Ducks encompass a wide range of waterfowl from the large Anatidae family, which also includes swans and geese. As the smallest, shortest and most compact of the family, ducks include everything from the incredibly ornate Mandarin duck to the humble Mallard and so many other beautiful species.
But what about baby ducks? Ducklings are some of the most well-known of all the baby birds since they spend much of their early lives visibly floating on the water or waddling with their mothers on dry land.
This article will explore everything you need to know about baby ducks.
Most ducklings do resemble that of what most would consider a typical duckling; small and fluffy with large webbed feet.
There is variation between different species of ducks and their ducklings. Mallard ducklings are perhaps the quintessential duckling, featuring yellow bellies and necks with darker down across their heads, wings and backs. These darker patches often form lengthways stripes down their bodies.
Pekin ducklings don’t possess the same dark down and are instead a bright blonde colour. Many eider ducks have much darker ducklings, whereas Goldeneye ducklings are also a dark grey. Wigeon ducklings are thinner and taller than some other species.
What all ducklings do have in common is that they hatch covered in a thick and fluffy down.
Baby ducks are small, measuring just some 10cm long in most species. There can be a fair amount of size diversity in an average brood of ducklings, so some will be larger than their other siblings.
Ducklings grow quickly and reach skeletal maturity in around just 2 to 3 months, though it’ll take another one and a half years or so until they’re ready to breed themselves. Male plumage can take around a year to fully develop.
Mallard ducklings weigh around 30 to 40 grams (1.0 to 1.4 oz). Fully grown ducks weigh from 0.45kg for the smallest species, such as Call ducks, to a whopping 6.8 kilograms for the mighty Muscovy duck. As such, there is likely some variation between the sizes of ducklings, but overall, most probably weigh within a similar range.
Newly hatched Muscovy ducklings, asleep in their nest
Juvenile ducks start to develop their adult plumage at around the 1 to 3-month mark, at which point the males will become increasingly easier to distinguish from the females. Ducks are generally sexually dimorphic, with the males tending to possess flashier, brighter and more colourful feathers.
This is easy to spot in species such as the Mallard and Mandarin duck but much less obvious in runner and Pekin ducks.
If we take perhaps the most ornate and one of the most colourful ducks, the male Mandarin duck, then its juveniles are still relatively plain until they reach full maturity.
Male Mallard juveniles begin to show their token blue speculum feathers after just 3 to 4 months.
Many female ducks look similar to juveniles as they do when they reach adulthood.
A juvenile Mandarin Duck
The correct term for a baby ducks is duckling. Unlike other birds, they aren't referred to as chicks, hatchlings or fledglings. Duckling is also for all duck species.
The name duck is actually a common name with no real formal scientific meaning, and many birds considered ducks are not really related to each other. Even so, all baby ducks are called ducklings.
A group of baby ducks is usually called a brood. A group of juvenile or adult ducks can be called a raft (on water) or a waddling, badelyng or badling when on dry land.
For more information on the collective nouns given to a group of ducks, check out this article.
A large group of baby ducks (ducklings), are usually referred to as a brood
The diet of a typical duckling varies with the species in question. Mallards, pintails and many other ducks consume primarily aquatic plants. Some species such as mergansers and Pekins eat primarily fish and other aquatic animals as well as insects, amphibians and crustaceans.
All ducks are technically omnivores and will consume a variety of foods depending on their aquatic environments. Many ducks do also graze food from the land too.
Unlike many baby birds, ducklings can feed themselves just days after hatching and will watch their mother for cues that signal what they can and can’t eat. Baby ducks consume foods such as:
Baby Mallard ducks eating with their mother
In captivity, baby ducks are typically fed waterfowl feed or chick feed that is high in protein. Plant foods ranging from vegetables such as lettuce, carrots and broccoli to fruits such as apples and grapes are also great for ducklings.
