Ducks are common and familiar animals to us and can be found all over the world in a range of watery habitats. When you see a duck, it is likely to be bobbing on the surface of a lake or pond, or waddling comically across the ground. These ungainly birds are talented swimmers, dabblers and divers, but the question is, can they fly?
Perhaps you are more familiar with farmyard ducks – ducks have been domesticated and bred throughout human history and have formed a close association with people. It is unlikely you have ever seen a farmyard duck fly, but does this mean they can’t fly?
The short answer is yes, ducks can fly! Although they have small wings in comparison to their large bodies, ducks are able to fly due to their wing structure and strong flight muscles. However, there are some duck species without the power of flight, and domesticated ducks are often unable (or unwilling!) to fly. Here, we’ll explore the watery world of ducks, and learn a bit more about the fascinating mechanics behind duck flight.
What Is A Duck?
On our quest to answer the question “can ducks fly?”, let us start off by finding out exactly what a duck is. The term duck is a very widely used term for a group of waterbirds. Many other types of waterbirds can be mistaken for ducks, including geese, coots and grebes among others. Due to the similarities between many waterfowl species, it can be very hard to identify true ducks! Here are some key features that help us to identify ducks:
- They can be found living near all kinds of water sources including lakes, ponds, rivers, estuaries, and the sea
- Flat bills and webbed feet
- Tend to be smaller and have shorter necks than geese and swans
Ducks are strong swimmers, using their broad, webbed feet to propel them through the water. Their feet do not contain blood vessels! This prevents them from getting chilled and allows them to swim in incredibly cold water. They also have waterproof feathers to protect them from getting soaked through and chilled as they go about their daily business on or near water.
Types Of Duck
Within the duck group, there are three general divisions which describe the way in which a duck species finds its food:
- Dabbling ducks – this group is known for upending themselves so that only their rear pokes above the water! They dabble, or forage for food, at the surface of freshwater.
- Diving ducks – these ducks are true to their name; they dive down into fresh water to collect food deeper below the surface.
- Sea ducks – the sea ducks are also divers but specialise in saltwater habitats.
There are also differences between these groups in terms of wing structure and flight method, which brings us onto our primary question “can ducks fly?”…
Can Ducks Fly?
The simple answer to this question is yes! Many ducks can fly, and lots of species have impressive flying abilities despite their unbalanced wing-to-body-size ratio. Ducks tend to have small wings and relatively bulky bodies compared to most other flying birds. This means that they cannot glide like birds of prey who have much longer wings, so they must sustain the momentum by employing a fast rate of wingbeats. An average duck will flap around 10 times per second when airborne!
Ducks also require very strong flight muscles to launch themselves into the air and maintain flight. This makes them some of the most ripped birds around! Migratory duck species have especially powerful flight muscles to help them make the long continuous journeys between their breeding grounds and over-wintering areas. Blue-winged Teals for example make an annual 3700 mile (around 6000 kilometres) from Canada to Venezuela or Peru!
Another key feature that enables a duck to fly is the shape of the wing and the flight feathers it contains. Although their wings tend to be small, they have an elongated, pointed form like those of falcons. The arrangement of asymmetrical, over-lapping flight feathers also adds a curved edge, helping the birds to make the most of every wing beat. Let’s take a closer look at the flight feathers of a duck that make their flight possible:
- Primary feathers – ducks generally sport 10 long, rigid primary feathers along the furthest edge of the wings. These are absolutely critical for flight, providing essential thrust on each downbeat of the wing.
- Secondary feathers – these feathers are positioned adjacent to the primary feathers, closer to the body and tend to be shorter. Secondary feathers aid duck flight on the upbeat of the wing by providing essential lift.
- Wing coverts – cover the bases of both primary and secondary feathers which smoothens the wing and helps with aerodynamism.
- Tail feathers – although tail feathers are not strictly flight feathers, they help a duck to control its speed, direction, and stability whilst airborne.
- Winglet or alula – this a small collection of 3 to 5 feathers on the upper edge of the wing, close to the body. These help a duck to slow their flight in preparation for landing and can be controlled by skin muscles, much like the spoilers on a plane wing which lift during touchdown to slow the plane’s momentum.
