ideal companion for a duck.  If you work or go to school outside the house you should not get a single duck. If the duck is destined to live outside in your yard, you should not get a single duck.

Will she get over it when she is fully grown, she moves outside and 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 a group.  Letting them imprint on a “sibling” will give them a friend to hang out with when you aren’t around. It doesn’t mean the ducklings won’t love you. It just means their entire world doesn’t revolve around you, which in the end is better for the duck.  Click here to read more about raising ducklings

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 eat feed without water, the dry feed just sits in their crop. When they drink again, the food will swell up and possibly choke them.  click here to read more about feeding your backyard ducks

Duck Behavior


Ducks are very flirty!  To flirt, drakes will rise up out of the water shaking their tail and head. They flick water, or play nip (like a grade-schooler poking at the girl he likes on the playground).  They will swim around with their neck outstretched.  Both males and females will bob their heads up and down at each other to flirt.  Females flirt by flattening their bodies out in the water in a mating pose.

Duck Behavior

Drakes & Mating Habits

While all this duck courting & flirting seems sweet & romantic, the process of duck mating can be anything but, surprising many new duck owners. Ducks will usually mate in water, but will also mate on land.  In the 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/neck with his bill to help him balance.

Sometimes a drake can pull out the feathers along the back of the female’s neck and even cause her to bleed while trying to find his balance or while keeping her from running away.  Sometimes it can look like he is trying to drown her, dunking her head in the water repeatedly.  Groups of males have been known to gang up on a female.  It all seems harsh but unfortunately is normal mating behavior for ducks.  It is important to not insert human emotions & relationship expectations into your duck’s relationships with each other.

Male domestic ducks are not monogamous.  They will pick out their favorite female and will spend the most time with her. He will probably be the nicest to her. He might bring her treats or hang out with her while she lays her egg.  But he will mate with any female he has the opportunity to.  The females will pick out their favorite male. That is likely to be the only one she will voluntarily mate with. But a female’s favorite can change, it is not a lifetime preference.

Duck Behavior

Drake Behavior

By far the questions I get the most often center around male duck behaviors.  I’ll just put it out there now – male ducks can be jerks sometimes.  Obviously, I am speaking in general, some of them are very sweet.   I am not sure how they act if they are the only duck living in the house as pet, my experiences are only with them living in a group.  Female ducks are happy to have lots of female duck friends and share the pool and food and bugs and shade tree.  Add a male into the mix and things get complicated.

For about half the year, drakes are pretty chill and generally nice.  Mating season is another story (mid February – mid July in the northern hemisphere).  Their hormones go into overdrive.  They become territorial.  If you keep multiple male ducks you could have some fighting to see who is alpha. They mate and mate and over mate.  Female ducks can even be killed by males’ overly amorous tenancies.   He will not let new ducks into the area easily, and might even chase off & kill his own offspring if he thinks they are taking up too much of the female’s time.

When my drakes see a female in the pool, they run as fast as possible thinking it is an invitation.  The females generally run for the hills because they have had enough of the male nonsense and just wanted to splash in the pool.  The boys will guard the pool and wait.

We have multiple drakes here on the farm.  They are all nice to humans, never challenging us or trying to attack any of us.  They are nice to the chickens (although the presence of our roosters probably helps that).  But sometimes I have to put the males in time out (locked alone in part of the run) for a day or two because they aren’t giving the female ducks a moments peace, or if one of the females has been injured.  It is recommended if you have a drake, you should have at least 3-4 female ducks per drake to keep them…busy.

The female behavior will also change when there is a drake present.  They become less welcoming to new ducks because while drakes are not monogamous, female ducks have their favorite mate and they don’t really like sharing.  The head duck will usually be the one that sticks closest to the drake all day.  If you have multiple drakes, each drake will usually have a “head wife” that he hangs out with most and is the nicest to.  But that won’t stop him from mating all the other ducks on the farm. The females won’t interfere in the mating but she will be sure to let the other females know this is her man.

So why keep a drake? 

They are beautiful with all their colorful plumage.  You have a free source of baby ducklings by hatching out fertilized eggs.  He will protect the females from danger.

It can be difficult to determine the sex of ducklings so many times people just end up with a drake by mistake (this is how we got all of ours).  It doesn’t mean you need to rehome him or eat him.  Just be patient with his personality quirks, and keep an eye out that he isn’t hurting the females.  Click here to read more tips about dealing with drakes’ behavior

Other duck behavior – why does my duck………

Tilt their head?  

Ducks can give a mean side eye, but why are they staring you down??  Duck 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. You can especially notice this when they tilt their head sideways to scan the sky for flying predators.

Walk in a line?  

This is also 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 the yard, 9 times out of 10 they are walking in line in a little duck parade.

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!  Sometimes you will see a duck dip their head in the water and forcibly breathe 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 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 or safe in their house where others can be on the lookout.

