Can Ducks be Pets – Duck Tales and FAQS

I posted a picture of our duck Maggie sleeping on Pumpjacks shoulder on Instagram a little while ago. Lots of likes and then a comment to the affect, ‘Ewwww, there is just something wrong with having a duck as a pet’. It got me to thinking.  A year and a half in with Maggie, can  ducks actually be pets? The answer is a resounding and surprising ~ Yes! But, the more important question is ~ why?

We had no idea what to expect when we hatched Maggie. A quick search of the internet whilst she was coming out of her egg told us she would imprint on us and we had to decide seriously if we wanted this ~ or not. Imprinting is not for the feint hearted, the internet went on to tell us, but we took the choice to let Maggie into our lives. It has been a roller coaster learning experience ever since, full of laughter and tears, and not one I would trade for anything.

But that comment still sticks with me. And, in reading the varying thoughts and particularly questions people ask (not just of me,  but other duck owners), it makes me realise how little is known about having a duck as a pet. For Pumpjack and I, we found almost no information when we decided to keep Maggie, it really has been like stumbling around in the dark, learning as we go, and hoping for the best.

Now I am not an expert, but I decided I wanted to start putting some of my Duck experiences to ‘paper’, Duck Tales or FAQs if you like, partly to help new or considering pet duck owners, partly to inform others, but also because a lot of the things a pet duck does are just amazing and often downright funny.

So, a few Tales & FAQs we have discovered about having a pet duck…

Pet Duck Degrees ~ I think first and foremost I want to clarify, what actually is a ‘pet’ when referring to a duck? We have a few ducks, but only one pet duck. Okay, and one close, but not quite there pet duck. You see, there are varying degree of ‘petedness’. (Yup, I made the word up, but it suits what I am trying to say.) To simplify, I’ll say there are three levels.

  1. A duck that imprints on you (more on imprinting below), thinks you are Mummy, or Daddy, and like a child, expects you to be there, take care of and protect. She (as our Maggie is a female) is like velcro in that her preference is to spend every moment with you. Also, in consequence, your duck may not truly realise it is a duck. This type most likely lives in doors with you, in some capacity, like other pets.
  2. Hasn’t imprinted on you but has grown up with you and so is very comfortable and greets with great excitement when it sees you. This type of pet duck is okay with being away from you, comfortable outside, but also knows where the love is at.
  3. Is what the French call ‘ornemental‘, that is lovely to look at, lives outside, comfortable with people. All our other ducks fall into this bracket. They are not keen to be picked up, held or cuddled, they only endure it if they must. Essentially, as provider, we are the giver of food, so hence it is worth their while to stick by us. Ducks, no matter whether 1, 2 or 3, or even wild, are intelligent and know a good thing when they have it, particularly when it comes to food.

Imprinting ~ For some reason this, I gather, is unique to the bird world. What it means is that essentially the first thing they see is their parent. This could be you, a dog, cat (check out Youtube for some very cute videos in this area) or in normal circumstances, another duck. They then latch onto this parent, particularly for the first 2 months, to teach them what they need to know.  Some things you discover are nature, the ability to fly, some are nurture, the ability to swim. Our Maggie still prefers showers to getting in a pond to this day.  And when I mean latch on, I mean they follow you everywhere and need to be with you all the time, day and night.  This is why the most common information on the internet is the warning to be really sure you want to have a pet duck. It  is truly like having a baby as the duckling is totally reliant on you for everything, the main difference is that it grows up a bit quicker.

Empathy ~ what has amazed us the most. Ducks are empathic. That is they understand what you are feeling. We had a couple of incidents when we have had to deal with grief and each time Maggie tried to comfort us, sometimes cooing (something she never does otherwise), sometimes cuddling and always very definitely choosing to stay very, very close to us. We’ve also seen it in other ways, and with the other animals. Thinking back, when she was growing up with Gigi, our cat, she definitely knew when it was safe to play with Gigi and when it was not. Maggie would pull on her fur and whiskers, and Gigi would bat her with her paws (sans claws), but if Gigi was hungry or just not to be messed with, Maggie would stay well away. We used to ask, how does she know? With time, we realise it is part of her empathy ability. And now that we have 3 cats, all of differing ages, we have seen this happen time and time again (though Gigi still remains her favourite to play with).

