Ducks

Backyard duck molting: what, when, and why it happens

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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. 

Primrose, one of our ducks, molting. Here you can see she's lost her tail and wing feathers as part of her late summer-early fall

Primrose, one of our ducks, molting. Here you can see she’s lost her tail and wing feathers as part of her late summer-early fall “nuptial molt.” If you look closely at her wings, you can also see the engorged new feather shafts coming out, which are very sensitive to the touch, making for a very grumpy duck.

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.

Jackson the duck showing off her beautiful flight feathers. Ducks have three types of feathers: 1) flight feathers on their wings and tails, 2) contour feathers covering their bodies, making them waterproof and buoyant, and 3) down: the fluffy feathers beneath their contour feathers that keep them warm.

Jackson the Welsh Harlequin duck showing off her beautiful flight feathers. Ducks have three types of feathers: 1) flight feathers on their wings and tails, 2) contour feathers covering their bodies, making them waterproof and buoyant, and 3) down: the fluffy feathers beneath their contour feathers that keep them warm. 

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.

Drakes

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.  

Same drake, different seasons. Sir Winston Duckbill in January in his vibrant, sexy nuptial plumage (left) and still in his eclipse plumage in September (right).

Same drake, different seasons. Sir Winston Duckbill in January in his vibrant, sexy nuptial plumage (left) and still in his eclipse plumage in September (right).

Female ducks 

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. 

Welsh Harlequins are bred not to fly, however they're still closely related to mallards and molt similarly. Here you can see a molting duck without flight feathers, but with her contour feathers still maintained. Chickens typically molt all of their feathers at once, whereas ducks do not. A duck without any contour feathers wouldn't be able to swim well, which would be a deadly scenario in the wild.

Welsh Harlequins are bred with body proportions that render them flightless, however they’re still closely related to mallards and molt similarly. Here you can see a molting Welsh Harlequin duck without flight feathers, but with her contour feathers still present. Chickens (which are land-dwelling birds) typically molt all of their feathers at once, whereas ducks do not. A duck without any contour feathers wouldn’t be able to swim well, which would be a deadly scenario in the wild.

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. 

Side-by-side of two female Welsh Harlequin ducks: one not yet molting (left) one in the middle of a molt where she's replacing her wing and tail feathers (aka flight feathers). While our Welsh Harlequin females remain colorful all year long, they tend to become lighter colored in the winter.

Side-by-side of two female Welsh Harlequin ducks: one about to molt (left) one in the middle of a molt (right) where she’s replacing her wing and tail feathers, aka flight feathers. While our Welsh Harlequin females remain colorful all year long, they tend to become lighter colored in the winter — if they molt.

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.  

Can you spot which duck is molting in this photo?

Can you spot which duck is molting in this photo?

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. 

“Don’t touch me or I’ll eat your face!” -Primrose the Duck

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! 


Molt on! 

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!   

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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

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Teresa Anderson
    January 16, 2021 at 2:15 pm

    When a duck is molting, do they scratch themselves constantly? How do I know if molt or mite? The pair I have are about 9-10 weeks old

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      January 16, 2021 at 7:04 pm

      Hi Teresa! You might be interested to read the earlier comment on this article from Melissa Nannen where she said: “we are experiencing the molt right now and I initially was very perturbed when all of the front feathers of two of my ducks started dropping. They are 10 and 9 weeks old, and I didn’t realize they would molt so quickly after getting their adult feathers.”

      Yes, when your ducks molt they’ll do a lot of extra preening and scratching. It’s actually quite unusual for ducks to get mites if they have access to clean swimming water. Just to be sure, you may want to take a close look at the feathers and see if you see any tiny mites. They’re typically red, black, or brown in color and are visible (albeit very tiny) to the naked eye.

  • Reply
    Melissa Nannen
    October 6, 2020 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you – we are experiencing the molt right now and I initially was very perturbed when all of the front feathers of two of my ducks started dropping. They are 10 and 9 weeks old, and I didn’t realize they would molt so quickly after getting their adult feathers. I was also concerned I wasn’t feeding them the proper protein ratios – I normally would have cut their 16% protein down to the 13% or so you recommended in your feeding article, but when I saw them dropping feathers I kept it at 16%. A well timed article – thank you! By the way, did you ever notice a pecking order shift during the molting period? Our one duck who has always been in charge all of sudden seemed to drop in rank among the other ducks, and the smallest and youngest seemed to rise a few notches above her. She is otherwise acting as she was, but she isn’t nearly as bossy. I didn’t know if it was temporary because of the molt or the youngest one was coming into her own, so to speak. It’s kinda of interesting to see the dynamic shift because I don’t think they’ve figured out who is in charge – it’s just obvious that my poor dopey Pekin is definitely on the bottom of the order. Ducks are such fascinating creatures – truly I am indebted to you and your articles for introducing such wonderful animals into our lives. 🙂

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      October 6, 2020 at 10:17 pm

      Ha! Funny to hear this. Yes, when our ducks molt it seems to throw flock dynamics a bit out of whack temporarily. Not sure the exact reason, but our guess is it’s due to hormonal shifts that correspond with the molt. Even at baseline, our girls get along well and don’t seem to have too strict of a pecking order. However, we (and our drake) have noticed that there is a more dominant younger one, Pippa, who our drake favors. There’s also another maternal elder flock co-leader (Jackson, our oldest). The others all generally fall in line behind those two, and Jackson even has a guard duck, Marigold, that follows her everywhere and loudly warns of any potential danger. When they’re molting, social dynamics go into disarray, but they do seem to return to normal once they’ve feathered back in. Years ago, we had a duck named Svetlana who was the flock diva/queen, and she’d even beat up on Marigold from time to time. But during a molt, we saw Marigold bully Svetlana. Ducks are indeed fascinating creatures and an endless supply of entertainment. Glad to hear you’re enjoying your feathered family members. 🙂

  • Reply
    Anna
    September 21, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    Great article!

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