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.
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)
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)
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?
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.
Want to see a quick visual overview of this article? Check out our Google Web Story about duck mating and courtship.
Migrate over to these other duck articles:
- Duck eggs vs chicken eggs: how do they compare?
- 9 amazing duck eyesight facts
- Duck health guide: first aid kit items, healthcare tips & more
- Raising mixed species poultry together: tips & advice
- How to tell boy and girl ducks or ducklings apart
- How to choose the best duck breed (or breeds) for you
or browse more duck articles from Tyrant Farms.
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CorbinMarch 16, 2023 at 1:28 pm
This website is great, It has successfully entertained and informed at the same time 😂.
I’ve been wondering, I have 7 ducks right now, only 2 females and 5 males because my 3 other females didn’t make it last year. But anyway, the males are so aggressive on my poor tiny mallard, (it’s slightly less bad with my rubber Duck because she’s bigger) but for about 6-8 months now my female mallard has always paired off with my Rouen drake, and it seems like he’s almost always trying to protect her/chase away the other males when they’re getting too aggressive with her, which is amazing, and now I’ve seen that each morning in the nest box, he’s also trying to help out there. Every once in awhile all the males will crown into the nestbox and shake up all the eggs, so my Rouen drake will even start to scoop up and egg or two with his bill. It’s all adorable but I have no idea what he’s doing, and usually the egg will just roll out onto the cold wet ground. Do you know what this could be? As much as I’d like to separate the males from females, they’ve All formed bonds and if I lock 2 away in the coop, the other 5 will still circle the coop waiting for them to come out.
Basically it looks like they’re a breeding pair, and if so would it be okay to have him inside a cage I’m building with my mallard once she goes broody? Any suggestions?
Aaron von FrankMarch 16, 2023 at 2:17 pm
Glad you’re finding our duck mating information helpful, Corbin! It sounds like you’ve got the duck equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show going on there – ha. As you probably know, your current ratio of male-to-female is going to be quite a challenge to maintain while keeping your two females healthy.
The behavior you’re describing with your drake is very interesting and unusual. Typically, male Mallards and Mallard-derived domestics have no interest in the nest, the eggs, or even the female once she’s gone broody. In the wild, the drake’s bright coloration/nuptial plumage also attracts predators, not just lady ducks, so they’re adapted to stay away in order to improve the likelihood of brood survival. (This instinct also carries over to domestic breeds.) So, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going in his mind or why he’s behaving this way regarding the eggs. Perhaps being locked in a coop with the nest and eggs has frazzled his instincts and duck brain.
As for keeping the pair in a cage together while your female broods, you could give it a try but if he’s like most drakes, he’s not going to enjoy his time in the cage and will want out. It may make you feel better to note that Mallards and domestics do not pair-bond for life, only seasonally, so no hearts will be broken should you separate them.
Our main concern with your situation is the ongoing health and wellbeing of your females given the number of drakes in your flock. As we detail in this article https://www.tyrantfarms.com/should-i-get-male-or-female-ducks-or-both/ the absolute minimum ratio you want is 3 females : 1 male. Not only will your drakes fight and injure each other, they’ll also end up over-mating and likely injuring your females at some point. Yes, we know this from experience not just from having read about it. 🙁
So try to do whatever you can to improve your sex ratios and/or keep your females protected from your drakes to avoid problems as you go forward. And if you hatch out a brood, you’re most likely to end up with a 50-50 male-female ratio which doesn’t do much to improve your sex ratios unless you re-home the males.
Hope this isn’t unexpected or disappointing news!
Debbie FleischerJuly 25, 2022 at 2:44 pm
I will try that idea. She has access to a water trough to swim in. We also have a big backyard pond, but for some reason neither her or the drake will get in the pond. It’s very big, so I don’t know if they’re afraid. I’ll clean her house today and put in fresh bedding. She can free range with him too during the day. I make sure she had plenty of puddles to dig in.
Debbie FleischerJuly 24, 2022 at 6:57 pm
Hi Aaron, me again. My duck was still being broody. I cleaned all the pine bedding out of the duck house. Then I swept and hosed it clean. I’ve been chasing her out all day. She is not happy. Just checked, she is sitting on the bare floor. I chased her out again. I feel so mean. Do I just keep doing this every day? Should I put the bedding back in? I don’t know what else I can do.
Aaron von FrankJuly 25, 2022 at 11:06 am
It’s hard, but don’t feel bad. What you’re doing is the faster approach to get her to stop being broody. Is there any way you can just lock or block her out of her duck house during the day? From a hygiene and cleaning/maintenance standpoint, it will probably be better for all parties to have some bedding in the house at night. You will want to continue to remove eggs daily. Giving some extra treats might help her (and you!) feel better about the process, too. And if she doesn’t currently have access to a pool, providing one could be an additional enticement/distraction to help expedite her transition away from broodiness.
