How to Understand the Behavior of Your Ducks

I studied body language at university and even wrote a course on it – human body language that is. But when you own as many animals as I do, you get to know each one’s personality (yes, I am one of those people who consider my pets to be children).

Indian runner and Pekin ducks
Indian runner and Pekin ducks

Each animal displays different emotions in different ways.

Whether it is a grinning dog, a cat who plops itself down on my keyboard while I am trying to work, a horse that stampedes me when I arrive at the stables, parrots that chomp down just to get a reaction, or ducks that cuddle, they all have their own unique ways to tell us they are happy, sad, sick, scared, or even confused.

I am not related to Dr. Doolittle, but my husband and I can do pretty neat voiceovers for all our animals.

We understand that they all have emotions, but how can we tell what they are actually trying to tell us?

Ducks are definitely one of the cutest little people on earth; and they are really easy to understand if you know what you are looking for. Understanding your duck’s behavior could save your duck’s life!

The more you interact with your ducks (all your animals really) the easier it will be to spot when all is not well with them. So, what is your duck quacktually saying?

Head Bobbing

head bobbing is probably the funnies duck behavioral sign.. but what does it mean? Well, it depends.

Ducks may bob their heads up and down because they’re happy, to greet another duck, or as a mating signal, but when they bob their heads left to right it means that they’re angry, or as a warning sign for other ducks to keep distance.

Head Bobbing and Excited Quacking

If your ducks bob their heads up and down and excitedly chatter, to say they are happy would be the understatement of the year! For ducks, this is how they show that they are very happy.

They will often do this when they get their favorite treat, when they see each other after being separated for a while, or when their pool is clean.

This is the behavior you want to see from your ducks. But make sure that they are all doing this. It is easy to overlook one quiet duck who is not feeling well when everyone else is throwing the party of the season.

Sideways Head Bobbing

This is not the happy, excited bobbing. Normally, it is a senior member of the family – usually the female – doing this.

When a female does this, she could be reprimanding one of her ducklings for straying too far away, or she could be warning other females to back away from her drake (they definitely are jealous of their men), or she could even do this to claim the drake as hers by giving him a stern talking to in front of the other females.

There will be a lot of angry quacking associated with sideways bobbing. She is letting the other females and her drake know exactly who is boss.

She can also be warning you that you are in her territory, and she is not happy about that. This behavior is normal for wild ducks as they see humans as predators.

Your ducks will probably trust you, because you = treats and food. A tame duck will probably not give you the stink eye, but may do so to any visitors.

Blowing Bubbles in the Water

All cuteness aside, ducks will often stick their faces in the water and forcibly exhale. This is part of their normal grooming.

Imagine if you had to get your water in a muddy pond or in amongst the grass, you would get sand, grass, and mud up your nostrils for sure. Ducks have that exact problem.

They blow bubbles to expel dirt from in their nostrils so that they can clean out their nostrils – like blowing your nose on a tissue.

ducks on the winter homestead
ducks on the winter homestead

Head Tilting

You will often see your ducks tilting their head to one side. They look very curious when they do this, and that is because they are curious – literally.

Duck’s eyes are fixed in their heads. They cannot move their eyes. To see what is around them, ducks have to move their heads to tilt their eyes in whichever direction they want to look.

They often look up at the sky like this because they are watching for any sign of danger. They can look pensive, thoughtful, curious, wary, or even like they are giving you the ‘stink eye’. But really, all they are doing is looking around.

Walk or Swimming in A Line

Ducks walk in a line for safety reasons.

Because of their eye placement, they cannot look forward and maintain good peripheral vision. Therefore, the lead duck focuses on where they are going, guiding everyone behind him or her while the ducks that are following scan the sides for any sign of danger.

Sleeping with One Eye Open

Ducks sleep with one eye open for a very nice to have reason: their brains have two completely independent halves. One half controls one eye, while the other half controls the other.

When they sleep, one half of the brain is wide awake keeping watch for danger, while the other half is sound asleep. The two halves of the brain are also active when ducks are walking in a line to keep watch of both sides.

I have days when I wish I could sleep with one side at a time.

Tail Wagging

Ducks wag their tails when they get out of the water, or when they expect or receive a very tasty treat. This behavior indicates pleasure and enjoyment. They are cuter than a puppy wagging its tail when they do this.

For ducks, tail wagging is their happy dance.

Digging Holes in Puddles

Ducks love to dig down deep into mud puddles with their bills. They are not playing games in the mud. They are actually foraging for food. This is because insects tend to move toward air after the rain, making for an easy meal for the ducks.

This can be very annoying if you don’t want gaping holes in your property, but it is a valuable source of food for the ducks.

Courtship Behavior

Male ducks are not monogamous, but they do develop stronger bonds with some females than others. They will pay these females more attention than to others.

Females often select one drake to mate with and, to the best of her abilities, she will resist any other male trying to mount her. Females will not stop their drake from mating with other females, but she will make sure everyone knows that he is her mate.

Each drake should have access to four or five females to ensure the females are not over-mated.

Drakes often fawn over that one special lass they really like, bringing her tasty treats, flick water or nip to flirt, and be always looking for an opportunity to mate with her.

