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Can Ducks Fly? (All You Need to Know)

Ducks, also called waterfowl, are fun-loving water birds found in both fresh water and seawater. They belong to the family Anatidae, along with geese and swans.

Generally, ducks fall into three different categories, which are:

  • Dabbling ducks like the Mallard or Garganey
  • Diving ducks such as the Pochard or Scaup
  • Sea ducks like the Velvet Scoter or Red-breasted Merganser

We know that ducks are more than proficient in water, but can ducks fly?

Many species of ducks are excellent flyers, particularly whilst migrating. Whilst all ducks have the ability to fly, certain species are unable or choose not to. For instance, the Falkland Steamerduck is almost flightless, only performing short-distance flights within the Falkland Islands. Factors that play a part in their inability to take to the air include their size, weight, wing structure, condition, and environment.

There's plenty of interesting facts and information about the flight of our quacky friends below.

A group of Mallard ducks flying over a lake

A group of Mallard ducks flying over a lake

How do ducks fly?

Ducks, in general, have curved pointed wings, with some species having relatively small wings compared to their body size. Ducks can travel long distances, in particular, during migration. To keep their bodies airborne, they have to flap almost continuously regardless of their wing size.

The majority of migratory ducks have powerful wing muscles. Coupled together with their long primary flight feathers (providing thrust whilst flapping) and shorter secondary flight feathers (providing lift when gliding), all aid for effective flight along with the bird's wing coverts. The coverts are softer than the flight feathers and create a stiff, smooth surface to allow for optimal airflow whilst the tail feathers act as a rudder helping to control and stabilise flight.

During the moulting season, ducks lose their flight feathers, with some species unable to fly for three to four weeks.

Examples of domestic ducks that are unable to fly are:

  • Indian Runner Duck
  • Pekin Duck
  • Rouen Duck
  • Cayuga Duck
A pair of Northern Pintail ducks in flight together

A pair of Northern Pintail ducks in flight together

Why do ducks fly?

The preferred habitats of ducks are the same as any aquatic bird, such as rivers, ponds, lakes, open seas, freshwater marshes, and bays. So, why do ducks leave these areas and take to the sky?

Ducks are found in every continent of the world, apart from Antarctica. As ducks cannot survive freezing temperatures, many migratory species leave their usual habitats. They navigate to spend the winter in warmer climates where the food supply is plentiful, and the water rarely freezes.

Some species migrate to their breeding grounds. For example, Mallard ducks in their mated pairs migrate to the northern parts of their range to build their nest. The male bird will generally leave the breeding area to join other males in moulting grounds once the female has laid her eggs.

A group of ducks flying early in the morning over the fog

A group of ducks flying early in the morning over the fog

How high can ducks fly?

During migration, ducks will typically fly at much greater altitudes to avoid overheating and dehydration. Heights of up to 22,000 feet during migration are not uncommon for certain species including mallards and ruddy shelducks. Most birds fly below heights of 500 feet to save energy and stay clear of danger, including any predators such as hawks.

An exhibition to Everest found a skeleton of a pintail at 16,400 feet, whilst documentation shows that a jet plane flying over Nevada struck a Mallard at 21,000 feet. Hence, records like these confirm that some species can reach a great height.

The Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) is a strong flier that generally flies below 10,000 feet but, during migration, will fly at altitudes anywhere between 200 to 4,000 feet.

Ruddy Shelducks (Tadorna ferruginea) are good fliers, have a strong wing beat and fly at heights of over 17,000 feet. However, researchers have discovered that they can reach altitudes of up to 22,000 feet (6,800 metres) during migration.

Ruddy Shelduck in flight

Ruddy Shelduck in flight

How fast can ducks fly?

Most ducks can reach around 40 to 60 miles per hour, with speeds averaging approximately 50 miles per hour. One of the fastest duck species is the Eider that can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour. The Red-breasted Merganser holds the record for the fastest duck flying at a rate of 100 miles per hour and, when put into perspective, beats the world's fastest land animal, the Cheetah that can reach speeds of up 70 miles per hour.

How far do ducks migrate?

Birds migrate to flee places when it becomes too cold for them or food is no longer abundant. Distances travelled during migration is not the same for all ducks. Some travel for thousands of miles, whilst others may take a leisurely flight travelling for around 100 miles.

