Ducks have a language all their own. Learning how to interpret both the sounds they make and their behavior can provide keepers with a keen insight into how the ducks feel, what they need, and if predators are lurking about.
The verbal language ducks use can vary widely by breed among both domesticated and wild ducks.
The non-verbal language or behaviors of ducks can vary also, but not quite as wide as the sounds these poultry birds make. Interpreting duck behavior can begin mere moments after a duckling is born and continue to involve as the meat and egg bird ages.
Ducks will bob their head from side to side when they’re unhappy, and wiggle their tail, quack, or bob their head up and down when they are happy.
|Duck Behavior||What Does It Mean?|
|duckling squeaking||when its voice is changing|
|side-to-side head bobbing||when they’re unhappy or angry|
|up-and-down head bobbing||when they’re either happy or ready to mate|
|hissing||when they feel threatened|
|sleeping with one eye open||to stay on guard for predators|
|preening after taking a bath||to release natural oils that offer waterproofing|
|rapid quacking||when alerting the others of a predator or danger|
Table of Contents:
Duck Verbal Language
Both drakes (male ducks) and hen (female ducks) typically develop vocal “speech” patterns that sound unique enough that a keeper can easily differentiate between the two.
Drakes generally communicate verbally in a lower tone and in a more rapid manner. A hen usually takes a more demanding and higher tone when communicating with her ducklings and other flock members.
Although we will never be sure exactly what one duck is saying to another, the members of the flock seem to easily understand each verbal and non-verbal cue.
It will not take long before you begin to get the gist of what the duck flock wants though, especially if you are late to the coop at feeding time. Adamant free-ranging ducks have been known to show up on a keeper’s doorstep calling them out to tend to the chore.
It will not matter if you purchased day old ducklings from a breeder or hatched your own either inside of an incubator or via a momma hen, all adorable tiny ducklings will have the same instinctive verbal and non-verbal language and actions once they finish poking their well out of a shell.
Mature male ducks usually produce a deeper and more rapid sound than mature females. Ducklings have an evolving vocal pattern.
A female duck can sound bossy or grumpy even when she is happy. Males, as they mature, the high-pitched sound a duckling makes will give way to the deeper sound associated with their breed and sex.
Duck hens quack for a broad range of reasons: to call their ducklings, and when they are in the process of laying an egg, to show happiness, or to alert about the presence of a predator.
If you hear a duck hen quacking or honking repeatedly in a high-pitched tone, she could be calling her mate or alerting him to her whereabouts.
A hen can also use quacking or honking to alert other females in the flock that she has claimed a drake for her mate. While ducks do not mate for life, they can be seasonally monogamous.
Typically, although it can vary by breed, both male and female ducks quack loudly at first and then more quietly as their string of conversation continues.
Some duck breeds, especially wild ones, make a whistling and/or raspy sounding quack so they can communicate more quietly, and attract less attention from predators.
In addition to the quacking sounds ducks also honk (especially the ladies of many breeds) and make a series of other tell-tale noises. The duck language is specific to what the poultry bird is trying to convey to other members of the flock.
For instance, ducks will make a specific sound when warning others about a looming threat from a potential predator. A different sound or pitch will be made by ducks when they think it is feed time, to call their mate, etc.
The louder the sound a duck makes, the more urgent a message it is trying to share.
Ducks may make any of the following sounds when they are scared, courting, excited, or hungry:
There are many times that a duck needs to relay a message or wants other members of the flock to know what it wants without making a sound. The non-verbal duck language can be just as informative as the sounds the poultry birds make.
The term “sitting duck” was coined with good reason. Ducks have no natural defenses against predators, especially domesticated ducks which can not fly in any real sense of the word. Being able to communicate without saying a word can truly be a life-saving instinct of these adorable egg and meat producers.
The sounds you hear coming from the duck coop can also let you know what the flock members are doing at any given time.
Non-Verbal Duck Language Behaviors
- A soft rustling sound combined with a small amount of splashing generally means a duck is filtering along the pond or pool surface snagging a little drink or snack.
- A long splash followed by a gliding sound means the duck is skinning gently across the surface of the water.
- A rustling sound indicates that grass, brush, or dried leaves usually means a duck or ducks are foraging for food under protective cover from predators.
- A sudden loud flash can mean a duck or ducks are “running” across the water and might be trying to catch the wind and fly – possibly because a threat is near.
- The pitter-patter type of sound means the ducks are using their webbed feet to move quickly on dry ground or through a mud puddle.