Because ducks mate mostly in water – although they do occasionally mate on land – there can occasionally be misunderstandings, and it is always the male who is clueless.

For the male, every time a female gets into the water she is ‘in the mood’. Sound familiar? That is why they haul tail for the water whenever a female takes a dip. While he is hoping, she is often just living her best life, doing what ducks do – swimming.

She will set him straight with a couple of stern words (loud, angry quacking) and will hastily move away from the unwanted flirt and he will often retreat to the edge of the pond to await an invitation and guard the pool.

The females do not always have the last say in mating though. In duck culture, the female can yell or try to run, but often she will be ganged up on by multiple males waiting for a turn to mate with her.

Mating Behavior

The first time you see your ducks mating can be quite alarming. This harassment looks vicious!

It will look like he is either trying to bite her head off or drown her by dunking her head underwater. This is normal mating behavior. Do not intervene.

The female will spread herself flat on the surface to form a makeshift surfboard on the water or on land for the male who will mount her back and, using his bill, hold on to her neck for balance while mating.

Often feathers will come loose. It will look like he is hurting her, do not panic. If you intervene, you will in all likelihood incur his wrath.

Drakes are very territorial over their environment and the ducks in their flock. Especially during mating season, you do not want to come between a male and his mate.

During mating season, drakes are more aggressive. Their hormones drive them crazy. They become so territorial that they may fight and even kill other males who are mating with their females.

Occasionally, the female caught in the middle will get hurt or even killed. The drive to mate and the territoriality is to blame. You will probably find the same drake who is wreaking havoc is as sweet as can be outside of the mating season.

Preening After Swimming

Ducks preen after swimming by rubbing their heads all over their bodies and especially under their wings and tail feathers.

If you watch closely, you will see that they seem to rub under their tail more than anywhere else. This is because they have a preening gland under their tails that secretes natural oil which they are spreading over their bodies while preening.

This oil is what makes their feathers waterproof, enabling them to stay reasonably dry and warm.

Excessive Preening

If your duck is constantly preening, biting its skin or feathers, or pulling feathers, it is likely that he or she has a problem with mites, or could be having a skin reaction to something in the environment or in the food they are getting.

First, check for mites. If you don’t see any, give your duck a good wash. If the excessive pruning continues, consider taking him or her to the vet for a checkup.

Shunning

Ducks are very social animals, but occasionally they will shun a member of the group. They do this by chasing and biting the shunned member, or chasing it away when food or treats are being offered.

This is normally because of a territorial issue. Often you will find the shunned duck is a drake and the drake in charge does not want to share his females.

Occasionally, the shunned duck will be shunned as a result of a health issue. This occurs in many animal species, that if a herd or flock member is ill or near death it is chased off by the others.

The accepted scientific view on this is that the other animals sense the shunned animal will not live long and therefore do not want to waste their food supply by allowing the shunned member near the food.

If you have a duck that is being shunned, I suggest you separate it from the others, and give it extra food and vitamin boosters to help it fight off any illness in case they are shunning it due to poor health.

If it is a drake, it will need to be removed to restore the peace.

ducks bathing in pond on the homestead
ducks bathing in pond on the homestead

Understanding Imprinting Behavior

You might have heard the expression before: “imprinted like a baby bird.” Turns out this isn’t just an expression. Baby ducks really do imprint on the first thing they interact with repeatedly when they first clamber out of their shells.

This first and most important relationship in the duckling’s life will affect it forever after. Normally this would be its mother, both in nature and on your homestead if you allow your hen to hatch her eggs.

But if you are raising eggs in an incubator in order to hatch them yourself, your ducklings will imprint on you!

In more ways than one you become the little ducks parent. It will be happier and more content when you are around, and it will be sad and stressful when you aren’t.

This isn’t something to take lightly, no matter how adorable the concept sounds! Ducks, like pretty much all domestic birds, are generally social and require plenty of interaction in order to grow healthy and thrive. 

For this reason, even if you just want a duck for a pet you shouldn’t get just one. Multiple ducks will make up the balance when you aren’t around since they will have each other to rely on and interact with.

And don’t think that just because your ducks reach adulthood this imprinting will end; far from it, and you will likely be your ducks favorite companion for the rest of their life.

You can make your life easier and give your flock a better quality of life all the same by making sure they have multiple siblings around them at all times.

A duck that is truly emotionally dependent on you and you alone will be a nervous wreck whenever you aren’t around, and I know you don’t want that for your precious, feathered friend.

Tail Down

Occasionally an egg can become stuck in the oviduct.

You will see that your duck appears to be straining a lot. She may look apprehensive or stressed out. Her tail will be pointed sharply down, and she will flick it about a lot.

This is a very serious emergency.

You should immediately try spreading Vaseline on her vent area to help lubricate her to make it easier to release the egg.

It is also helpful to bring her inside, keep her warm, and let her float in a warm bath. If the egg is still not able to come out, you should consult with your vet within 24 hours.

Aggression

Just like people, not all ducks get along with each other. They can get quite vicious with each other, even going so far as to kill the duck they do not get along with.

