Ducks

Understanding duck mating and courtship

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Trying to understand your backyard duck mating and courtship behaviors? In this article, you’ll find out everything you need to know about duck mating, and maybe more… 


The mating rituals of various species of wild ducks often involve elaborate dances, calls, and colorful feather displays as auditioning, ornately-plumaged males try to woo discerning females.   

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are the most common wild duck in North America and many other areas of the world. With the exception of Muscovies, every breed of domesticated duck is Mallard-derived, from Indian Runners to Welsh Harlequins to Pekins.  

For backyard duck enthusiasts, this means your ducks — regardless of breed — share similar mating behaviors which can be traced back to wild Mallards. 

Watch the video: Duck mating & courtship 

 

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Understanding duck mating 

In this article, when we reference “duck mating” we’re specifically referring to Mallard-derived domesticated ducks, not Muscovies or other species of wild ducks. If you’re trying to figure out what the heck your crazy backyard ducks are doing and why, chances are it has to do with mating — and you’ll find the answer below! 

Duck love isn’t alway binary

One thing you might initially be surprised by is that you don’t have to have a mixed-sex flock for your ducks to bond or feel amorous towards one another.

For instance, our female Welsh Harlequin ducks regularly mate with each other. Even though our girls are no doubt having a great time of it during their female-on-female sexual interactions, no fertilized eggs are produced from the act. (Yes, we get asked that question a lot.) 

Our girls also mate with our drake, aka Winnie the Screw, when he’s out of his pen. (Other than brief conjugal morning and evening visits, we keep him penned and cooped separately from the girls to maintain calmer flock dynamics.) 

We’ve also had female ducks form long-term romantic bonds with one another. When one of the pair died a couple of years ago, the other went into a long mourning period.  

When we added a second filter pond and waterfall to our duck pond, we had to plumb in a small piece of exposed PVC pipe. Apparently, the pipe looks similar enough to the outstretched neck of a female for Winnie the Screw to carry on a one year+ relationship with the pipe, who we’ve named Penelope. Each night when we let him out of his pen while the girls forage the gardens, he jumps in the pond and has carnal relations with Penelope the pipe. 

Winnie with PVC, his soulmate. Is it crass to make a joke about laying pipe? Yes, but we've done it anyway. Duck mating pipe.

Winnie with Penelope the Pipe, his soulmate. Is it crass to make a joke about laying pipe? Yes, but we’ve done it anyway.

Do ducks mate for life? 

People often ask if ducks mate for life. Short answer: no. Most wild duck species (including Mallards) pair up for a single mating season, aka seasonal monogamy. They don’t form lifelong pair bonds, like some other waterfowl species do. 

Monogamy — seasonal or otherwise — is not practiced by our domesticated flock of Mallard-derived Welsh Harlequins. Our drake does pair up with a favorite each season (Pippa Luckenbill), but he’s indiscriminate in his dalliances with other females in our flock. Pippa doesn’t seem to mind his lack of faithfulness, and she regularly mates with the other females. 

This is an interesting divergence from the mating habits of wild Mallards. Perhaps the relatively easy, food-filled, predator-free life of a domesticated duck frees up time and mental resources necessary for greater sexual exploration. Or maybe if we’d limited their media exposure when they were ducklings, they would have turned out differently – ha!     

Plumage, molting, and mating cycles 

Just as with wild Mallards, domesticated ducks don’t mate or feel amorous year round. Their mating behaviors are season-dependent.

Your ducks’ plumage — especially the males — is usually a good indicator of where they are in their sexual cycle as well. However, this isn’t always the case because domesticated ducks don’t get the nutritional cues that wild ducks do, with laying hens often getting higher protein rations to continue producing eggs well into the cold months.

Typically (but not always), our ducks molt and go into their nuptial plumage in the fall. At this point, our drake’s head becomes vibrant green. Our females’ feather coloration/patterns will change slightly, but not nearly to the degree of our drake.

Fall is also when wild Mallards pair up with a mate in preparation for spring (hence the showy green head to woo a female). However, the mating patterns of our domesticated ducks aren’t quite so structured.         

In wild Mallards, a second eclipse molt occurs shortly after nesting during spring, and takes about 3-5 weeks to complete. Our domestic drake usually keeps his vibrant nuptial plumage into early summer. 

(Read: Duck molting: what, when, and why it happens)

Winnie on May 5. You can see where his green head feathers are just starting to change to a more subtle, mottled grey and black color.

Winnie on May 5. You can see where his green head feathers are just starting to change to a more subtle, mottled grey and black color.

What season do ducks mate in? 

Wild ducks mate and produce young in the spring through early summer. This overlaps with:

  • an abundance of food, ranging from protein-rich crustaceans to vitamin-rich water plants; 
  • more sunlight hours;
  • warmer temperatures. 

These factors obviously make it much easier to successfully hatch eggs and raise ducklings, hence why this seasonal time window is duck mating season.   

Our domesticated ducks’ mating window is much longer. Like their wild progenitors, they mate much less prolifically or not at all by mid-winter. A duck in the midst of a molt will also stop mating.  

The humorous mating behaviors of ducks

Our domesticated ducks share funny mating behaviors with their wild Mallard ancestors. If you’re a new duck parent trying to interpret the strange behaviors of your backyard flock, here’s a quick rundown: 

1. Head-bobbing (both sexes) 

You might notice two (or sometimes more) of your ducks close together bobbing their heads up and down. This is the duck equivalent of dinner and a movie.

Head-bobbing is often the first step in the mating ritual, and both our drake and hens do it. 

2. Flat-backing (females) 

One duck flat-backing to signal her readiness to be mounted while the other duck finishes up a quick bath.