What a duckling sees during the first 60 minutes of its young life will critically impact its behavior for the rest of its life. If a duckling immediately sees his momma hen and little duckling brothers and sisters, he will quickly imprint on them – his own kind.
If the duckling is hatched in an incubator with random other duck eggs or even chicken eggs, he will imprint upon his new little birthing mates.
When hatching ducklings in an incubator it is wise to let them see you as much as possible and handle the newborns often so they look to you for comfort and safety.
But, when a duckling imprints upon you, expect him or her to squawk quite loudly when you suddenly disappear from view for too long, just like they would do if their momma hen stayed away too long.
Once a duckling imprints on another living creature, be it you, other ducklings, chickens, or even your puppy, it will greatly desire to follow it wherever it goes and spend as much time with it as possible.
This is why you can see distinctive “mini flocks” within a larger flock. Four ducklings that I purchased together as “day olds” still do absolutely together and they are nearly a year old and part of an expansive flock.
Duck Breeding Behavior
In the wilds of North America, many ducks find their mates and bond during the spring migration or on the wintering grounds in marshes, rivers, or ponds.
There are several behaviors that might indicate that your ducks are getting ready to breed, and know that this can happen at any time.
Here are some of the most common courtship displays you might see in a new or developing pair bond.
Attention Grabbing Behaviors
Female ducks often compete for the attention of a drake. But sometimes the drakes will posture and court a single female frequently, especially if she is the leader of the flock.
The sound a female duck makes when vying for the attention of a drake often mimics the noise made when attempting to get your attention, especially at feeding time – a happy sounding quack.
Alerting a Mate to Danger
If a female mature duck is trying to alert her drake to danger or protect him from it, this happy-sounding quack takes an angry tone and becomes more rapid. In this case, the hen will probably bob her head up and down in an agitated manner and even make aggressive gestures with her beak.
The Act of Mating
The act of mating can also look aggressive or even violent. It is not unusual for newbie keepers to think one duck is attempting to kill or drown the other – ducks prefer to mate on water.
Ducks can breed during any time of the year, so witnessing a drake on top of a hen appearing to jump on her back while holding the backside of the female’s neck firmly in its beak can happen frequently.
Before the mating happens it is not uncommon to see ducks flirt with each other. A drake bobs his head up and down in a happy manner while shaking his tail feathers to garner the attention of hens.
In return, the hen will bob her head up and down as an answer if she is a willing participant in the courtship ritual.
There’s also something known as the grunt whistle, which is when the male duck rises out of the water, lifts his head, and then whistles before grunting and moving back into a normal posture. Often, this is done by a group of males who are showing off for females.
Once a hen accepts or in a further attempt to get the hen to mate, a drake may flick water onto the hen with his beak and then swim around her with both his wings spread wide and his neck stretched tall.
Sometimes, all of the excitement of the courtship behavior is just too much for the other drakes to take and they too try to join in the mating of a single hen – until the lead drake pushes them off of the hen, and manages to wriggle away from them all.
Not Leaving the Nest
Ducks hens form strong attachments to their young and are surprisingly protective of their nests. As such, they may remain in the nest longer than expected to protect their ducklings.
Signs Of Duck Happiness
When ducks are happy they often bob their heads up and down vigorously and repeatedly while quacking in a high-pitched manner. Times to expect to see this behavior are when they are receiving a favorite treat or when they get fresh water to swim in.
Wagging Tail Feathers
Typically ducks will wag their tail feathers when they are looking to mate when they’re happy and after going for a swim to help dry themselves off. Ducks show happiness and excitement in much the same manner as your dog when it sees you after being away for a few minutes to the entire day.
When a mature duck tilts its head and intently stares at you, an object, or a sound it is not necessarily angry, just inquisitive or on high alert. A duck’s eye can remain in a fixed position so he or she can rapidly scan along in any direction to look for threats or food.
Ducks will dip their heads back into the water and then force air out of their nostrils to blow bubbles. This hilarious non-verbal characteristic is how ducks clean any small fragments of dirt, mud, feed, or feathers from their nostrils.
Ducks often sleep with one eye open and their heads tucked under a wing. Ducks can sleep with both eyes closed, as well. Sleeping with one eye open is a natural response to predator detection.
A duck’s brain is split into two separate halves – each controls one eye. Because of this unique brain structure, a duck can use its brain to rest on half and close the corresponding eye but keep the other half of its brain on full alert and have the corresponding eye open.
