So, Do Ducks Actually Mate for Life?

It’s fun to think of our animals forming long-lasting relationships like we do. The idea that males and females will pair up and live out their days raising babies is certainly heartwarming.

two Mallards eating watermelon
two Mallards eating watermelon

And as happy as it sounds, nature furnishes us many examples of exactly that happening, particularly among waterfowl species. Many mate for life, but not all! How about our ducks, for instance? Will ducks actually mate for life?

No, ducks typically do not mate for life. Most duck species are what is known as seasonally monogamous, meaning they are faithful to and stick by a partner only for a season before separating again to find a new mate next year.

Man, that’s kind of a bummer! Even though there are lots of animals out there that will pair up for life, ducks, as a rule, just aren’t one of them.

That being said, there are lots of nuances to duck mating behavior, and in some cases, or in the case of certain species, longer-lasting bonds can be formed.

Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about their mating habits.

Swans and Geese Often Mate for Life, But Not Ducks 

To clarify, I think this is such a commonly held belief concerning ducks because many, many other waterfowl species do indeed mate for life. For instance, many kinds of geese will mate permanently, sticking by their partner through thick and thin, migrations and more.

But the most famous birds that take mates for life are swans. In fact, swans are synonymous with permanent and everlasting love because of this, and watching a pair paddle serenely around a lake together, practically joined at the hip, is a heartwarming sight.

Unfortunately, ducks don’t, but it’s nothing to be sad over. This is their mating in survival strategy that has served them well since time and memorial. It’s just the way they are! However, the matter is not quite that cut and dry…

Most Duck Pairings Separate After Eggs Hatch

All you need to know concerning the mating behavior of ducks is it the vast majority are, consistently, seasonally monogamous. Nothing much to explain here, the term means exactly what it says: Ducks bond and pair up, and remain faithful to one another, for a season, not a lifetime. 

In short, during the mating season when hens are ready to mate and drakes are out looking for that special lady, whether she’s ready or not, eventually a pairing will be successful and then the two will stick together through nest construction, laying and eventually hatching of the eggs.

This roughly year-long process constitutes the mating season for the purposes of our discussion, and that is only as long as you can expect a pair of ducks to remain bonded.

Once the eggs hatch and the ducklings are born, the male typically splits, though they will usually stick around during incubation to protect the nest, the eggs, and the hen.

Deadbeat Ducks: Drakes Usually Don’t Stick Around to Help Out

Once those eggs hatch, though, the drakes are typically done with the hen and with their progeny. They don’t stick around to help the hen raise them, and won’t protect her for very long at all after hatching.

Talk about deadbeats! Not long after hatching, most males also undergo molting where they ditch their more ornamental feathers, used to attract the attention of a hen in the first place, and then get prepared for a migration in the coming fall and winter.

I know, it’s upsetting and truly heartbreaking to think of that poor hen having to raise a gaggle of ducklings all on her own, but that is just nature for you. However, not all of these separations have a sad ending.

Some Duck Species are Known to Reunite After Seasonal Migration

Believe it or not, some ducks will separate from one another prior to the winter migration, after the babies have hatched, and then reunite later at a communal gathering place, recognizing and choosing each other once again for the following mating season. Pretty incredible!

I already know what you’re going to say: yes, it’d be easier for them to just stick together in the meantime, but this simply is not how it goes in the wild.

And, to be perfectly frank, this behavior is very, very rare among the different duck species out there, and has only been observed to occur some of the time and Goldeneyes, Eiders, Harlequins, and a few others. Even then, it is not a guarantee.

Even when repeated pairings do occur in these species, it is not an indication that it will continually reoccur even if both ducks survive. Sometimes they split, migrate, and are ready to choose a new partner the following year as is the rule.

Ducks Bond More Closely in Domestic Settings

Another interesting thing to keep in mind concerning the mating habits of ducks is that they tend to bond more closely in domestic settings without the pressures of large flocks, outside competition, and migratory urges.

For starters, many domestic duck breeds have been selected for docility and a lack of flightiness, so this changes the dynamic somewhat. Also, ducks that spend more time among the same members of a flock naturally tend to form bonds that are stronger and more lasting.

You won’t necessarily see a drake doting over ducklings in the same way that a hen does, but you’ll notice that he’s certainly more interested in and invested in a given hen than he would be in the wild.

Many owners even report that one part of a pair will be depressed in a domestic setting after losing a mate for any reason, or even if they are separated for a time. This even happens when copulation has not occurred recently or when a hen isn’t brooding over a clutch of eggs.

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