Differences Between Duck Flight Methods
The wing structure of a duck is highly specialised, with some ducks averaging flight speeds of up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometres per hour)! A Red-breasted Merganzer holds the record for fastest flight speed – this individual reached a speed of 100 miles per hour (160 kilometres per hour) in an effort to escape an aeroplane!
As we mentioned earlier, ducks are split into groups: dabblers, divers and sea ducks. The species within these groups employ different flight methods based on the environments in which they live, and the threats they are likely to face.
Dabbling ducks tend to be found in habitats containing more obstacles such as trees and reeds, and therefore their wings are wider, adding to their agility and helping them to dodge and change direction more easily. When taking off, dabbling ducks are able to launch almost vertically from the water, a useful ability in terms of predator evasion!
Diving ducks can be found in more open habitats and possess longer wings which enable them to travel easily over longer stretches of open water. Because they search for food deeper below the water, their bodies are heavier than those of dabblers which hinders vertical take-off. Therefore, diving ducks employ an interesting technique whereby they flap and run along the surface of the water, frantically beating their wings until they gain enough momentum for lift-off!
Some Ducks Cannot Fly
Although most ducks can fly, there are a few species in the wild which are unable to fly, and there are many domesticated ducks which have either lost the ability to fly or have had their wings clipped by people. In addition, some species are prevented from flying when they enter the moulting season. During this process they lose many feathers and regrow new ones ready for the breeding season. Ducks with missing flight feathers have a difficult time flying, so they may be incapacitated for up to four weeks.
There are some species of Steamer Ducks including Falkland Steamer Ducks which are unable to, or have a hard time flying. This is because they have very heavy bodies and have evolved in an environment in which flying does not necessarily benefit them. They instead flap their wings at the same time as paddling their feet in the water to help them speed along, much like the motion of an old steamer boat from which they get their common name.
Some domesticated ducks have their flight feathers clipped by their owners, removing their ability to fly. This can be beneficial for duck owners as it prevents the ducks from escaping. Other domesticated duck species have been bred through many generations and are no longer able to fly. Some examples of these include:
- Pekin Duck – you may be most familiar with this snow-white breed as it is very popular on farms and smallholdings. This species originated from China and was brought over the US where is was bred primarily for meat.
- Rouen Duck – this is a heavyweight breed, originating in France and bred for meat, and decoration due to its attractive plumage.
- Indian Runner Duck – true to their name, Indian Runner Ducks prefer to run than to waddle or fly. They stand characteristically tall, and were traditionally ‘walked’ to market over many miles.
Many breeds of domesticated ducks do not fly because they do not need to. Humans provide them with everything the require including food, shelter and protection from danger – when you have everything you need, why would you want to fly away?!
How high do ducks fly?
Long-distance migratory duck species, like Mallards and Ruddy Shelducks, can be found flying at incredibly high altitudes up to 22,000 feet (6.7 kilometres)! Temperatures are colder at these altitudes, helping high-flying species to avoid over-heating and dehydration during long flights.
Most ducks, however, will fly below 500 feet (150 metres). This helps them to avoid predation by birds of prey, and save precious energy by avoiding climbing to great heights.
Do ducks fly in groups or alone?
During migration, ducks can often be seen flying in groups from a few individuals to a whole flock. Non-migratory flights are undertaken in search of food sources and new nesting or foraging grounds. Flights of this kind are often undertaken by individuals or mating pairs (one male and one female).
During the breeding season it is also common to see a group of 3 ducks in flight – this is usually composed of a mating pair and a lone, opportunistic male on the hunt for a female partner.
Why do ducks often fly in a V-formation?
When you see ducks flying together in a V-shaped formation, you are looking at ducks on their migratory journey. The front bird flies at the tip of the V, with every bird behind it positioned slightly higher than the bird in front. Their wingbeats are carefully timed so that an upward-moving whoosh of air is generated by their wingtips, helping the bird behind to conserve energy by riding this current. Everyone will take it in turns to lead the formation as this is the hardest job and requires the most energy. The V-shaped formation is common among migratory waterfowl.
Do ducks fly during the night?
Many migratory duck species choose to undertake their epic journeys during the night. This can help them to avoid daytime predators. In hot locations, flying in search of food sources and foraging for food can be more confutable at night when the temperatures are lower.