In a large flock, especially a domesticated one inside of a secure coop and run, ducks can often choose to rest both parts of their brain at one time – or a few ducks stay on predator patrol while the rest sleep.
Head Bobbing Side To Side
A duck that bobs its head from side to side is nearly always very displeased. The side-to-side duck head bob is often engaged in more by hens instead of drakes – especially the lead hen.
A duck hen engaged in this behavior may often do so to firmly urge other hens in the flock to stay away from the drake that she has claimed. She may also use this non-verbal cue to keep all of her little ducklings close and in line.
Walking In Line
The way a duck’s eyes are positioned on the body is also why you often see them walking in a straight row. The lead duck watches what is going on in front and all of the ducks following behind keep scanning on either side of their line for threats or food.
When you see a pile of feathers by the duck pond it can be a startling sight and cause worry that a hawk attack has occurred. Unless a hawk has truly taken one of your ducks, all of the feathers stem from preening behavior.
After the ducks exit their pond or pool they instinctively begin to preen their feathers using their beak for at least a few minutes – but this behavior can last for even 20 minutes.
Through preening behavior, ducks redistribute their natural oils that provide a waterproof sheen all over their entire bodies.
The preening gland is located at the base of the duck’s tail, so preening will encourage the gland to release oils.
The duck oils help the poultry birds to dry off quickly, one of the reasons you will see ducks swimming even during the winter time. Preening is essential to keep ducks safe, happy, and healthy during the entire year.
Ducks in a flock will learn to work together to guard each other in a combined effort to survive. You will not see as many of the frightened behaviors or verbalizations when the coop feels secure inside of their coop.
Both the verbal duck language and non-verbal behaviors typically become more apparent when they are outside of their living quarters and free-ranging on the ground or a pond – where both danger and foraged food are in greater abundance.
If the ducks have imprinted on you or look at you as a source of safety, they will be much more vocal when interacting with you – and beckon you when wanted or needed.
Because ducks are both extremely routine driven you should expect to see and hear a lot of the same mannerisms and sounds on a regular basis.
If you are only a few moments late for put up or morning feed time, the sound of the entire flock quacking in high-pitched unison will likely occur… repeatedly until they get what they want.
Ducklings will chime in with all of the verbal language and non-verbal behaviors of their elders, they will just do it in a less deep voice and rarely initiate a call to you on their own.
The ducklings will learn the rhythm and habits of the flock in much the same manner as a human baby acquires its parents’ mannerisms and phrasing.
Getting a far more in-depth understanding of duck language and duck behaviors will help improve husbandry skills.
When you know the way a duck is moving, behaving, or sounding is out of the norm or grasp why so many members of the flock are carrying on all at once a predator is near, the poultry birds stand a far greater chance of remaining strong and healthy.
Duck Behavior FAQ
Ducks will bob their heads side to side when they’re unhappy or angry but will bob their head up and down when they’re happy or as a mating signal.
If a duck starts to follow you around, it definitely likes you. Other signs of affection include chirping, cuddling with you, letting you pet them, and quacking to get your attention.
If your duck (or rather duckling) is squeaking like a broken toy, it probably means its voice is changing. It should develop a full quack in a few days.
Ducks quack constantly because they communicate. Just like dogs barking, ducks quack for a large number of reasons such as happiness, or when they sense danger. They may quack more at night because they don’t see very well and want to signal their position.
No, duck makes (drakes) don’t quack at all, only the females.
Ducks can make all kinds of sounds such as quacks, squeaks, groans, honks, peeps, and hisses. The sounds vary by breed, age, and sex.
Yes, ducks do tend to be aggressive (towards humans and other ducks) particularly the drakes, because they’re territorial.
Yes, ducks can kill each other unintentionally during mating. Male ducks can also kill their own offspring, or kill other drakes to show dominance and to establish a pecking order.
Yes, ducks can sometimes drown each other but it’s unintentional. This can happen during mating, as they sometimes mate in the water. It can also happen when they’re fighting.
Yes, ducks will hiss to send a warning when they feel threatened for whatever reason.
Ducks will vibrate their head and beak when they’re very emotional or excited.
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day, raising chickens, goats, horses, and tons of vegetables. She’s an expert in all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping, and many more.
1 thought on “Duck Language: How to Interpret Duck Behavior”
Hi! I would love to see an example of a hen bobbing her head side to side. I believe that one of my ducks is doing this, but would like to make sure.
Thanks for a great article!