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

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.  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

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).  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.


451 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!

      • Taehyung says:

        Hello I got 3 ducks one is a boy and 2 girls they got along really well but seems hes got feeling for only one of them nowhes always chasing her and biting her s o what could that possibly mean? Is it possible that she can even get killed by him?thanks plz tell me what to do about it thanks

        • Liz says:

          That is too bad – just like humans though sometimes two ducks just don’t click. It’s unlikely he would go as far as to kill her, hopefully given time he will accept her as part of the flock. If he is just giving her quick nips when he chases her, I would let nature run it’s course and let them sort it out themselves. There really isn’t anything you can do to force them to be friends. Keep an eye on them to be sure he isn’t actually hurting her (drawing blood or really being aggressive). If he does start escalating to actual violence, you might need to find a new home for the male or the female that is getting picked on

          • Liz says:

            You need to separate them and let their wounds heal. Unfortunately they can be attracted to raw skin and could just keep picking at each other. You can try Rooster Booster Pick No More, it’s a bitter spray you can spray on their wound and it will taste bad when they get picked on. It will wash off when they go swimming so will need to be reapplied, but it could help if they keep picking on each other.

  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!

      • Allison Maggio says:

        To get friendly with my ducklings i actually tried an imprinting trick where you let them brood with you. I saw a rescuer do it with her ducklings and it’s made mine much more friendly with me. I got them when they were a few days old and sat in bed with a comfortable jacket with the hood pulled up. Then i put them in the hood and let them brood. It took a week or two of this a few hours a day but now they’ll sit in my legs and hang out for some family time. I feel like they accepted me as a part of their group. Now that they’re a bit too big for the hoody they still like to sit with me in/on a blanket while I’m working at my computer.

  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!

      • KENNETH S VANCE says:

        I have Khaki Campbell ducks 6 hens and one Drake. The Drake beets up one of the hens all the time and keeps her separated from the other hens all the time. What’s up with that ?

        • Liz says:

          so sad! It’s just a personality thing, maybe he thinks his harem is big enough without her (unlikely) or maybe he just for some reason doesn’t like her. Are your sure that one is a female? Hopefully he will settle down and let the her back in the group!

          • Jenny Whittington says:

            We have this problem an dit’s so upsetting. It’s even worse because we have 2 drakes ganging up on the one female. It’s mating season here and all our females are laying. This ones eggs were eaten by possums so she’s given up laying. She is now superfluous to the group and will be a burden on the new chicks etc. I think I’ll have to find her a home.

          • Liz says:

            That is so sad! Give her a little time, it can take some time for them to adjust back into the flock after sitting on eggs or raising babies. It’s also possible she might join in to help one of the other females rear her babies. Poor thing. I’d wait and see what happens when the other females hatch their eggs. Hopefully she will find a place!

        • Melinda Rhodes says:

          Kenneth, I was looking online about aggression and found this blog. We have a mixed bird yard 13 ducks, 3 buff American geese (1 juvenile) and 3 chickens. Every once in a while we have an aggression issue. Last night overnight one of my ducks was pecked to death. There is no reasoning to this other than its becoming spring? The gal running this blog said nothing of this. In 35 years of raising birds – this occasionally happens. Very sad. We are feeling very sad this morning. We have a large hen yard with a nice building ~ not over crowded. There is not scarcity. My only suggestion is to keep a close eye to get on top of it BEFORE major injury. For us, this happened overnight so it was done when we opened the house this morning. Watch for signs of aggression.?

          • Liz says:

            oh my goodness – that is so sad! Are you sure it was one of your other birds? Could a rodent or other small animal have gotten in? Chickens unfortunately will pick & peck at open wounds or even recently deceased birds so it can be hard to tell. That said, hormones definitely do start to run high as spring gets closer, which can always bring out aggressive tendencies. Poor little guy

          • Sophia says:

            A few weeks ago we lost our favorite hen. She had the best personality and was the only one. Who let us pick her up. We had one drake with 4 hens and he really chose 2/4 this spring to pick on. Feathers missing, bleed spots on the top of their heads. Sometimes he would just stand on them to exert dominance and didn’t mate. Sometimes instead of just grabbing their heads he would thrash it around a bit. They are completely enclosed at night and once morning I let them all out and called for my last girl, but she didn’t come. I found her in her nest box with her head snapped back. It was horrible. We have kept him separate from the other girls at night now, but he will soon have a new home, this was just too much. It’s heartbreaking to loose her, but I’ll miss him. He keeps himself perfectly washed and walks around like the place is is castle, but always lets the girls eat first and really does look out for them. It’s sad to see him so upset at night when there’s a barrier between him and the girls. They all sleep right up against the barrier too.

          • Liz says:

            oh my goodness that is horrible!! I think you are doing the right thing finding him a new home. Some drakes just really go crazy during mating season. I am so sorry that happened to your flock. Even though his behaviors seem harsh to us, it doesn’t surprise me the girls still want to hang out near him at night. They do get attached to each other

    • Erica Sell says:

      We have the exact same problem at my property. It is so sad and we are searching for solutions as we speak. I think we are planning to purchase more ducks.

      • Amanda Grande says:

        I have these week and a half old ducklings they warmed right up to me and my 1and a half year old daughter friendly not scared until my boyfriends selfcentered brat son tortured them poking at them with kitchen broom banging on there cage screaming at them I told him to stop numberous times he’s a mouthy brat and don’t listen I told his dad his dad didn’t do a damn thing instead ets him and his dad attacked me for saying anything about his brat son but now my baby ducklings are skittish scared run away from me when they never did before I’m so saddened by this how can I get them to come back around?

        • Liz says:

          Ducks are very smart and recognize dozens of human faces. They are going to be skittish for a bit, but eventually they will learn that you are not scary. Whenever you are near them speak quietly, move slowly to earn back their trust. Don’t pick them up right away, rather let them come to you. You can either sit on the floor and let them come up to you and crawl around on you, or you can just lay you hand in their box and let them come up and sit on you or eat out of your hand. They will come around

  4. lindsey says:

    We have 2 adult ducks almost a year old, and just bought more to add to them for more eggs. We have a black indian runner duck that absolutely LOVES my husband its the cutest relationship. she does all the flirting you described and she lays down and lets him pet her and pick her up and she loves to have her but scratched like a cat.