Learning ~ As I mentioned, ducks are intelligent. They learn quickly. They watch others, and often imitate. This includes you, any other animals, and ducks. Maggie took to playing with mice, including her favourite toy ‘mouse on a string’, just like a cat because she learned to from our Gigi. She took to greeting us as we arrived home with great vigour because she watched Chewie, our dachschund do it. She learned her name, and to answer when I would call her, asking where she was. She learned the phrase ‘come on’ when it was time for us to walk down to the other animals, or to other areas of the garden. And, rather surprisingly, she learned the border of our property (excepting a few scary early moments in her childhood) and that she shouldn’t go outside. In fact, she has shown us that the driveway gate closed means don’t fly out, but the gate open she takes as an invitation to follow us out.

Playful ~Like most ‘normal’ pets, ducks too are playful. Because Maggie grew up with a cat her favourite toys to play with were cat toys. She can often be found pushing golf balls or other toys around on the floor (but she is rubbish at playing fetch). Her favourite game, which is actually linked to a sort of territorial duck thing, is playing ‘chested’. Chesting is what ducks do to show dominance and superiority, where they puff up their chests and bump chests with another duck, like deer or elk and their racks. With Maggie, she adores if, particularly Pumpjack, pushes his hand against her chest while she is on our floor. She end up sliding backward, and then gets to run forward again to have another go. She makes a particular happy sound when she gets to play this game.

Part of the Flock ~ For a duck, it’s all about the flock. Instinctual really, as it’s safety in numbers. Not that different from dogs and packs. For our Maggie, Pumpjack and I are head of the flock, the alphas if you will (though Maggie would like to think she is). She gets very upset if we leave the flock, particularly if we are leaving the home. She recognises the sound of the car and knows what it means, to the point she will even run to get in front of the car to stop us leaving. When we are about her favourite place to be is with us, second is the other pets we have, and third is our other ducks. She is not completely uncomfortable being alone, but that has only come with some age and trust, knowing we will return. But the flip side, it is so easy for a duck to ‘disappear’ we prefer that she does not get to used to being alone, and therefore vulnerable.

Poop ~ You can’t get very far in a conversation about ducks without a question about poop being asked, and it’s probably the main reason why people wouldn’t want a duck as a pet. They can not be toilet trained, e.g. yes, they poop wherever, whenever.  They have no sphincter, so they can’t control, like, us, cats and dogs, when they ‘go’. They just go. We have discovered with time that you can ‘train’ them a little, to go on a towel, though it’s sometimes a hit or miss situation, but all in all they do appear to try. Either that or they simply like soft things underfoot. The other option with ducks is a diaper. Yes, there is such a thing. It is like a harness, and holds a small pad in it that you can change. A duck has to be trained quite young and consistently to wear one to be comfortable in it. Our Maggie hates hers so we tend to go with the towel method and controlled feeding.

Growing Up ~ Like any animal or child, pet ducks go through phases. The first 2 months they are truly children, following you everywhere, absorbing everything. Then they spread their wings, as it were, and learn to fly. (We don’t clip Maggie’s wings to give her a chance against foxes here and because we are surrounded by lots of land, but we would do if we moved to something more urban.) For about a month, as they learn to fly, they are really terrible at navigating and we have lost a few ducks who have not been able to navigate back home, but then when you think about it, the world probably looks very different from above, until they get used to it. Then you get the teenage years. Oh yes, the hormones kick in and everyone, including you, look good to them as a possible mate. Maggie not only sees me as Mum, but also as lover (but in reality we will read that as protector). Life becomes all about laying eggs, hidden nests and temper tantrums (even if you don’t have a male duck to make the eggs become ducklings.) I have read of many a pet duck parent having their duck fly off at this stage, as it is true nature for your duck to mate. We managed to keep Maggie here, partly because of thinking I was her mate, but also getting in the odd male to, shall we say, help her along toward motherhood. (Though she still very obviously did not get what ‘it’ was all about.)

Motherhood is the obvious next topic, but as this particular page of Tales is getting too plentiful, we will begin the next Duck FAQs with that.

Do you have a tale to tell? Can you help us add to our FAQs? Our ultimate plan is to put together  a downloadable Pet Duck Infosheet and we welcome any contributions.

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2 Comments

  1. How fascinating. People really do under-estimate birds (and especially ducks, by the look of it!). Great to watch her playing. And as for empathy – I just wish humans would stop thinking they have a monopoly on this because they don’t. It’s just arrogance. Thanks for sharing this lovely post

    1. Thank you very much. It has surprised me, but then like most people I didn’t have a clue either. Maybe slowly, Maggie will help people understand a little. 🙂

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