It’s a cold, snowy winter day, and you’re out for a walk by the lake. You see ducks swimming on the icy water as a few stray snowflakes drift lazily down.
You pull your parka tighter around you as you appreciate the magnificent poetry of life. Then the thought hits you like a ton of bricks: how in the world are those ducks not completely frozen?
Most animals naturally hibernate or retreat in some other way from extreme cold, but it is a common sight to witness ducks just hanging out in cold water that would freeze our blood.
We need to get to the bottom of this. Don’t ducks get cold in the water?
No, ducks don’t get cold in the water thanks to a combination of excellent insulation, waterproofing, high metabolism, and a specialized circulatory system.
As it turns out, ducks are very well-equipped to deal with cold weather, both in and out of the water.
It makes me chilly just thinking about it, but they really don’t mind it at all unless the weather is truly brutal. Your average cold day won’t faze them at all. Pretty impressive stuff for a duck!
Keep reading to learn more about their remarkable cold weather adaptations.
Ducks Have a Very High Internal Temperature
The average body temperature for a duck is 106°F (41°C), which is significantly higher than the average human’s typical internal temperature of 98.6°F (37°C).
This higher core temperature means that ducks have far greater resistance to cold, and in conjunction with their high metabolism they stay warmer longer.
A duck’s metabolism is so high, in fact, that they must eat regularly in cold weather just to maintain their body temperature. In other words, ducks are always burning up energy, even when they’re just sitting around!
This combination of a high internal temperature and high metabolism helps ducks to withstand cold temperatures both in and out of the water which would spell trouble for other animals, including people!
Ducks are Almost Totally Waterproof
One of the best adaptations that help ducks, especially since they are waterfowl, is their incredible, natural waterproofing.
This is accomplished by the one-two approach of their tightly knit, double-layered feathers and the special oil they secrete called sebum.
Their outer feathers are specially adapted to repel water, and are rendered even more waterproof by a duck’s constant preening with their bill.
The sebum that ducks secrete from their preen gland is distributed across the feathers and acts as a hydrophobic coating, repelling water like, well, like water off a duck’s back!
The benefits of this waterproofing go beyond just keeping ducks warm, however. It also helps to keep them buoyant, which is essential for swimming.
By keeping their feathers from getting wet they float better and stay warmer since soaked plumage would make them far more susceptible to the cold.
This natural waterproofing is so effective that it not only protects them when it’s raining or snowing, but it also keeps them dry and warm even when sitting in icy waters!
Ducks Use Excellent Insulation
The second part of a duck’s feather is the inner layer of down. This down traps heat close to the duck’s body, providing excellent insulation. In fact, ducks have some of the best insulation in the animal kingdom!
This is essential for allowing them to swim in icy waters and remain warm, but it also helps them to survive in extreme cold on land.
Ducks have a lot of down feathers per square inch compared to other birds, and this extra layer of protection in conjunction with their waterproof outer layer and intense body heat traps an envelope of warm air against them.
Just like you wearing that parka in the example above, this layer of warm air prevents heat loss from the duck’s body.
In fact, this duck down is so effective it has long been used as insulation in clothing, comforters, and all kinds of things.
They Keep Moving
When ducks are sitting out on the water holding still or gliding along serenely, they only look like they are at rest.
Just beneath the water’s surface, it is a frenzy of activity in the form of furious paddling! This constant movement helps ducks to stay warm by generating heat through muscle activity.
In addition, it also helps speed the circulation of warmed blood throughout their bodies.
When the water gets too cold for even this to help, ducks will often huddle together in a group to share body heat and keep each other warm.
Ducks’ Have a Special Circulatory System
Perhaps the most remarkable cold weather adaptation ducks have is their circulatory system.
If ducks could be said to have a weak spot in their cold weather defense, it is their feet and legs. There are no feathers there, after all!
So to help them stay warm in icy waters, ducks have a biological countercurrent heat exchange system.
This means that the veins and arteries in their legs are arranged in such a way that the blood always stays at least warm.
This is accomplished by the fact that the arteries carrying warm blood to the extremities are located on the outside of the veins returning cooled blood.
In other words, as the cooled blood returns from a duck’s feet, it is warmed up by the incoming blood headed to the feet.
The result is that less net heat is lost through a duck’s feet despite having little insulation, and by keeping them warmer it allows them to swim for long periods in water that would be too cold for other animals.
Ducks Need “Warming Feed” in the Winter
If you own ducks, you should make it a point to provide them with warming feed in the winter or in any period of prolonged cold.
Warming feed is simply a higher quality feed that contains more nutrients to help ducks generate more body heat.
A good rule of thumb is to switch to warming feed when the temperature first dips below freezing and to continue feeding it until it warms up again in the spring.
Don’t Let Your Ducks Stay Exposed to Cold for No Reason
All these adaptations make ducks extremely well-suited to surviving in cold temperatures, both in the water and on land. But that does not mean they don’t appreciate a nice, warm shelter and protection from the elements.
Ducks kept as pets or for egg production should always have access to a warm, dry place to go when they want to get out of the cold. This can be an enclosed porch, a shed, or even a spacious coop.
Especially when they have plenty of food and somewhere to go to get out of the cold and wind, ducks will usually fare just fine even in frigid conditions.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.