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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  1. Amanda says:

    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.

    1. 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!

      1. 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

        1. 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

          1. Lisa Hall says:

            My ducks have been picking on each others wing and they are bleeding

          2. 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.

          3. Hailey says:

            I have a male khaki Campbell duck(female got taken by something) and I have it with 6 chickens. He has been with these chickens since he was 2 weeks old. The duck is fine with 4 out of the 6 chickens and the two he doesn’t like are white the others are brown or black. But anyways, when the white chickens are in their roost or getting a drink or a bite to eat sometimes the duck will start biting their neck feathers and start pulling them around. None of them have gotten hurt or shed any blood. When I see him do this I instantly grab him and stop him. I really don’t know what else to do. None of them are over a year old yet. The duck I’ve had since he was a day old and he used to be sweet but he just started doing this a couple months ago. We really don’t have enough room for anymore ducks and the duck we have now seems really happy he always wags his tail and quacks when he sees me.

          4. Unfortunately male ducks can sometimes be jerks. Your little guy is in his adolescent phase which can often be the hardest time. He wants to show everyone he is in charge. It’s possible the white chickens are currently the top of the chicken pecking order and that is why he targets them. It can be challenging to keep a single male duck in a flock of chickens with no other ducks around. When mating season comes around in the spring you might need to separate him. Chicken & duck anatomy is very different and if he tries to mate the chickens because he doesn’t have a female duck around he could end up killing or seriously injuring one of the hens. It is not surprising this attitude is just surfacing now, as he has reached maturity his territorial hormones are causing him to act out. You should really consider getting at least one female duck for him, or possibly a rooster to keep him in line and stop him from bullying the hens. You might be interested in reading my article about keeping a drake: https://thecapecoop.com/keeping-drakes-in-your-duck-flock/

          5. Lauren says:

            I have a male pekin duck that has recently started walking circles anytime me or my bf go in the yard sometime he will go between our legs what cause this behavior we also have a female pekin duck and 2 other type of ducks but they are much younger then he is what is causing him to do this

          6. that is very unusual. Is he circling around you? Males will do that sometimes with their mate as a flirty behavior and ducks will definitely sometimes exhibit flirty behavior with their caretakers. Do you know if he is doing this when you guys aren’t around (can you observe him from a window or something where he wouldn’t notice you)? I am just wondering if this is something he is doing when he is excited to see you or if it is an issue he is having. Neurological issues and vitamin deficiencies often present with circle behaviors or walking backwards

      2. Jennifer Acevedo says:

        I have two baby ducks and one of them always has his bent down. There are times were he tends to flip flop from it. We thought it was wry neck but its not cause at times he neck seems fine. Help?

        1. I would assume this is beginning stages of wry neck and treat it as such. It is a vitamin deficiency, so some days he might be getting what he needs and is feeling better. It sounds like he is just borderline with the deficiency, but you want to act before it become worse or permanent. Vitamin E and B are usually the culprits for wry neck. You should be supplementing all duckling diets with brewer’s yeast for niacin, but it also is high in thiamine which is the B vitamin that could cause wry neck if they don’t get enough. So if you aren’t already giving them brewer’s yeast, definitely start that now (click here to read more about this: https://thecapecoop.com/ducklings-niacin/) To help up his vitamin E levels you can get a general poultry vitamin/electrolyte mix (just check to be sure it includes vitamin E), or you can offer some natural sources like oregano, spinach, pumpkin, asparagus, broccoli, or collard greens.

          1. Sam says:

            I have a female duck in my yard all day. I’ve looked everywhere she doesn’t have a nest she had explosive diarrhea earlier and I just don’t know what to do. She appears to be frozen most of the time. When she does move it’s very slowly. She makes no sounds, and sometimes her mouth is open. What should I do?

          2. You should call a wildlife rescue, it’s possible she got into something (like lawn chemicals) and is not feeling well. She might just need some time to rest, but without knowing what happened to her, a rescue is the best bet

          3. Tammy Hayes says:

            I have a male and female duck that are about 4 months old. I recently bought 2 more which were supposed to be females how ever it is a male and female. My 4 month old male is not very happy about this. Is there anything I can do to make the situation better. I’m always there when I put the little ones in the yard but I’m afraid that when they are old enough to be in the yard I will have a mess on my hands.