Ducks molt (lose their feathers) yearly. If you’re a backyard or pet duck parent, there are some things you should know about your molting ducks to make sure they’re staying healthy.
If you’re a new duck parent and you notice: a) piles of duck feathers on the ground, or b) your beautiful, sweet-natured duck suddenly becoming ornery and looking partially plucked, don’t despair!
That pile of feathers doesn’t mean your duck was eaten by a predator (hopefully). And the missing plumage and grumpy attitude doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your duck.
He or she is simply “molting,” aka losing their feathers, which is a perfectly normal and natural phenomenon.
Duck molting: the big picture
We should start by clarifying a few points. “Ducks” is a general term. There are countless species of wild ducks around the world.
Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are perhaps the most well-known duck species. They also happen to be the species that most domesticated ducks come from. (Mallard-derived ducks are also the focus of this article, since we raise Welsh Harlequin ducks.)
Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata) are another type of wild duck which have also been domesticated and bred. They’re in the same family, Anatidae, as mallards but are a completely different genus and species than mallards.
What does this have to do with molting? Wild mallards have a different molting cycle than wild Muscovies. As we’ll discuss in more detail below, wild mallards go through an eclipse and nuptial molt each year.
However, Wild Muscovies, as best we can tell from reliable sources, only molt once per year. Also, notice we said “wild.” That’s because your domesticated ducks can have a completely different molting schedule than wild ducks as we’ll discuss below.
Yes, this topic can get confusing, so let’s try to clear things up…
Mallard ducks’ ECLIPSE molt
In wild mallards, the eclipse molt occurs shortly after nesting during spring, and takes about 3-5 weeks to complete.
During the eclipse molt, drakes (male ducks) lose their brightly colored “nuptial” feathers in exchange for basic/eclipse plumage. They also lose their curly drake feather on the top of their tail, which the females find oh-so attractive.
Drakes are unable to fly during this time since they lose all of their flight feathers via a “simultaneous wing molt,” a process unique to waterfowl since they’re able to survive without flying for extended periods, unlike most other birds.
This process ultimately renders drakes rather drab-colored since they’re no longer trying to attract a mate. No more bright green head! Instead, their eclipse plumage serves as camouflage to make them harder for predators to spot.
During the flightless multi-week transition to eclipse plumage, wild mallards will spend their time hiding and hunting for food close to shore in reedy areas.
During spring-summer nesting, females pull out many of their down feathers to line their nests, providing extra insulation.
The hormonal surges triggered by motherhood also soon cause female ducks to lose their primary feathers as well. In our experience, this happens several weeks AFTER ducklings have hatched, not immediately upon going broody.
Mallard ducks’ NUPTIAL molt
In late summer-early fall, wild Mallards undergo their nuptial molt. During the nuptial molt, only the body feathers are shed.
This is when the drakes get their attractive bright feather color back so the females can better decide whether they’ll make a worthwhile mate. From there, they’ll pair up and eventually migrate back north to their spring/summer nesting areas.
While the coloration changes during molting are most pronounced in drakes due to their bright green head feathers, females also take on slightly different feather colorations and patterns.
Wild mallard molting cycle vs domestic duck molting cycle
It’s not easy being a wild mallard — or any bird for that matter. Taking in enough calories and macronutrients during each seasonal phase is a challenge.
As the Audubon Society says: “Molting is energetically expensive—as is migration and breeding. So, birds make sure these three activities don’t overlap.” Even more energetically expensive than molting is egg laying…
Now, our spoiled-rotten Welsh harlequin ducks are pretty far removed from the rigors of being a wild mallard. They can’t fly. They have humans constantly supplying them with calorie-dense feed and treats. And they have a dry, predator-proof coop to sleep in each night.
However, our girls do lay far more eggs than a wild mallard. We’ve had ducks lay well over 300 eggs per year versus (at most) 30 eggs that might be expected from two broods in a wild female mallard.
The point being: despite nearly identical genetics to their wild ancestors, domesticated waterfowl live in a completely different environmental context. Therefore, their molting cycles can be quite different too, as we’ve experienced in our flock.