Debbie FleischerJuly 14, 2022 at 2:56 pm
Thanks again. Definitely, don’t want more problems. I’ll just wait it out. She’s still being broody. I’ll try to get her off her nest. I don’t want to get bit. Mine aren’t tame llike yours. They’re not mean. Just don’t want to be handled. I wish they would. I love ducks. They are so cute the way they quack and waddle around. Love your site
Aaron von FrankJuly 15, 2022 at 11:54 am
Duck bites are more entertaining than painful! Regardless, best of luck on getting your duck to stop being broody. She’ll snap out of it soon without a nest of eggs to attend to.
Debbie FleischerJuly 13, 2022 at 5:44 pm
Thank you for your help. Should I try to bring baby ducks into her nest? Tractor supply has them right now. I read where you did that. It’s hot now, but I don’t know if the female will accept them or kill them. They could be out without danger of cold. I also have chickens. I could isolate the duck house with a fence.
Aaron von FrankJuly 14, 2022 at 1:56 pm
If you’re planning to get ducklings anyway, that’s one way to do it – but you’d definitely want to keep some protective fine-mesh fencing up to keep them separated until you’re certain momma has accepted them or you could have a horror show on your hands. That said, introducing ducklings just for the sake of getting your duck to stop being broody is probably about the most difficult way to go about it. The reason we brought in additional ducklings for our broody momma duck is we needed more females (we sexed her hatchlings and didn’t have the numbers/ratios we wanted).
Debbie FleischerJuly 12, 2022 at 5:01 pm
Hi. This is unrelated, but I looked and can’t find the answer. My duck was sitting on arm egg for about 21 days or so. She was off her next and the was broken and empty. I threw it away. I checked the next and broke it up. She’s remade the nest and is sitting on it, even though there’s no eggs. .I do have a drake so it could have been fertile. How do I get her away from the nest. She’s still acting broody
Aaron von FrankJuly 13, 2022 at 2:13 pm
Hi Debbie! Usually, a duck won’t go broody unless they have a clutch of eggs to sit on, but they can be unpredictable (especially young ducks). As such, the way to typically get a duck to STOP being broody is to remove the eggs from the nest and take away access to the chosen nesting spot with something like temporary fencing. After that, it typically takes a few days for their hormones to shift out of broody mode (ha). Since you don’t have any eggs to remove, just try to restrict your duck’s access to the chosen nesting spot if at all possible — and continue to break up any new nest and remove new eggs. Then be a bit patient as her hormones shift.
LindaApril 10, 2022 at 11:38 am
I had two mallard ducks land in my pool. I’m not sure if they the same ducks every year but they come at the start of spring and stay a few months. But this year a second male came and the two males looked like they were fighting over the female. They all flew away but the next day two came back and then the other male came back and the fight was on and again they all flew away. Now for the last 2 days a lone male has landed in my pool. I could never tell the males apart so I not sure if this was the original male or the interloper. But I have not seen the female. And now a male spends his time swimming alone in my pool. I always wondered if the original couple came back every year because they could have the pool to themselves and there is food ( I feed the birds too), and it’s a safe space for them. But now there is only a lone male duck.
Aaron von FrankApril 11, 2022 at 11:23 am
Pure speculation on our part, but our guess is that it was the same FEMALE duck using your pool/yard as her spring breeding ground. However, since Mallards are only seasonally monogamous, it probably wasn’t the same male returning with her year after year. Perhaps the ruckus caused by the two males fighting this year made her rethink your pool area as an ideal breeding ground and she’s currently nesting elsewhere. Once a female goes broody, the drakes don’t stick around – their job is essentially done at that point, biologically speaking. Female wild Mallards can lay up to two broods a year, so maybe you’ll see her again this year – or if not, keep an eye out next year.
The drake in your pond might now think it’s a good place to find a mate, or if nothing else, a good place to swim and source food. Whether he is the man of the season, an interloper, or a newcomer is hard to say.
Jenny YoungOctober 19, 2021 at 11:33 pm
Recently, while snuggling my drake, he was becoming happy with the snuggles and started wagging his bum. Then his neck elongated and his wings went out a bit. I believe my drake mated with my lap, no penis appeared, but some drippings from the back end. He seemed even more docile with me afterwards. lol. I’m assuming that his is ok and that it isn’t a behavior I need to stop. Providing he doesn’t get too aggressive with me. I only have two drakes no females in the mix. Although they do think my poor puppers might make for a good mate 😉
p.s. thanks for having such an awesome resource of information!
Aaron von FrankOctober 20, 2021 at 7:34 am
Hi Jenny! Yes, it sounds like you were on the receiving end of a duck mating. Whether or not you want to continue in the relationship is entirely up to you. Ha! Drakes are not sexually discerning creatures so you could even get him a pool noodle and he’d likely fall in love. This isn’t to diminish how attractive you are, just to point out that other outlets for his affections can be found if needed or desired.
NajMay 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.
Aaron von FrankMay 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.
Debbie FleischerJuly 12, 2022 at 5:03 pm
Sorry about all the auto corrects. One egg was broken. No more in the nest