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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 I get about duck behavior and the reason behind them


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.  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 full grown & you move her 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 at least pairs.  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 were to eat 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.  click here to read more about feeding your backyard ducks

Duck Behavior


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).  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 will flatten their bodies on the surface of the water in a mating pose around males to flirt with ones they are interested in.

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 and probably be the nicest to her, bringing her treats.  But he will mate with any female he has the opportunity to.  The females will pick out their favorite male and that is likely to be the only one she will voluntarily mate with.

Duck 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.  Females 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.  Multiple male ducks means 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 rooster probably helps that).  But sometimes I have to put them 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.

Ducklings can be hard to tell the sex of 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 you 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.

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 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 or safe in their house 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 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 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 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.

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Saturday 13th of May 2023

QUESTION: I have three ducklings and they seem to be about 3 weeks old. Not really sure how old they were when sold. I’ve had them for 2 weeks.

One of the ducklings is making a light honking noise when resting. Almost like it’s snoring. It doesn’t seem to suffer from anything but none of the other duckling are making this constant noise. When active it doesn’t make the noise. And it doesn’t necessarily do it all the time.

Is it just a noisy duckling or is it something to worry about? Any help or response will be appreciated.


Wednesday 17th of May 2023

no nothing to worry about as long as she doesn't sound congested or anything while awake. Sounds like she is just snoring lol

Alisha P

Monday 8th of May 2023

Hi, I have had 3 mallard ducks coming to my garden everyday for 2 weeks, 2 male and 1 female. They all get along so well, they swim in the pond, eat seeds and sleep on the grace and then all leave at night time together, none of the 2 males harass the female. Today suddenly out of no-where a new mallard duck flies into the garden and starts pecking at the female, chasing her, picking at her neck, trying to corner her and climb ontop of her. The 2 other males (the friendly ones of the female) were trying to help her and chase the other male away. They were very protective of her, and she was screaming as she didnt want this other duck near her. I eventually managed to break them up so he female could hide and the 'bully' male flew off. He returned again later and i had to do round 2 of the above.

Is there anything i can do to ward off the 'bully' male, anything to scare him or to get him to leave my 3 ducks alone?


Wednesday 10th of May 2023

Unfortunately no, short of keeping the nice mallards in a netted aviary it will be really hard to keep other drakes away (which may or may not be legal where you leave since these are wild ducks). Male ducks can be voracious maters, especially in the spring. It is good that she has her two friendly males, they are the best protection against other rouge males. Things that will scare off the bully male from your yard will also scare off the three nice ducks unfortunately so you wouldn't want to add those things. Providing sheltered places or bushes for them to hide in would be welcome though - then when the bully males are flying overhead the little group won't be spotted


Tuesday 2nd of May 2023

Hi, My daughter and I visit a residential nature preserve lake area in suburban Chicago most mornings before school. There are a lot of birds... ducks, geese and cranes. Been noticing lately that there are a lot of male mallards, at least a dozen for only one small young looking female that I have seen. Is this a problem?


Tuesday 2nd of May 2023

The females are likely all nesting this time of year. They have to sit on their eggs for about a month, only getting up briefly to eat and relieve themselves. The males have no part in incubating eggs or raising young so when the females are off doing that they tend to form little bachelor flocks. It is certainly not great for the lone female to be the only female among all the males. Hopefully she is too young for mating and the males will leave her alone for now. Geese & cranes tend to share parenting duties, with males helping raise the young and will sit with the female or take turns incubating eggs. But for the ducks it's just on the females to rear the young - they will chase the males away if they come near their nest


Thursday 13th of April 2023

I'm looking for advice on what to do after the ducklings hatch. A duck has made herself at home in our backyard and has a clutch of what looks like 11 eggs. Not sure as to how long they've been there as we just discovered this yesterday 4/11 when my husband was trimming the bushes. We are leaving the nest alone but would prefer not having to take care of them. We have our backyard area gates blocked due to trying to keep out skunks. Since the ducklings won't be able to fly for several weeks we would like to have them herded out of our yard. We also have coyotes in our area and don't want to see any of them getting injured or killed. Our neighbor's cat has also taken an interest in coming into our backyard lately. Who do I contact to please help me with getting them to a safer place once they've hatched?


Sunday 16th of April 2023

Hi Connie, you are correct, the ducklings will not be able to fly for about 8 weeks. 2-3 days after they hatch the babies will start to explore and leave the nest area. Mom will lead them to a food source. If you do not want them living in your yard, once you notice the ducklings up and about, I would open one of the gates and herd them out by simply walking behind them. The babies should follow right behind mom. Unfortunately, wild ducks need to contend with predators. On average only about half make it to adulthood, it is just an unfortunate part of the life of a wild duck. You can contact a local wildlife rescue (your town hall or animal shelter should be able to provide you with contact information). They will relocate the family to a wooded area or perhaps a pond, but they are still going to have to contend with predators so they won't necessarily be any safer than you herding them out your gate.


Friday 31st of March 2023

My drake continuously "smacks his lips" sometimes. Why is this?


Saturday 1st of April 2023

That is strange and not something I've ever noticed in my ducks. Drakes have a low raspy quack, is it possible he is just quietly quacking making it look like he is smacking his lips? Otherwise, you might want to look inside his mouth and compare it to one of your other ducks to see if everything looks normal with his beak and tongue.

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