Predicting your domestic ducks’ molting time is like trying to read tea leaves…
In The Ultimate Pet Duck Guidebook, author Kimberly Link says the following about her domesticated ducks molting:
“…not only is every duck different, but males and females are different too. I’ve noticed that for the most part, ducks live their own schedules. Some ducks molt “on time,” while others molt early and still others molt late. Feathers dropping out of some ducks are extremely noticeable, while others seem to experience an almost transparent transformation. When and how your ducks molt often depends upon their breed, gender, genetics, climate, weather, lighting and diet.”
This quote describes our experiences with our duck flock as well…
For instance, right now (Sept 18) our drake is in his drab eclipse plumage and is losing his flight feathers. One of our five females stopped laying and has just molted all of her wing and tail feathers. One is just starting to molt her wing feathers. The others are still laying, albeit more sporadically, and haven’t shown the first signs of molting.
We’re approaching a decade as duck slaves and this molting pattern (or lack thereof) is pretty typical. Even though they’re the same breed, live together, eat the same food, and experience the same weather conditions, our ducks often molt at different times for reasons unbeknownst to us.
Sometimes one of our ducks will continue laying eggs much longer than we’d prefer (300+ days), which keeps her body from molting and remineralizing. If one of our ducks starts to look too run down — as evidenced by low body weight and poor feather health — we’ll make her go broody, and a molt is soon to follow.
Do ducks need any special treatment while molting?
As you might imagine, emerging feathers seem to be painfully sensitive to ducks. As the larger feathers come in, even your sweetest tamest ducks will likely not want to be handled, so give them their space.
Also, as we’ve already mentioned, it takes a lot of energy and nutrition for a duck to replace their feathers. In the wild, this process is synchronized with the availability of certain high-nutrient (especially protein-rich) foods, e.g. aquatic invertebrates.
Hopefully, your domesticated backyard or pet ducks are already getting excellent nutrition from a waterfowl-specific feed supplemented with fresh greens, treats like mealworms, and whatever they’re able to forage during the day. In this case, no special care is required during a molt — especially if your other ducks are NOT molting.
Providing too much protein in a duck’s diet can be detrimental to their longterm health, causing them to lay too long or even leading to organ damage.
This is our perspective based on our aim of raising the healthiest possible, long-lived ducks, NOT producing the most eggs possible each year or producing meat. However, we do recognize that not everyone who raises ducks has our perspective, and that’s fine too.
For instance, in Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, Dave Holderread suggests the following:
“Growing feathers require additional protein (15 to 16 percent high-quality protein is usually adequate) and other nutrients; therefore, a well-balanced diet during a molt will encourage healthy plumage. The addition of animal protein (5-10 percent by volume cat kibbles is a good source) and 10 to 20 percent oats (by volume) during the molt can produce wonderful feather quality.”
Our concern with this recommendation would be that a duck would not eat the oats and kibble in the proper ratios, thereby causing a nutrient deficiency.
Another way to give your ducks a protein boost during the ~1 month window when they’re molting is to give them extra mealworms, worms, crickets, soldier fly larvae, etc. Just don’t overdo it!
We hope the information in this article has helped allay any concerns you might have about why your duck is suddenly losing feathers. We also hope you have much more appreciation for the complexity and uniqueness of your wonderful waterfowl!
Get quacking with more duck articles from Tyrant Farms:
- What to feed pet or backyard ducks to maximize their health and longevity
- How to build a DIY backyard duck pond with self-cleaning biofilter
- Why and how to make your duck go broody
- Why and how to raise mealworms (especially if you’re a duck parent)
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
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Jackson the duck showing off her beautiful flight feathers. She’ll likely molt these feathers soon and look like Primrose (second picture) who is in the middle of a simultaneous wing molt. Wild mallards have a yearly molting cycle between eclipse and nuptial plumage. Mallard-derived ducks (read: non-Muscovies) molt similarly, but their environments and laying cycles are so much different than their wild ancestors that it’s never a sure thing when or if they’ll molt. Regardless, molting and feather health are very important for duck parents to be knowledgeable about and tuned into. Check out the latest article on TyrantFarms.com to learn all about duck molting. #backyardducks #duckparents #ducks #ducksofinstagram