I think of ducks as one of the most characterful and endearing birds – from when I very first fed them as a young child in our local park, cooing over their ducklings; to more recently receiving a cutely carved wooden duck as a present.
Ducks belong to the family of Anatidae, which includes their larger, longer necked cousins – geese and swans. They’re brilliant adapted to their aquatic life, having webbed feet to help propel them through the water and water-repellent feathers, courtesy of a special oily coating, that helps to keep them warm and dry. Of course, those feathers are also designed perfectly for flight and ducks are masters of the air too, some travelling for thousands of miles on seasonal migrations.
Indeed, ducks are a widespread fowl, weathering all climates, apart from the very Antarctic. They’re a social bunch too, preferring to stick together, rather than going solo – the name for a group of ducks is a paddle (what else?)
In English we call them ducks and this comes from the old English duce, which means diver – and it’s not hard to see how they got that handle, since many ducks can be spotted doing just that, in search of food under the water. Some like to dabble – where they feed on the surface of the water and take short dips down – head down, tails up – mallards and teals are such birds. However, some ducks like to go the whole hog and totally submerge themselves – true deep divers – redheads and ringnecks favour this method of foraging.
So, what are ducks searching for on their subaquatic hunting? Well, a wide variety of food, as it turns out. Ducks are omnivores and they like munching on aquatic veggies, seeds, fruit, insects, crustaceans and even fish. Freshwater (river) ducks tend to be more dabblers and their bills are adapted to this way of feeding, being broad and serrated to assist with filtering their grub from the wet stuff. Meanwhile, saltwater ducks tend to prefer fish on their menu and have longer more serrated bills to help them with their angling exploits.
This leads us to a question that seems to have been a source of recent debate: should we feed ducks bread? We’ve been warned against this – pond side signs have sprung up asking us not to feed them – the argument being that bread is nutritionally poor for ducks and merely fills them up. This led to a significant fall in that cherished, childhood pleasure of feeding the ducks with leftover bread. Unfortunately, this resulted in some ducks and other water fowl, becoming undernourished, especially during the cold winter period and there were soon calls for duck feeders to hurry back with their bread offerings to help boost the ducks’ food supply. Bird charities tell us that whilst bread isn’t harmful to the ducks, too much isn’t a good thing for them, so as is often the case in life, moderation is the key. Still, it’s heart-warming to hear that we can once again partake in that age old pastime.
Some ducks are old romantics at heart, choosing a mate that they pair with for many years; whilst others are more flighty, selecting a different partner every season. Ducks generally mate once a year, usually in the spring time, when those gorgeous little balls of fluff aka ducklings appear. Mum takes good care of her brood, leading them down to the water and keeping a close eye on them until they’re big enough to stand on their own two webbed feet. A proud mother, with a line of golden, fluffy lovelies determinedly following her along, is a magical spring sight.
Mother-love goes even further in mallards, where mum will lead a predator away from her nest (pretending to be injured to encourage it to follow her) whilst her brood will hunker down silently waiting for the danger to pass.
Maybe one of the reasons ducks seem so familiar to us is that they have long been domesticated and have shared our farms and yards for hundreds of years, providing eggs, feathers and (dare I mention) food. If ducks are well looked after, they can live up to as much as 20 years (with 10-12 years being a typical average). They can continue to produce eggs up to the age of 9; amazingly, the longer the days, the more eggs ducks tend to lay! It’s thought just about all domesticated ducks are descended from the mallard (apart from the Muscovy duck, which is a large duck hailing from the USA).
If you were to ask anyone what sound does a duck make, you’d most definitely get told “it quacks”; but astoundingly, this is only true of our pal, the mallard. Other ducks don’t, in fact, quack! Instead, they whistle, coo and even yodel would you believe!
Even so, I can’t help but think the mallard ducks are having a good laugh at me when I hear them quacking away comically – come on what’s the joke?!
I reckon they’re totally quackers!