Preen after swimming?  

After swimming, ducks engage in 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 help keep them waterproof.  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 Behavior
Duck 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 head up and down, often excitedly quacking when they are happy – when they see a duck friend they haven’t seen in a while, 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 side to side, 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.  It’s also something she might do towards the drake of her fancy – claiming him in front of the other females but also as way of telling him he is the chosen one.

Understanding Backyard Duck Behavior

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Don I

Sunday 10th of March 2024

Hi Liz, I've observed a mother duck, followed by her ducklings, and when alarmed, the mother froze with her head down low to the ground and the babies followed this behaviour and did not move until the mother seemed sure there was no danger. It occurred to me that this might be the reason we call out "DUCK" when we need to keep our heads down. What thinkest thou? PS. I could not find any images of this behaviour any where.


Wednesday 13th of March 2024

hahaha! I've never thought of that! I have definitely seen that deer in the headlight type behavior when they are intently watching something. Definitely could be where the phrase comes from!


Wednesday 10th of January 2024

We live by a pond in Florida and there is a variety of ducks that live there as well. Unfortunately one or more of the ducks quacks non=stop,morning,noon and night. It does not appear to have any connection with ducklings. It drives us crazy, especially at night. What would be the reason for this and is there anything we can do to stop it.


Friday 19th of January 2024

Unfortunately there isn't much you can do to stop it. Some ducks are just more talkative than others. It could be there are too many ducks for the area and they are trying to claim the area as theirs or they could be working out mates. They can be really loud sometimes!

Kim nazzari

Friday 15th of December 2023

My male Muscovy duck has exposed joints on wings where feathers won’t grow and wing feathers look unhealthy and blackish he’s a white duck very spoilt COs I hand raised him he was abandoned he’s 12 months old it’s my first time having ducks is there anything I can do to help him


Wednesday 27th of December 2023

That is very odd, I am not sure what could be causing that. Did he get injured? What made the feathers fall out, or did they just never grow? You might want to have him evaluated by a vet to see what could be causing that


Tuesday 26th of September 2023

Hello Very interesting reading btw! Wondering if you could help. I have a 2 week old duckling that ive had since hatch. She's currently with some other ducklings in a rescue centre to socialise with other birds. Its a domestic species however they live wild where I am (how i was given the egg). I live on a boat alongside a large reed bed which is lived in by many waterbirds but the territory is mainly the swedish blues, 2 alpha females (that dont get on) and each of their 2 boyfriends. They allow another group of drakes to hang about too but in breeding season these 6 rule the roost! I had hoped to reintroduce my duckling on to the harbour when shes fledged, keeping her house on the back on my boat and giving her as much time as she needs to leave, feed her daily etc and keep her fenced in until shes curious and brave enough to leave. She's definitely a female.

I have a friend that has 2 week old swedish blue ducklings also, I could get another girl from them so my one has a female companion to live with/ be released with so shes not alone when she comes back from the rescue centre.

Would another female or two be accepted by a wild bunch and just mate off eventually, or would they not be used to the wild life and ultimately be injured?

Because she was a wild laid egg and i feed the birds wild here day and night, I hoped that she could be returned to the wild and be another reproductive female in the harbour, but if it would be better/ safer for her to stay in the rescue centre I can leave her there also. I'm a bit stuck what to do for her! Any help appreciated (:


Wednesday 27th of September 2023

That is a tricky situation and I don't have a ton of expertise with wild birds. Do these Swedish live on the harbor year round? Domestic Swedish ducks don't have the ability to fly (they are too big), but if these birds are wild and have interbred with other wild ducks along the way they may be light enough to migrate in the winter. It's hard to say the lineage of your wild laid duck so she may or may not be able to fly off. On the one hand if she can fly it will keep her safe from predators but will be harder for her to be your "pet". If she can't fly she will be lonely when the other birds migrate, and also will be vunerable to predators. So certainly you will want to have a second or third duck that she can form her own flock with. Check out my article on introducing ducks to each other: I would suggest that you also keep them confined to your boat or area for at least a month before releasing them into the harbor so they know where to come back. They will definitely have fights with the existing ducks. The existing ducks are going to be defending their area. They may or may not be willing to share the harbor. I would suggest you talk to the people at the wild life rescue. They will know a lot more about reintroducing ducks into the wild. I'm sure they will have some good tips for you. Good luck!


Monday 18th of September 2023

I have 2 female ducks, the both lay eggs. One tries to mate with the other in the kiddie pool and almost drowns it. Please advise.


Thursday 21st of September 2023

That is totally normal. It is not actually mating, but a dominance display. That duck is just making sure the other knows who is in charge. Mating & dominance displays can look very rough to humans and sometimes might look like she is trying to drown the other duck. As long as she isn't injuring the other duck, you don't need to interfere with them

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