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Relationships Between Ducks – Do They Mate For Life?

Pair of Harlequin Ducks

Ducks are such attractive and easy birds to watch! They often occur in flocks that forage and take flight together. Sometimes, while watching them, I notice pairs of ducks within the flock.

These are male and female ducks that stay near each other, interact, and really look like a couple.

Ducks pair together, but do they mate for life? What are duck relationships like?

 

The Bonds Between Ducks

Ducks form pairs for mating but they don’t have life-long pair bonds. Geese and swans can mate for life but most ducks have other mating strategies. While they might have just one mate during the breeding season, most duck species find a different mate the following year.

Some ducks can return and pair up with the same mate as the previous year but most don’t. After finding a mate, many male ducks also pursue other females to mate with.

Mallard pair

When a female duck accepts a male to be her mate, they forage near each other and spend time together. However, this can be brief because most males leave as soon as the female starts to incubate her eggs.

Such males join other males, many of which failed to find a mate. These birds flock together, mostly for protection from predators.

In the non-breeding season, duck pairs are non-existent until their start to look for a mate. After breeding, while male and female ducks flock together, former mates don’t really have anything to do with each other. Most ducks in the flock are busy with foraging, watching for predators, and bickering with each other over roosting sites or other territorial issues.

 

Aggressive mating

Unlike many birds, the duck mating season doesn’t start in March or April. It begins much earlier in the year, or even at the end of the previous one!

Most male ducks in North America have their best and brightest plumage in the dead of winter because this is their time of year for courting females.  In January, while many other male birds have dull “winter plumage,” male ducks are at their prime. Winter is also when we can watch ducks carry out fancy courtship displays.

To find a mate, males of several duck species approach females and bob or make other exaggerated postures. As part of courtship, Mallards and some other duck species can also suddenly fly into the air or fly after females.

Sometimes, duck courtship looks rougher than it should be. Those situations are actually males pursuing additional females to mate with, whether the female duck wants to or not. If you see a male duck chasing a female on top of and even underwater, that may be what he’s trying to do.

Their mating can get really rough and even be involuntary. However, ducks have evolved in mysterious ways; females have their own means, in the form of their vaginal cavity, so they can regulate which male gets to fertilize her eggs (and yes, male ducks have penises).

 

The Male’s Role

When male ducks find a mate, they stay close to the female duck as much as possible. Their close attention probably has something to do with their pair bond, but mostly, male ducks guard their mates to protect them from other males.

Other than that and fathering young, most drakes don’t do much else. They don’t have anything to do with choosing a nest site or building a nest.

After their mate begins to incubate their eggs, this is where their relationship ends. Males leave the females to their own devices.

Male mallard in flight - side view

They flock with other males and might look for other females to court and mate with. However, they don’t visit the nest site, nor help raise their young in any manner. Male ducks leave all of those duties to the female.

Related: How long do ducks live?

Exceptions happen when ducks breed earlier than usual or on urban ponds and lakes. In those situations, drakes can stay near their mates during incubation and even after the eggs hatch. Urban drakes might behave like this because nesting on an urban body of water is often safer and much easier for ducks than nesting in wilder areas.

There are far fewer predators, and ducks have plenty of food (even if some of the food isn’t all that good for them!).

 

Some Fun Facts About Ducks & Their Breeding Habits

  • In Mallards and various other duck species, males outnumber females.
  • If a duck’s mate dies, the surviving bird doesn’t waste any time in finding a new mate.
  • Female ducks sometimes drown when mating. This happens because males sit on top of them while the female is floating on the water, and may accidentally push her underwater for too long.
  • Northern Pintails and some other duck species typically have more than one mate and do not form any long-term pair bonds.
  • Duck courtship often includes exaggerated behaviors including ritualized drinking, odd head movements, preening, and shaking parts of their bodies.
  • Various ducks occasionally pair with other duck species and have hybrid offspring.
  • Although most ducks do not mate for life, Whistling-ducks are the exception. These goose-like ducks do mate for life.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do ducks stay with their mate?

Ducks stay with their mate for one nesting season. Some can go back to the same mate in the next breeding season but most don’t.

Do male ducks protect female ducks?

Male ducks protect their mates from other drakes that want to mate with them.

Do duck siblings stay together?

Duck siblings stay together but only when they are with their mother. They can also join the same post-breeding flock in the fall and live in the same area but don’t really choose to stay with any siblings.

Why do ducks live in large groups?

Ducks live in large groups for protection from predators.

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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