The Mallard flying can travel great distances during migration, and records show them flying non-stop for 800 miles over eight hours.

Records show a Northern Pintail completing a journey of 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) non-stop whilst migrating.

For more information on the migration of ducks, check out this article.

A flock of ducks migrating

A flock of ducks migrating

Can ducks take off without water?

As we know, ducks can take off from water. Many species can also take off from land or ice - obviously, some more easily than others.

But, have you ever watched a diving duck such as the Tufted duck, Pochard and Goosander, take off from water? It's quite a remarkable sight watching as they run across the water, beating their wings rapidly to gain enough speed for take-off. In contrast, dabbling ducks can take off from the water quickly, efficiently and in an almost vertical position!

Tufted Duck taking off from the water

Tufted Duck taking off from the water

Do ducks fly at night?

Most waterfowl migration occurs at night, with movements intensifying not long after sunset, peaking in the middle of the night, and dropping off after that. On the whole, many species are more active at night. They prefer to forage for food in darkness, which can be due to changing habitat conditions and avoiding predators.

Do ducks fly in the rain?

We've all heard of the British saying, "lovely weather for ducks", but do our feathered friends fly when it's raining? Well, yes indeed, ducks do fly in light rain or winds.

Can ducks fly backwards?

Like most other birds, Ducks can only fly forwards, with the Hummingbird being an exception as they can fly backwards and upside down.

Male Mallard duck in flight

Male Mallard duck in flight

Do ducks fly in a formation?

It is common to see a flock of ducks flying in a V shape formation during migration. The birds can save energy and with less effort when flying in formation.

The leader heads the group, with each bird flying slightly above the one in front. When flying in this formation, the timing of wingbeats is essential. As each bird flaps, swirling air comes off its wingtips, and the upward moving air generated helps each bird to conserve energy and take advantage of a free ride. The birds take it in turns to lead the group, as this helps to combat tiredness.

At the beginning of the nesting season, ducks can fly in what's known as 'three bird flights'. Usually, this is an established pair accompanied by a lone drake on the lookout for a female partner.

Northern Pintails flying in formation

Northern Pintails flying in formation

Can baby ducks fly?

Baby ducks gain their independence and fledge between 50 - 60 days. Until such time, they remain under the protection and supervision of their mother.

Can Mallard ducks fly?

With a wingspan of 75 to 100cm, Mallard ducks are competent fliers and can reach speeds of up to 55mph. Their wings are strong, pointed in shape, and slightly larger than those of diving ducks. They are capable of taking off almost vertically and directly from the water.

Can Runner ducks fly?

Indian Runner ducks are a domestic breed derived from the Mallard duck. They are sometimes referred to as Penguin ducks due to their upright and bottle-shaped bodies, and their legs are pretty far back on their bodies, which allows them to run instead of waddle. Indian Runner ducks cannot fly but can jump 3 feet high fences if feeling under threat.

Indian Runner ducks are not able to fly

Indian Runner ducks are not able to fly

Can Pekin ducks fly?

Pekins are large and heavy birds that are relatively active and gregarious. They are a domestic breed originating from the Mallard duck and classified as being flightless. However, lighter individual ducks may be able to take a short flight.

Can domestic ducks fly?

Domestic ducks cannot fly due to their body shape, weight and size. Derived from the Mallard except for the Muscovy duck, domestic duck breeds include:

  • Indian Runner Duck
  • Khaki Campbell
  • Pekin
  • Rouen
  • Cayuga

Many domestic duck breeds make good pets and can be kept in secure environments like a garden or back yard. A small pond or paddling pool, if possible, is a good addition for them as they love to paddle and splash around in the water.

Domestic ducks have appeared in children's storybooks and cartoons for many years, making them popular and much-loved by many of us. One hugely popular white duck was Beatrix Potters Jemima Puddleduck, an Aylesbury duck with a large upright body, white feathers, a pink bill and orange legs and feet.

Other famous ducks include Walt Disney's Donald Duck, his three nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, his girlfriend Daisy, and his uncle Scrouge McDuck all of whom resemble the American Pekin duck. Daffy Duck, created by Warner Brothers, was another famous duck and looked like the American black duck.

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