Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Ducks can fly, with wild mallard ducks capable of reaching speeds of up to 80 km (50 miles) per hour.
- Ducks have 10 primary wing feathers, which are essential for flying, and their skeleton includes hollow bones with lightweight reinforcement.
- Ducks primarily fly for reasons such as migration, escaping predators, and finding new habitats with more food or less pollution.
- There are two subtypes of ducks: dabbling ducks and diving ducks, each with different wing shapes that affect their flying capabilities.
I watch wild mallard ducks take flight every day where I live. They always seem far more at home in the water! Other ducks, such as a pair of mandarin ducks, are seasonal visitors.
Which leads us to the question – can ducks fly?
Apparently, yes! Despite how they’re almost always seen floating in bodies of water, ducks can indeed fly.
So, how do they do it? Where do they go? And when can you see them actually fly? All your questions can be answered down below, starting with how ducks are built to fly.
Anatomy of a Duck
Ducks have small, pointed wings like those of a peregrine falcon. Unlike falcon species, they have large, heavy bodies. This means they must beat their wings fast to fly. And they do – a duck beats its wings 10 times a second!
Ducks can fly quite fast. Even 80km (50 miles) per hour is standard for wild mallard ducks. However, their wing shape means they can’t twist and turn as quickly as other birds that spend their life on the wing. Compared to a swift or a falcon, ducks are pretty big and clumsy.
Ducks have 10 primary wing feathers. These are essential for getting airborne. Without the primary feathers, a duck is grounded. These are the feathers that are ‘clipped’ on domestic ducks, to stop them flying away. More on clipping later!
As with many birds, their skeleton includes hollow bones with special lightweight reinforcement. Their wing bones are fused for extra rigidity in the wing.
Do Ducks Need to Fly?
There are a few reasons why a duck will need to take to the air.
Many ducks need to migrate from one area or country to another. This is often to escape cold weather or to find areas with more food.
These migrations can be many thousands of miles. King Eider ducks make a 10,000-mile (16,093 km) round trip per year between the Arctic and the Canadian/Alaskan coastline!
Migrating ducks fly in a V formation as the air currents produced give them extra lift. The leading duck in front does all the work while the ducks behind it enjoy reduced drag and air vortexes that lift them up!
Foxes, mink and stoats all love the taste of duck. Rats and crows also eat duck eggs and ducklings. Even certain fish, such as pike, will snatch ducklings from under the water. If you’re a duck, it pays to be able to fly out of this kind of trouble!
Ducklings don’t have much choice in the matter. Their wing feathers haven’t grown yet, so they are stuck on the ground – or water. It’s up to their parents to protect them from danger.
A duck may be forced to move due to their food supply or habitat drying out or becoming polluted. Or there may be another group or species of ducks that bully the duck, forcing it to find another lake, pond or body of water.
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Dabblers vs Divers
Let me introduce two subspecies of duck – dabbling ducks and diving ducks. The differences between them mean the way they fly is different too!
Dabbling Ducks (Anatidae)
Dabbling ducks consist of 50 to 60 species of duck in the duck family Anatinae. They live in estuaries and freshwater, and prefer habitats with lots of tall grasses and reeds. They tend to forage – or dabble – for food near the surface of the water.
Pintails, teal, shovellers, widgeons, and mallard are all dabbling ducks.
Dabblers have a different wing shape compared to diving ducks. They have a lower aspect ratio, which means their wing length is divided by wing width. This means they can maneuver better through the tall vegetation that makes up their home.
This also means they can take off straight away from where they are in the water. The technique appears similar to a helicopter, or a Harrier jump jet on an aircraft carrier.
Next time you’re in the park, watch how a mallard takes off from the water and see it for yourself!
Diving Ducks (Anatidae, subfamily Aythyinae)
Diving ducks, or sea ducks, live in deep rivers and lakes or coastal bays. As you can tell from their name, they all dive for food. They come from the subfamily Aythyinae.
Their wing shape has a higher aspect ratio, which means they have a lot of power once they’re in the air, but not so much maneuverability.
Diving ducks need to run along the surface of the water before they can take off. This also means they beat their wings faster than dabblers.
This subspecies includes:
- King Eider
- Long Tailed Duck
- Surf Scoter
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Which Wild Ducks Can’t Fly?
There are a couple of wild duck species that can’t fly.
Several of these are called steamer ducks. They all live on and around the coast of South America.
Falklands steamer ducks are one such flightless duck. They live only on the coast of the Falkland Islands. There are estimated to be about 16,000 breeding pairs.
The male Falklands steamer duck is one of the heaviest ducks in the world. He weighs in at around 3.5kg (7.7 lb), while the Fuegian steamer duck male can weigh 5kg (11 lb). This is one good reason why many steamer ducks don’t fly.
They also have very strong, thick legs. There is one species known as the elephant-legged steamer duck named for this very reason.
Steamer ducks have very short wings and their bodies have great bulk. They live on islands with few, if any, natural predators, much like the Magellanic steamer duck. This means many steamer ducks didn’t develop the ability to fly. After all, there was no real urgency to do so.
Steamer ducks also have spurs on their stubby wings, which are used for fighting.
Auckland Island Teal and Campbell Island Teal are flightless wild ducks. They live on islands off the coast of New Zealand.
They are also endemic, which means they’re not found anywhere else in the world.
These cute brown ducks lived a predator-free life for much of their sheltered existence. However, they’re classed as Vulnerable now by IUCN. This is due to being forced off the main island by introduced cats, pigs, and rabbits.