One duck flat-backing to signal her readiness to be mounted while the other duck finishes up a quick bath.

Shortly after head-bobbing has commenced, you’ll notice one of the hens elongate her neck and flatten her back. She’s now the designated bottom and is preparing her love vessel for passengers. We say “passengers” (plural) because we’ve sometimes seen our girls pile three ducks deep while fornicating, as you may have caught a glimpse of in our duck mating video on this page. 

The top duck then stands on the back of the bottom duck and grabs the back of the bottom duck’s neck for stability before awkwardly thrusting and quack-grunting. Related: since the back of the head and neck are sexually sensitive spots for a duck, if you pet your ducks in this area, they may interpret your affections more romantically than you intended. 

Top and bottom positions are not fixed during female-female sex, rather they seem to change from session to session. However, our drake is always the top. 

Female ducks — ever the more sensible of the sexes regardless of species — make love, not war. When we had three drakes, they spent their days trying to kill each other, hence the reason it’s important for anyone planning to get ducks to carefully consider numbers and ratios of male and female ducks in their flock

3. Whistle-grunt (males) 

Our girls do make odd mating quacks during and after a romp: a descending urh-urh-urh sound. However, their romantic pillow talk is nothing compared to the hilarious whistle-grunt of a drake after mating. 

A drake’s whistle grunt sounds like a cross between a cartoon donkey call and a bullfrog. Our drake doesn’t always whistle-grunt after mating and sometimes he randomly whistle-grunts even when he hasn’t mated. 

4. Head-down victory lap (males)

Once the whistle-grunt concludes, our drake lowers his head while swimming a couple fast laps around the pool. Presumably, this is a public celebratory act that likely also serves a biological function like helping to re-sheath his man parts (we’re speculating here). 

No, your drake isn’t dying – that’s his penis… 

Ok, clutch your pearls… As we wrote about in 7 amazing duck facts that will blow your human mind, ducks have one of the longest penises in the animal kingdom. 

A duck penis looks like a cross between a corkscrew and a pink pasta noodle. Upon first viewing this impressive apparatus, new backyard duck parents often panic and think their drake’s intestines are spilling out or that something from Australia has attacked their duck. (For reference, it seems like most of the wildlife in Australia is horrifying and/or will kill you.)

Not to worry, it can sometimes take a minute for a drake’s penis to retract back into their body post-intercourse. That said, a prolapsed phallus is a serious medical condition requiring immediate veterinary care, so if you have a drake whose penis has not retracted after several minutes, it may be cause for concern.

Thankfully, a prolapsed phallus is quite rare, but we don’t envy the duck parent who has to call that one in to their vet.

Will a duck’s libido slow down with age? 

Our eight year old drake, Winnie the Screw, is still going strong. It's possible that someone is slipping waterfowl viagra into his water bowl at night.

Our eight year old drake, Winnie the Screw, is still going strong. It’s possible that someone is slipping waterfowl viagra into his food at night.

One of the claims we read when we were first getting ducks is that drakes will mellow out and their libido will slow after a few years. Well, we can inform you that in the case of our drake this is not the case. 

Sir Winston Duckbill or Winnie the Screw or The Noodle (he goes by many names) is over eight years old as of the publish date of this article. Nevertheless, he is every bit as sexually active and aggressive as he was during his youth. 

There is only about a one month window in winter where he is calm enough for us to let him out of his pen to fully commingle with the female flock.   

Make sure your ducks are practicing safe sex

Just to clarify: your ducks are heathens. Sexual deviants. Lewd feathered miscreants. 

However, you still want them to practice safe sex. That means the act ideally takes place in a body of water deep enough for them to float in rather than on land.

Why? A clumsy duck standing on the back of another clumsy duck during mating is an invitation for the bottom duck to get a leg injury. This is especially true for larger breeds and/or if you have a larger breed mating a smaller breed. 

Ideally, this means you have a kiddie pool that’s at least a foot deep. Or you may want to consider building a deeper self-cleaning duck pond like we have. See: How to build a DIY backyard pond with biofilter


We hope this article was equal parts entertaining and informative, helping you better understand the intricacies of duck romance. Maybe you can try out your own whistle-grunt to impress that special someone in your life. 

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Quack on, 

Tyrantfarms

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Naj
    May 8, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    wonderful post, thank you!

    Do you know of anything to do about a drake who is fixated on one female to the point of it being detrimental to her?

    Our drake is over mating one of our girls. She is the smallest and the only blond (she’s a runty mixed welsh harlequin, the others are khaki cambells). It seems like it’s at least as much about dominance as anything else. He just goes after her constantly rarely mating with anyone else (4 females, 1 male in our gang) and the poor dear is going bald. We’ve tried separating her and her best friend (so she’d have company) hoping that some time apart would fix it, we’ve tried putting Peck-No-More on the back of her head, we’ve even tried the sticky mess that is pine tar.
    We love all of our ducks, but if a solution isn’t found, then someone is going to need a new home; this idea just makes us sad.
    I worry about keeping my drake separate because I know they are so intensely social and I know he would be miserable.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      May 9, 2021 at 10:08 am

      Hi Naj! Yes, we’ve heard of this issue because we’ve had the same experience. We started keeping our drake in a separate small fenced enclosure (just a round area with stakes and temporary fencing with a bush that provides shade if he wants it) within the larger fenced back yard where our females spend the day. That way, he can still see the females, interact with them, etc without over-mating his favorite duck or causing social chaos within our flock. We give him a few minutes with the girls each morning when we let him out and a few minutes at night before we put them all up. That way, he’s able to satisfy his biological needs without causing head or back injuries during mating. We also have a separate coop for our drake so there’s no mating at night.

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