Why Do Ducks Have Feathers? | Adaptations

If you’ve landed on this page you clearly an inquisitive individual. I guess you have been setting near your local waterways observing and got dumbstruck by the most obvious question you have never thought to ask before! Why do ducks have feathers?

In this article, I will explain the most important physiological functions of a duck’s feathers and hopefully put that question to bed once and for all.

Ducks Use Feathers to Fly

Ducks, like all birds, have feathers. Flight is possible due to a combination of factors, such as lightweight, hollow bones, and the lack of a urinary bladder. Feathers are another factor that is imperative for flight. 

Flight feathers on the wings are collectively known as remiges. They are stiff and strong, supporting the duck whilst it is in flight. Regimes can be divided into three groups of feathers: primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries. 

Primary feathers are the largest flight feathers. They are used to propel the duck through the air. They are located on the very tips of the wings. Generally, most bird species have 10 primary feathers on either wing. Any damage to or loss of these feathers will leave them unable to fly. 

Secondary feathers are located along the back-middle portion of the wings. They provide the duck with the lift it requires to maintain in the air. Every species has a different number of secondary feathers. Ducks are still able to fly with significant damage to their secondaries but have much less control when in flight. 

Tertiary feathers sit at the rear edge of the wings, close to the duck’s body. Although they are still required for flight, they are not as important. 

Flight feathers on the tail of a duck are called rectrices. They are needed for stability and control. When in flight, they are used to help the duck balance and steer. 

Protective Layer from Wind and Cold

Feathers are made from a protein called keratin. They are strong, flexible, and hydrophobic. The rod that runs down the center of a feather is called the shaft. The veins on either side of the feather are made up of many tiny branches known as barbs. 

There is lots of space between each barb, giving feathers their loose structure. This is key to feathers being excellent thermal insulators. Ducks can often be seen fluffing up their feathers. This act traps a layer of air around their body.

As a result, the cold air cannot easily penetrate the duck’s body, and its body heat is not easily lost either. Ducks must constantly preen their feathers, to ensure they are kept clean, dry, and flexible to remain effective insulators.

Feather anatomy
Feather anatomy
Credit: Sunshineconnelly by CC 3.0

Brood Patches and Nesting

A brood patch is a bald, featherless patch of skin on the underside of a bird. They develop during the nesting season. Since feathers are such great insulators, they prevent efficient incubation. Over time, birds have evolved to develop brood patches to overcome this. 

The sex that incubates the eggs will develop a brood patch. This area of skin is heavily concentrated with blood vessels to allow effective heat transfer to the eggs during the incubation period.

In many bird species, the feather automatically shed to form a brood patch. However, ducks often pluck out their own feathers and use them to line their nest. After hatching, the feather will grow back.

Bright Feathers Attract Mates

Many duck species have bright and patterned plumage. Males tend to boast colorful feathers, whilst females tend to look drab in comparison. This is a result of sexual selection and mate attraction.

Males are the sex who must attract a mate, and females are the sex who choose. Individuals that have the most impressive plumage, will be most successful in attracting a mate and producing offspring. 

Mandarin ducks are one of the most beautiful species, boasting a mixture of vibrant blue and orange feathers.

When Do Ducks Get Their Feathers?

Are Ducks Born with Feathers? 

Ducklings are born without feathers. Instead, they a coated in a fine layering of fluff, known as a downy plumage. At around 6 weeks old, the duckling will go through a stage called a ‘juvenile molt’ and begin growing their juvenile feathers. 

At around 15 weeks old, their juvenile plumage will molt and be replaced with their adult plumage. Twice a year, adult ducks molt their old plumage and replace it with a new one. 

Why Do Ducks Have Tail Feathers? 

…to cover his butt quack…

Jokes aside, tail feathers are primarily used during flight. They help the duck to twist, turn and maintain balance. Additionally, they can act as a brake when landing. 

You will also enjoy reading What Is A Group Of Ducks Called

Why Do Ducks Preen Their Feathers?

Waterproofing Feathers 

Ducks rub their beaks against the uropygial (preen) gland located near their tail. As they do so, they pick up oil on their beaks, which they then rub against their feather in an act known as preening. This coats their feathers in oil, giving them a hydrophobic coating, making them effectively waterproof. 

Plucking and Shaping Feathers

Preening is an act of self-maintenance. Through preening, ducks remove dirt, dust, and parasites from their feathers, helping keep them in perfect shape and condition. Plucking is a part of preening, but sometimes it can develop into over-preening and be harmful. 

Most importantly during preening, ducks realign the feathers that cover their body. They ensure ensuring the barbs of the feathers are in the correct, overlapping positions.

Duck preening its feathers
Duck preening its feathers
Credit: Sheba_Also 43,000 photos

Types of Duck Feathers

Contour Feathers

Feathers that cover the majority of a duck’s body are known as contour feathers. They are important in providing the bird with a waterproof layer. The base of contour feathers is downy, which helps keep the duck insulated. 

Down Feathers

Down feathers are very small, soft, and fluffy feathers. They are the feathers that are the closest to the duck’s skin but are hidden by the exterior feathers. They play an important role in trapping air, to help keep the duck insulated and buoyant.

Ducklings are coated in a layer of downy feathers before they develop their adult plumage, helping to keep them warm.  

Semiplume Feathers 

Semiplume feathers are usually hidden beneath more exterior feathers on a duck’s body. They resemble a mix between downy feathers and contour feathers. Their main purpose is to create a fluffy, insulating layer and increase the buoyancy of the duck. 

Filoplume Feathers 

Filoplume feathers have a long shaft and only a few fluffy barbs protruding from the tip. They are usually associated with contour feathers. They are thought to have both decorative and sensory functions.

Filoplumes are associated with sensory receptors in the skin, providing information about the air and feather movements that birds rely on to fly. 

Feather types
Feather types
Credit: Anaxibia by CC 3.0

FAQ Why Do Ducks Have Feathers