These teal live on kelp-covered shorelines and along peat streams on the smaller surrounding islands.
Additionally, the Auckland Island Teal male has green iridescence on his head. This species tends to make soft trilling and piping calls.
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When Can a Flying Wild Duck Be Unable to Fly?
There are times in its life that a wild duck that normally flies won’t be able to fly.
Wild ducks need to molt once a year. Molting is when their old feathers fall out and are replaced by new ones. You can tell when a duck is molting as it looks very scruffy.
In the summer season in Alaska, ducks and other waterfowl molt all their flight feathers. They then become temporarily flightless for most of the breeding season.
Instead, they hide in undergrowth. They have eggs and young chicks to look after, so they wouldn’t want to fly off and leave them in any case.
By the end of summer, the adults and juvenile ducks are ready for the skies with a new set of flight feathers!
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Can Domestic Ducks Fly?
Some domesticated breeds of duck can fly, while others can’t. This is very handy to know if you ever want to keep ducks (and not lose them!)
Here are some flying duck breeds below.
Flying Domestic Ducks
- Domesticated Mallards
- Call Ducks
- Muscovy Ducks
- Runner Ducks
- East Indies
These ducks can fly as they are smaller and lighter than other domestic breeds of duck. Many other domestic duck breeds have been bred to be heavy and large. This makes it impossible for them to take to the air!
Here are some flightless domestic duck breeds below.
Flightless Domestic Ducks
- American Pekin
- Indian Runner
- Silver Appleyard
These ducks are too large and heavy to fly, even if you don’t clip their wings. Many of them are bred for meat as well as eggs, which is why they grow so big.
How Can I Stop Ducks From Flying Away?
So, you have some flying duck breeds. Or perhaps you’re thinking about getting some.
There are two options here. Apart from trusting your ducks to return, that is! Although it’s possible to train them to stay near their pen, nothing is guaranteed.
Build a Large Wire Pen
You can make a large, airy pen for your ducks using chicken wire or similar strong, light fencing.
This needs to be strong enough to deter the sharp teeth of rats and foxes. Oftentimes, the pen will need to reach below the ground to deter tunneling predators.
Clip Their Wings
Clipping is when you trim the tops of a duck’s primary wing feathers. This stops the duck from generating enough lift and balance to be able to fly. Trimming the feathers on just one wing will stop the duck being able to balance in the air.
This is the same technique used for chickens, geese or other domestic birds like parrots.
Clipping wings may sound horrible, but it isn’t painful unless it’s done wrong. It especially doesn’t hurt the duck. It’s more like giving them a haircut or trimming their nails! Here’s how it’s safely and properly done:
- Hold the duck’s wing out at full stretch. You may need two people to do this.
- With a light colored duck, you should be able to see the blood vessels in the duck’s wing if you hold it up to the light. Avoid cutting these!
- Use tin snips or heavy duty scissors to make a diagonal trim across the primary feathers in the wing.
- You only need to do this with one wing. This will stop the balance the bird needs to be able to fly.
Remember that you are taking away a duck’s natural ability to flee from predators and hazards. Now, it’s up to you to ensure they are safe!
How Much Energy Does a Duck Use up When Flying?
Mallards on a migration can reach speeds of around 50 miles (80 km) per hour. After an eight hour flight of 800 miles (1,287 km), they will need to feed and relax for at least 4 to 7 days!
As ducks need to flap their wings on average 10 beats per second, this type of flying uses a lot of energy. Much more than a bird that glides on air currents, such as a hawk or an albatross.
Ducks from New Zealand have been shown to have a basal rate of 70% of the basal rate of other types of ducks from the Northern Hemisphere. This means they aren’t using as much energy as (mostly flying) wild Northern Hemisphere ducks. And basal rate refers to the rate of their temperature and metabolism.
Many of these ducks from New Zealand are flightless, or don’t need to fly very much. So, you could say these ducks are being smart by being lazy. And they’re definitely saving a lot of energy by not flying!
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What’s the difference between a duck and a goose?
Scientists tell ducks and geese apart by how many bones they have in their neck. Geese and swans have 17 to 24 bones, while a duck has 16 or less.
How far can a domestic duck fly?
A domestic duck breed known to fly, such as a Call Duck, can reach a height of between 500-4000 feet (152-1,219 m) in the sky.
If the breed is known to be flightless, they may be able to glide from a higher surface to a lower surface, but not fly.
Which wild duck flies the farthest?
King Eider Ducks have the longest migration route of 10,000 miles (16,093 km).
But the longest non-stop flight trophy goes to the Black Brant Duck. The Black Brant duck travels about 3000 miles (4,828 km) in 60 to 72 hours. This is on their migratory flight between the coast of Alaska and Baja in California.
Which wild duck flies the highest?
The Ruddy Shelduck has been observed flying at 22,000 feet (6,705.6 m). It will usually avoid mountain peaks and is more likely to stay at 4000-6000 feet (1,219-1,829 m).
It does this to cross mountain ranges like the Himalayas. At this altitude, oxygen levels are at 50% of ground level. This duck has good lungs too!
Which duck flies the fastest?
A Red-Breasted Merganser duck, as it was once chased by an airplane reaching a speed of 100mph (161 km per hour)!
Which duck flies farthest South from North America?
A Blue-Winged Teal flew 4,000 mi (6,437 km) south into Peru. It had flown on migration from Manitoba (North America) where it was banded.