Ducks Molt Too!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


When you raise chickens, you become accustomed to a flock of molting chickens each fall. The shorter days signal to their bodies to drop their old, broken feathers and grow in a nice new set before winter arrives to help them stay warm. It's easy to spot a molting chicken. She will have bare spots starting at her head and neck and moving down her body, with sharp quills poking through. With ducks, its not as obvious, with your only sign often being a run full of feathers. But ducks molt too!

However, the molting process in ducks is a bit different. While the pattern is the same - from the back of the head, down the neck, across the body and then towards the tail - ducks tend to molt faster than chickens, with the entire process taking only six weeks or so. Some chickens can take months to completely finish their molt. Since (wild) ducks depend on their feathers to fly, they need to be able to regrow their feathers more quickly.



Males Molt Differently Than Females


Ducks also molt differently depending on whether they are male or female. Female ducks generally molt only once a year in the late spring/early summer. This coincides when she would have ducklings to care for. She'll use the feathers she's shedding to literally "feather her nest". She'll drop her feathers, but keep her nice soft down. 

Since a molting duck can't fly, this keeps her grounded while the ducklings are small, and then equips her with a brand new set of feathers when the babies are ready to start flying. Since neither she nor the little ones can fly at this point, she will lead them into the nearby water if there's a lurking predator (this is why wild ducks build their nests and lay their eggs by the edge of a pond or lakeside). 

The Juvenile Molt


By about 6-7 weeks, ducklings grow their first set of feathers. Both male and female young ones look the same at this point. But several weeks later, they will drop those first "juvenile" feathers and grow in feathers colored differently, depending on their sex. 



The Nuptial Molt


Male ducks of nearly every breed are more brightly colored than the females. The males (drakes) molt at least twice a year. In the late winter, they drop their winter feathers and grow in some colorful new feathers for the spring mating season in order to impress the ladies. This isn't a full-on molt usually, just a partial one, and is called their "nuptial" molt.

The Eclipse Molt


Once mating season is over at the end of the summer, the drake will undergo an "eclipse" molt and his fancy feathers will drop and be replaced with plain, drab camouflage feathers (this is helpful for keeping them safe during hunting season from both human hunters and predators!). This time of year the male will look very similar to the female duck. Unlike females, the males usually retain their wing feathers, so they can fly year round as a defense against predators.

The Simultaneous Wing Molt


Many ducks also go through a third molt called a "simultaneous wing" molt. It is during this molt that they regrow new wing feathers, so they're grounded and unable to fly for about a month (although of course domestic ducks can't fly anyway, so it's irrelevant to them). Most other types of birds molt by losing only one wing feathers at a time so they can still fly if they need do. 


What Should you Do to Help?


You really don't need to do anything differently while your ducks are molting, but during the molting season, they will eat more - needing additional protein and energy to grow in new feathers. There are lots of sources of plant protein that you can add to your ducks' diet when they're molting to help them along. Your ducks will love extra rations of basil, dill, parsley, and tarragon! Your ducks will also enjoy meat, fish or shellfish scraps, feeder fish or dried insects. I don't recommend feeding them cat food since it's formulated for cats not waterfowl, but you can switch from a layer feed to a grower or meat bird feed, which both are a bit higher in protein.



Reduction in Laying


Egg laying will slow down or stop during the molting season. Unlike chickens though, who generally stop laying during the fall molt and then take a break until spring when the days get longer, our ducks will start laying again once they're done molting.


Signs of the Molt


You will likely notice fluff on your ducks' bills when they're molting, lots of fluff and feathers in their swimming pool. They might be a bit more subdued than normal, or look a bit moth-eaten, but the most obvious sign that your ducks are molting is that your coop and run will look like there was a pillow fight, early snow fall, predator attack - or like one of your ducks exploded!


The above information applies to wild ducks primarily. It's very hard to find much information about whether the domestication of ducks has had an impact on their molting habits, but from observing my own ducks, they do seem to molt more than once a year, in fact I believe I've used the term "perma molt" when it comes to our ducks! Either way, they need to grow in nice new feathers each year, just like chickens do. They just do it a bit differently.


For more information and advice about raising backyard ducks, visit my Duck Care Guide.
Further Reading:
https://www.omlet.us/guide/ducks/duck_health/moulting/
http://urbanhomestead.org/136/
http://www.newagrarian.com/2004/03/raising-ducks-the-second-year/
http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/understanding-waterfowl-the-amazing-molt

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