We’ve all probably seen that cute waddle of ducks across a yard or along the edge of a pond, accompanied by an almost comical wagging of its tail.
With dogs, the common assumption is the wagging of a tail means happiness and contentment, but does the same apply to ducks? Or are there other reasons why ducks wag their tails? Read on as we investigate!
Research suggests a variety of reasons why a duck might wag its tail. Tail wagging may help to shake off water after a swim or be a way of calming down after a stressful event. As with dogs, tail-wagging may indeed indicate a response to human interaction, and is especially seen in domestic ducks.
Other theories state that tail-wagging could form part of a courtship ritual, used in attempt to attract a mate, or may in fact be a sign of illness, or as a method of winding down after a period of stress, excitement or intense activity, e.g. chasing off a predator or defending mate or a nest site. Tail wagging may be used as a self-soothing action to restore calm.
Join us as we investigate these theories and establish if it’s possible to ever be entirely certain just what causes a duck to wag its tail, or if it will remain one of the natural world’s eternal mysteries.
Close up of the back and tail feathers of a female mallard
There is no sole reason why ducks may engage in tail wagging. This seemingly comical motion could be an involuntary response to a number of different situations that a duck may encounter on a daily basis. Some suggested reasons why a duck may wag its tail are explained below.
Tail wagging in ducks may be witnessed after an interaction with humans, indicating a rise in the duck’s excitement levels. Heightened bouts of tail wagging are frequently seen as a response to food, and it is unclear whether birds can feel ‘excitement’ or whether this is just an instinctive reaction to being provided with food.
In domestic ducks, tail wagging may be observed on spotting an approaching human, possibly driven by the association between humans and feeding time.
Some dogs are commonly believed to have a strong bond with their owners, and demonstrate this with intense tail-wagging behavior when they spend time together.
Some duck owners suggest the same is true for them and their ducks, with tail-wagging motivated purely by friendly human interaction rather than simply driven by food.
Excited ducks walking in a line
After a period of intense activity or stress, ducks may use tail wagging as a way of calming themselves down. Stressed ducks have been observed to wag their tails after confrontations with predators, or defending nest sites, mates or young. This is thought to serve the purpose as a self-soothing mechanism while their stress levels return to normal after a period of heightened alert.
Ducks that are seen to practice excessive tail wagging may be suffering from a condition known as ‘wet feather’. This can occur when a duck is exposed to too much water for too long, and its feathers haven’t had a chance to dry off sufficiently, which has the potential to cause serious damage to a duck’s health as its feathers may lose their waterproofing abilities.
Tail wagging is a common element of male ducks’ courtship behavior, and alongside head-bobbing and wing-flapping, has the ultimate aim of attracting a mate. Occasionally, female ducks may wag their tails in response to the male’s moves, although tail-wagging is thought to be a primarily a male mating trait.
Some female ducks will wag their tails during the breeding season, during courtship routines
After a swim, a quick wag of the tail may be undertaken by ducks to shake off any water that has collected in their rear feathers. Wagging the tail will disperse any excess water, enabling ducks to dry off, similar to the rapid, side-to-side shaking of a dog that has just been for a swim.
Water droplets naturally flow off a duck’s back and tail feathers, hence the expression ‘like water off a duck’s back’, however on occasions, ducks’ feathers may become waterlogged and excess moisture pools around the tail. A vigorous wag will help to remove this and restore normal comfort levels.
The clumsy, waddling walk of ducks naturally involves a degree of tail wagging, as this motion helps them keep their balance. The positioning of a duck’s legs towards the back of their bodies, coupled with their webbed feet, are somewhat impractical for walking on land, causing their ungainly gait and wagging their tails helps to counteract the lurching side-to-side motion.
Not all ducks waddle, however. Indian runners are one example, and move in a running motion with an upright stance and outstretched neck.
Due to the 'clumsy' nature of a ducks walk, often they can involuntary wag their tails
Tail-wagging is commonly seen in domestic duck breeds, particularly so in Muscovy and Perkins ducks that are kept as pets.
Wild ducks have also been observed to practice tail-wagging, especially as part of a mating and courtship ritual, or following an encounter with a predator or other stressful situation.
Wild ducks are not as at ease in close proximity to humans and it’s unlikely that tail-wagging will be prompted as a form of friendly greeting or ‘happy’ interaction.
All ducks have tails, but they may vary in shape, length, and prominence. Male mallards have a distinctive upward curl, which is not present in the female of the same species.
Duck breeds with the longest tails include northern pintails and long-tailed ducks. Ruddy ducks and blue-billed ducks belong to a group known as stiff-tailed ducks, and have stiff, spiky tails that can be held at an angle or vertically when the duck is on the water.
Northern Pintails have one of the longest duck tails
We should always try and avoid attributing human emotions to animals, as ducks are wild creatures and thus impossible to tell whether behavior that may appear to be expressing emotion is simply instinctive.
Generally speaking, if a duck is quacking, feeding well, its feathers are in good condition and it is interacting positively with other ducks around it, the general consensus is that it is content.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox