«From troubles of the world I turn to ducks,
Beautiful comical things»
— Ducks by Frank W. Harvey
From Jemima to Donald, ducks have permeated popular culture due to their friendly and entertaining nature. But far from just being waddling bundles of feathers, ducks are actually very complex creatures…
1. THEY FOLLOW THE FIRST ANIMAL THEY SEE
This is a phenomenon known as imprinting (nothing to do with the werewolf stuff in Twilight). The basic thought behind imprinting is as follows: a newly hatched duckling will adopt characteristics of the first animal they see. This is usually a mother duck, but could be anything from a dog to a human (which I assume is what happened to Donald Duck). There is even a known case of a group of ducklings imprinting on a cardboard box.
Imprinting takes place due to the duckling’s instinct to follow the first thing that passes by, because more often than not this is their mother. To prevent this it is common practice, when hand rearing ducklings, to feed them using a hand puppet of a duck, so that later on the duckling can integrate with its own species.
2. PUZZLING PARTS
Duck romance isn’t exactly moonlight and roses. While ducks pair off every mating season, this doesn’t stop rival males from forcing themselves on the female. The males of many duck breeds have developed spiky, corkscrew shaped penises, which give them an advantage over rivals when it comes to depositing sperm. This video, charmingly titled Explosive eversion of a duck penis, shows the extent of the weirdness.
However, female ducks do not take this lying down. Over time they have developed vaginas comparable to Hampton Court Maze, with dead ends, and parts that spiral in the opposite direction to the male’s penis.
It doesn’t end there. Some breeds of duck have penises so long they are able to use them as lassos (see picture above). Researches at the University of Alaska theorise that the Argentinian lake duck will sometimes lasso escaping females in order to mate with them.
Ducks have also been known to have sex with dead ducks. I think it’s fair to say that ducks are sex mad.
3. NOT ALL DUCKS CAN FLY
There is a breed of duck that has more in common with a penguin than with its anatine cousins. The Indian Runner is becoming increasingly popular with UK duck owners, thanks to its inability to fly and comical appearance; the most frequently used description among Indian Runner owners is «a wine bottle on legs».
Even though the Indian Runner can’t fly, it can outrun many predators, and also its owner. Because of this, Indian Runners are occasionally used to train sheepdogs.
4. THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO EAT BREAD
At some point in our lives, we’ve all been to the park to feed the ducks, usually clutching half a bag of stale Warburtons. However, feeding bread to a duck actually does the duck more harm than good.
While ducks are largely omnivorous, and have even been known to eat sand and grit for its mineral content, bread is actually one of the worst things they can eat. Apart from having no nutritional value, regularly eating bread can cause obesity, malnutrition, and a condition known as angel wing, which impedes the duck’s ability to fly. On top of this, rotting, uneaten bread will attract pests and predators to the duck’s environment.
Corn, oats and chopped vegetables are all good alternatives to try when feeding the ducks.
5. THEY HAVE HAVE 3 EYELIDS
This is the case with most birds. As well as the standard top and bottom eyelids, ducks also have a third, sideways lid, known as a nictitating membrane. The membrane acts like goggles do on humans, so the ducks can see while their heads are underwater. The membrane also removes things like grit and dust from the eyes.
6. YOU CAN TELL A MALE FROM A FEMALE BY THE TAIL
While many breeds of duck are distinguishable by their colouring (for example, with the mallard), some have identical colouring regardless of sex. With these breeds, the most common way to tell the male from the female is to look at the tail feathers. In many breeds, the male will have curly tail feathers, in contrast to the female’s straight, stubby feathers.
7. NOT ALL DUCKS QUACK
In fact, hardly any ducks produce the characteristic ‘quacking’ sound we’ve come to associate with them. The most common UK duck, the mallard, does quack, but other breeds croak, squeak, whistle, or remain mute. You can listen to a few different duck calls here.
And while we’re on the subject, duck quacks Do echo.
8. EGG LAYING IS AFFECTED BY DAYLIGHT
Both ducks and chickens slow down their egg production when there is a shortage of daylight, due to the light levels affecting their hormones. This is why most breeds of duck and chicken don’t lay many, if any eggs during the winter months.
Ducks aren’t as affected by the dark as chickens however, and some breeds do lay all year round (the current record holder producing 364 eggs in one year).
Because of this, farmers and duck keepers are advised to introduce artificial light into the duck house in order to boost egg production.
9. FEMALES ARE LOUDER THAN MALES
Sorry ladies, our duck counterparts are giving us a bad name. With most breeds of duck, the female is considerably louder and more talkative than the male. In fact, some male breeds are virtually silent (desperately tries not do do a joke about being hen-pecked). People wanting to keep domestic ducks are often advised to keep only males if they have neighbours, as this will reduce the risk of annoying them with the noise.