Ducks will show aggression by sticking out their necks and running straight at whoever they are mad at.

This is mostly related to territorial or mating issues where drakes fight over the females or females fight over a drake. But it can be a simple personality clash.

Keep an eye out for aggression. You may need to rehome the second drake if they cannot learn to live with each other.

Running Away or Shying Away from Contact

If you find your ducks run away from you when you are around, this is their way of dealing with an uncertain, stressful situation.

It could be that they are not used to interactions with humans, or that they have had a bad experience with humans. It could also be that you are just wearing different clothing that has them wary.

If they are used to seeing you in shorts and a t-shirt, a long flowing red dress could send alarm bells ringing for them.

If they are afraid of you, you can gradually imprint yourself on them by feeding them treats that you bring closer and closer to you.

They will soon figure out that you are not a danger, that you are actually someone they want to have around – even if it is just for treats.

Guarding or Not Leaving the Nest

During the breeding season, you may find your female ducks do not want to hang around with you. Instead, they prefer spending their time sitting on their nests – regardless of whether or not they are sitting on eggs.

This is normal behavior as they are responding to a strong nesting instinct. They know that they should be producing eggs now as they are in mating season and they know how to care for their eggs.

They are simply responding to their mothering instincts.

Shivering

Ducks often shiver when they are excited. This often accompanies a showing of affection.

If your ducks are tame, they will often flock around you and shiver until you sit down and love on them. They will often sit on your lap or rub themselves against you looking for some attention.

Going Bottoms-Up in Water

One of the silliest sights you will ever see is a duck bum bobbing above the water. Ducks stick their heads in the water, tilting their bottoms up to search for fish, bugs, and plants in the water to eat.

Conclusion

Ducks are super cute! That is an undeniable fact. Sometimes what they do makes no sense to us, but they are very intelligent.

They can recognize different colors. They can recognize different animals. They can recognize different ducks… and they can recognize different people.

While most of their behavior is centered around food, mating, and territory, they can be exceptionally affectionate animals.

Getting to know your animals will help you understand the psyche of each one and help you recognize when one of them needs your help. While it is often best to let them sort out their own issues, sometimes even ducks need a helping hand.

I hope that you have gained some valuable insight into your duck’s behavior from this article. I would love to hear from you about your duck’s quirky behavior. Tell us about your aquatic family in the comments below.

duck behavior pin

11 thoughts on “How to Understand the Behavior of Your Ducks”

  1. Many thanks for this info,very useful as we’ve one that was dropped by a predator and came to us for safety and finished up living with us.

  2. I love all this info. I’m still learning my ducks. One thing I can’t seem to find is what it means when a duck rubs its bill up my arm. I’ll be sitting there feeding them worm and mostly my male pekin will come up and just one sweep up my arm ( his bill is closed, so he isn’t trying to bite me) and then back to pecking at the worm or the ground. I don’t think he is being mean… because he is the one who lets me hold him the most out of my 3.

  3. Any thoughts on why my male ducks become so aggressive attacking the chickens every time it rains? I only have the 2 male ducks, rouens. The rest are chickens. And it is one chicken they harass relentlessly. We usually let her in the house when it rains because of this. Any idea what is taking place with this aggressive behaviour when it rains?

    1. They may be getting excited when it rains. Our ducks go crazy in the rain. They love it! or perhaps looking for a mate. Have you looked into two females rouens?

  4. Thank you for the information! We bought 4 little ducks knowing very little 2 years ago. We absolutely love them. They really are the cutest little animals. They have a kennel in our home and go to the pond outside every morning and when it gets dark they come back to the porch to come inside for the night. We just added 4 more to their crew. And then 50 wild Canadian geese showed up for the winter (but they don’t come in at night lol). The more the merrier!

  5. I have a male duck with another female and a chicken and now when he sees me near he will do a strange noise very loud and come towards you slowly when near, they his head feathers go up and his noise will become louder and faster until all of his tail shales fast… he doesn’t go at it to bite but has bitten I’m confused if it’s agression or a way of affection. it does seem aggressive the sound is like a hissing sound

  6. I recently adopted 4 ducks and they are currently under 5 weeks old. One duck, the largest, has been nipping at the others tail feathers and sometimes even pulls some small ones out–but it seems to only happen when enjoying water play. They aren’t old enough to mate, have lots of food, and seem to get along outside of the water. It’s not a charge, but is kind of sneaky…is this playing? Normal aggression? Nothing I’ve read mentions this.

  7. Many thanks for a very nice and instructive article.
    Almost all the examples were familiar from the behavior of my duck family.My ducks seem to be very happy because they are shaking and jumping up and down constantly rubbing against my hand.The only thing that is strange to me is that the male duck is showing the place to the rooster. The rooster is afraid of the male duck and runs away along the edge of the wall.But when the ducks are outside the garden in the grass, the rooster does his rooster business normally.Overall, my birds are happy as much i have understood.

  8. Earlier this Spring I’d a pair of mallards nesting out back. After a few weeks of absence I’ve noticed the female revisiting me. Last night, I noticed her making a fuss, quacking as though in distress. This morning she was still at it for an hour or so after sunrise. Any ideas?

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