Duck Language: How to Interpret Duck Behavior

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 in how the ducks feel, what they need, and if predators are lurking about.

Rouen and Pekin ducks
Rouen and Pekin ducks

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 widely 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.

Duck Verbal Language

Both drakes (male ducks) and hen (female ducks) typically develop vocal “speech” patterns that sound unique enough 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.

Quacking

Duck hens quack for a broad range of reasons. Sometimes they quack to call their ducklings and other times when they are in the process of laying an egg. 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.

Duck Sounds

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:

HissGrowl
WhistlePurr
SqueakBark
CroakGrunt
SighGroan
Hoot

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 or the area where they poultry birds during the day 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 and 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 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.

Imprinting

What a duckling sees during the first 60 minutes of its young life will critically impact its behavior for the rest of his 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

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.

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 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 sto 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.

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 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 manages to wriggle away from them all.

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 both when they are 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.

Head Tilt

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.

Blowing Bubbles

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.

Sleeping Habits

Ducks often sleep with one eye open and their heads tucked under a wing. Ducks can sleep with both eyes closed, as well. The sleeping with one eye open habit 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 are 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 – or both.

Pekin ducks near pond
Pekin ducks near pond

Preening

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 duck oils help the poultry birds to dry off quickly, one of the reasons you will see ducks swimming even during the winter time.

Final Thoughts

Duck 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 became a predator is near, the poultry birds stand a far greater chance of remaining strong and healthy.

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