Ducklings - like fully grown ducks - also need to consume grit to help them digest food in their gizzards. If they’re foraging themselves, they will likely find their own grit and swallow it instinctively. Otherwise, after around two weeks, they can be fed some ‘chick grit’ alongside their food.
Ducks eggs vary widely in colour and even differ across members of the same species or breed. Mallard duck eggs can be white, brownish or even slightly blue.
Indian Runner and Magpie ducks often lay blue-tinted eggs. Other ducks' eggs range from browns to yellowish hues.
The nest of an Eider duck, with four eggs inside
Most duck eggs are incubated for around 28 to 30 days. The Muscovy duck has the longest incubation time, sometimes ranging up to 36 days.
Most female ducks lay between 8 to 15 eggs. For Mallards, 11 to 12 is around average. Muscovy ducks can lay up to 18 eggs, with 15 being a common average.
A female Mallard with her ducklings, following behind in a line
Very few species of ducks lay eggs all year round, with most choosing the typical breeding season to lay their clutch, usually around mid-March until the end of July in much of the Northern Hemisphere at least.
Some ducks, like the Black-Bellied whistling duck, breed as late as November in Central America. Ducks that breed in warmer regions will likely deviate more from the standard breeding season (i.e. spring) than those from colder or more temperate regions.
There are a handful of species of ducks that may raise two broods in a year, including the Wood duck, which has been reliably found to have two broods instead of the usual one, albeit rarely.
A female Tufted Duck with one her ducklings swimming alongside
Ducklings can feed themselves within just days of hatching - the parents (just the mother in the vast, vast majority of cases) simply helps guide them to edible foods. She’ll tend to peck at edible foods whilst communicating with her ducklings via vocalisations.
They’ll also consume some of their hatched egg yolks which provides them with sustenance for their first few days.
Ducklings spend much of their early days swimming and waddling around and won’t attempt their first flight for at least 40 days or so, usually more like 60 days.
They’ll first attempt to fly briefly across the water before trying on land where a failed landing might not be so comfortable!
Check out this full guide on ducks and their flying abilities.
A family of Ruddy Shelducks
Baby ducks rely on their mother for warmth for around a week and continue to remain under her close supervision for a further two months or so until fledging.
Once fledged, ducklings will not become independent immediately but will likely join a nearby flock, often with many other juvenile ducks. Most species of ducks are sexually mature after one a half to two years, at which point they begin to search for a mate.
Ducks mostly build fairly simple, covert nests close to water, typically within just 100 metres or so. Once the ducklings hatch, the nest may be abandoned quite quickly, but that doesn’t mean that the ducks won’t return to the same breeding site the next year.
For example, one study found that some 75% of female Canvasback ducks returned to the same breeding site with many returning to exactly the same pothole they nested in the prior year.
The nest of a Tufted Duck with eggs inside
Most ducks are seasonally monogamous, which means they form a new pair bond each breeding season, but some, like whistling ducks, are monogamous. Some duck pairs have been known to re-mate with each other each season.
In any case, the majority of male ducks spend little time with their young after they hatch, though some are known to remain defensive of their brood until the end of the breeding season.
There are some exceptions to the rule - Wood ducks and whistling ducks diverge from most other species of ducks by being typically monogamous and even sharing brooding duties. Both the Wood duck and Australian wood duck have been observed taking biparental care of their ducklings.
Amongst nearly all other species of ducks, much of the rearing duties are down to the mother, who will keep a close eye on her brood for around two months, at which point the ducklings begin to fledge.
Ducklings have high mortality rates - as many as 70% of them may die if the winter preceding the breeding season is particularly harsh.
Adverse weather conditions are just one challenge that ducklings face, along with predation by mammals such as foxes, racoons, minks, fish including bass and pike, reptiles like snapping turtles and a whole host of birds like hawks and owls.
This is partly why duck broods are so considerable, often numbering ten ducklings or more, as sadly, survival rates are low.
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