Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ducks

mother duck with two duckings swimming in a waterway next to tall green grass

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Ducks are found near both freshwater and seawater and on every continent in the world except for Antarctica. The following are answers to the most common questions about the ducks you see everywhere. 

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Do All Ducks Fly?

A Falkland steamer duck stands on the rocks. It's incapable of flying
A Falkland steamer duck stands on the rocks. It's incapable of flying.

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Most species of ducks have wings that are short, strong, and pointed to accommodate the bird's need for fast, continuous strokes, as many duck species migrate long distances in the winter months. 

But not all ducks fly. Domesticated ducks—particularly those that were born in captivity and raised by humans—usually don't fly because they don't have to. They have plenty of food and shelter where they are, and danger is at a minimum. But there are also a number of wild duck species, like the Falkland steamer duck, whose wings are so short that they are incapable of flight. 

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Is That a Duck or a Goose?

Close-up of a fluffy yellow duckling
Ducks and ducklings are social birds and are known to become depressed and may not live long if raised alone.

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Ducks and geese are both members of the waterfowl family and share many common characteristics. For example, they both have webbed feet that function as flippers underwater. They also have similar broad, flattened bills and waterproof plumage.

However, you'll be able to tell these birds apart by their size: ducks are smaller and geese usually have longer necks. In addition, geese generally prefer grasslands, while ducks are often found near ponds or lakes.

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Is It a Drake or a Hen?

Portrait of a colorful male mandarin duck
An image of a drake mandarin duck, which is native to China and Japan.

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A male duck is called a drake. A female is referred to as a hen. And baby ducks are called ducklings. So how can you tell a drake from a hen?

In almost all cases, male ducks have more colorful plumage, while the female's feathers tend to be drab and plain. This is because male ducks need to be able to attract a female, but the females—especially when protecting their babies and nest—need to be able to blend into their surroundings to hide from predators. 

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What Do Ducks Eat?

A child feeding ducks on a farm
Domestic ducklings are fed a special diet that contains all of the nutrients they need to remain healthy.

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Contrary to what you might see around the pond, the main foods ducks eat are not bread or popcorn. Ducks are omnivores, which means that they eat both plants and animals.

Ducks feed on a wide variety of foods—aquatic plants, small fish, insects, worms, grubs, mollusks, salamanders, and fish eggs. One species of duck, the Merganser, mainly eats fish.

If you're looking to feed the ducks at a nearby pond avoid feeding them bread, crackers, or other human foods with no nutritional value. Instead, give them the types of treats they would naturally eat, such as grapes, birdseed, oats, and cracked corn.

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What's the Difference Between a Diver and a Dabbler?

A mallard duck dips headfirst into the water. This makes it a dabbler
A mallard duck dips headfirst into the water. This makes it a dabbler.

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Ducks can be divided into two categories—diving ducks and dabbling ducks. Diving ducks and sea ducks—also called scaups—dive deep underwater in search of food. Mergansers, buffleheads, eiders, and scoters are all diving ducks. These ducks are usually heavier than their dabbling duck peers—this helps them stay underwater.

Dabbling ducks are another category of duck. These birds live primarily in shallow water and feed by dipping their heads underwater to scoop up plants and insects. Dabbling ducks might also feed on land in search of insects and aquatic plants. Mallards, northern shovelers, American wigeons, gadwalls, and cinnamon teals are all dabbling ducks.

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Do They Say More Than Just 'Quack'?

A black and white male lesser scaup flaps its wings. Males are generally silent, making only soft calls during courtship
A male lesser scaup is generally silent and only makes soft calls during courtship.

Brian E. Kushner / Getty Images

Sure, some ducks do quack—especially female dabbling ducks. But other ducks have a wide range of noises and calls that they make. 

From whistles and coos to yodels and grunts, ducks have a lot of different things to say. In fact, the scaup—a variety of diving duck—gets its name from the noise it makes which sounds like—you guessed it—"scaup."

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Is It True That Duck Quacks Don't Echo?

A close-up of a female duck in a group, which would be called a raft, team, or paddling
A close-up of a female duck in a group, which would be called a raft, team, or paddling.

James Lesemann / Getty Images

There is an urban legend floating around that the quack from a duck does not produce an echo. As intriguing as this notion is, it has sadly been disproven. 

Researchers at the Acoustics Research Centre at the U.K.'s University of Salford debunked this myth in 2003 at the British Association's Festival of Science.

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What Makes Ducks Such Good Swimmers?

Close-up of a swimming duck's webbed feet
Close-up of a swimming duck's webbed feet.

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Many duck species are as at home on the water as they are on land and in the air. Ducks have two unique features that make them such good swimmers—webbed feet and waterproof feathers.

A duck's webbed feet are specifically designed for swimming. They act as paddles, helping ducks swim fast and far, and because ducks don't have any nerves or blood vessels in their feet, they can easily tolerate cold water.

Ducks also have waterproof feathers that help keep them dry and insulate them from cold water. Like many birds, ducks have a special gland called a preen gland near their tails that produces oil. Using their bills, ducks can distribute this oil while preening to coat their feathers and provide a layer of waterproofing that keeps them slick in the water.

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How Many Ducks Hatch in One Season?

A mother duck and her 11 ducklings
It's a lot of work for a mother duck to keep so many ducklings safe from predators.

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Ducks usually seek out their mates in the winter. As they find a partner, they will stay with that one mate for the next year but then may move on to other partners for the next mating cycle.

For most duck species, the female lays anywhere from 5 to 12 eggs and then tend to those eggs in her nest until they hatch after about 28 days. The number of eggs that a female lays is directly related to the amount of available daylight—the more daylight she has been exposed to, the more eggs she will lay. 

Mother ducks have to work hard to keep their brood safe and together while her ducklings are growing. Baby ducks are frequently preyed upon by hawks, snakes, raccoons, turtles, and large fish. Male ducks generally stay with the other males, but they guard the territory by chasing away predators whenever possible.

Mother ducks lead their ducklings to water shortly after birth. Ducklings are usually able to fly within five to eight weeks.

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How Long Do Ducks Live?

Four Muscovy ducks in the dirt.
Wild Muscovy ducks live between 8 to 12 years, while those in captivity live about 20 years.

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The lifespan of a duck depends upon a number of factors, such as what species of duck it is and whether it lives in the wild or is raised on a farm, as well as the number of eggs it lays (more eggs, shorter life).

In the right conditions, a wild duck can live as long as 20 years. Domestic ducks typically live from 10 to 15 years in captivity.

According to the book "Guinness World Records," the oldest duck ever to have lived in the United Kingdom was a female mallard duck that lived to be 20 years, 3 months, and 16 days old before she died in August 2002. 

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Do Ducks Have Teeth?

High angle view of a Mallard duck with mouth open, showing off its tongue
A peek into the inside of a Mallard duck's mouth.

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Like other species of birds, ducks do not have any actual teeth, but many species do have rows of thin bristles in their mouths that help them scoop and filter nutrient particles out of the water. These bristles aren't teeth, but they sure do look like them.

Incidentally, this water filtering system is similar to the way in which whales feed in the ocean.