I once posted a picture of our young duck Maggie sleeping on Pumpjack’s shoulder on Instagram (@PumpjackPiddlewick). There were lots of likes. And then, a comment to the affect of, ‘Ewwww, there is just something wrong with having a duck as a pet’.
It got me to thinking. After almost 6 years with Maggie, plus a ‘few’ more additional ducks, and I can truly reflect ~ can ducks truly be pets? The answer is a resounding, and maybe surprising ~ Yes!
But, maybe, the more important question is ~ why?
Let’s Start at the Beginning
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. It was stressed 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 ‘Ewwww’ 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 or understood about having a duck as a pet. For Pumpjack and I, we found almost no information when we decided to keep Maggie. It really had been like stumbling around in the dark, learning as we go, and hoping for the best.
Consequently, I decided I wanted to start putting some of my Duck experiences to ‘paper’. My various Duck Tails or Duck 101 FAQs if you like were born. It was partly to help new or considering pet duck owners, partly to inform others that ducks can be pets. Also, because a lot of the things a pet duck does are just amazing and often downright funny, I simply wanted to write about them.
Here are just 8 Duck Tales or FAQs 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. Usually, always, generally between 10 and 20, depending on season. Thus far we have had 2 imprinted on us and this does make a difference. You see, there are varying degree of ‘petedness’ with ducks. (Yup, I made the word up, but it suits what I am trying to say.) To simplify, I’ll say there are three levels.
- 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. When they imprint they are like velcro with their need to spend every single moment with you. Also, in consequence, your duck may not truly realise it is a duck. This type most likely lives indoors with you, in some capacity, like other pets. We have 2 ducks that fall into this category.
- 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. We have 3 ducks that are like this.
- Third is what the French call ‘ornamental‘, that is lovely to look at, lives outside, comfortable with people, not for eating. 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, we are the giver of food, and they are smart enough to realise it is worth their while to stick by us.
Ducks, no matter whether 1, 2 or 3, or even wild, are intelligent. They know a good thing when they have it, particularly when it comes to food.
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 this Youtube video for the cat version) or in normal circumstances, another duck.
They then latch onto this parent, particularly for the first 2 months, with the expectation that you will 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 imprinted duck Maggie preferred showers to getting in a pond her whole life.
And when I mean latch on, I mean they follow you everywhere and need to be with you all the time, day and night. Think new born baby. You can’t just leave them alone to take care of themselves. 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.
This is 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 did 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, then a kitten, 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 realised it was 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 with our other ducks.
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 dog, do it.
Maggie learned where the cat crunchies were (her absolutely favourite treat) by watching the other cats. She took time to study where and how they got to them, then she worked out how she could too. Of note – they were deliberately put up on a shelf away from where dog and duck could not reach them.
Most of our (older) ducks know their names, and will answer when called. They have also learned certain phrases, like ‘come on’. Yes, they understand that means to come, or follow. We have a sound we make as well when it is bed time. I just have to make this call and they all head into their enclosure or the house depending on where they sleep in the night.
Our house ducks also understand that the house is their home and refuge. They can choose to come to the door any time of day or evening to be let in. And best of all, they know and have come to warn me if there is danger and I am needed.
Also, rather surprisingly, they are able to learn the border of our property (excepting a few scary early flying moments in childhood or mating season). They actually know they shouldn’t go beyond those boundaries. In fact, they have even shown us that a gate closed means don’t fly out, but the gate left open is an invitation to follow us out or go explore a little further.
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 could often be found pushing golf balls or other toys around on the floor (but she was rubbish at playing fetch).
Our imprinted ducks’ favourite game, which is actually linked to a sort of territorial duck thing, is playing ‘tickle’. This is really a vague form of chesting. 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. Both males and females do this, though the males much more.
They adore if we push a hand against their chest. Ideally they prefer we do this while they are on our tiled floor. They end up sliding backward, and then get to run forward again to have another go. They make a particular happy sound when they get 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 imprinted ducks, Pumpjack and I are head of the flock, the alphas if you will.
They get very upset if we leave the flock, particularly if we are leaving the home. Maggie was able to recognise the sound of the car and knew what it meant, to the point she would even run to get in front of the car to stop us leaving.
When we are at home, our imprinted ducks favourite place to be is with us. Second is with the other pets we have, and third is our other ducks. Ducks, even imprinted ducks, are not comfortable being alone. If you ever have a pet duck, consider a second if you are not able to be together 24/7, as ultimately they need companionship all the time. It’s a nurture instinct of safety in numbers.
You can’t get very far in a conversation about ducks without a question about poop being asked. It is probably the main reason why people wouldn’t want or shouldn’t have a duck as a pet.
Ducks can not be toilet trained (using italics to emphasize this), e.g. yes, they poop wherever, whenever. They have no sphincter, so they can’t control when they ‘go’, unlike cats, dogs, and us. They just go. We have discovered with time that you can ‘train’ them a little to go on a towel. (Some pet duck owners use an incontinence pad). However, don’t expect anything like the ability to train a dog or cat. Rather, it is more a hit or miss situation. Literally. All in all they do appear to try. Either that or they simply prefer to have soft things underfoot when they go.
The other option is a duck diaper. Yes, there is such a thing. It is like a harness and holds a small pad in it that you can change. How often you will have to change it depends on what and how much they eat. Don’t worry, they fart loudly so you will hear when you have to change it. Anticipate it will be often.
A duck has to be trained quite young and consistently to wear a harness/diaper and be comfortable in it. Our Maggie hated hers so we tend to go with the towel method and controlled feeding. We also do not feed our house ducks once they come inside for the night to garner some modicum of control. (Though sometimes they are sneaky and try to get to the cat crunchies).
How do duck ‘parents’ put up with cleaning up after a duck that lives inside? The best I can equate it to is again that newborn baby. No one else wants to clean someone else’s baby’s bottom, but as the mother it is just something you have to do, so you do.
Like any animal or child, pet ducks go through phases. The first 2 months they are truly children, following their mom everywhere, absorbing everything around them and what is taught to them.
Then they spread their wings, as it were, and learn to fly. For about a month, as they learn to fly, they are really terrible at navigating. We lost a few ducks who got spooked, took off and were not able to navigate back to us. This is where having a flock is helpful, as the sounds they make will help guide a duck back. I guess, when you think about it, the world probably looks very different from above, until they get used to the view.
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 saw 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). Or if they are a boy, it’s all about eyeing up the girls, and… Well, just like human teenage boys really.
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 look for a mate. We managed to keep Maggie with us, partly because of thinking I was her mate, but also getting in the odd male to, shall we say, help her along toward motherhood.
The teenage years last until they are about 4 – 5 months old. Like all parents of teenagers, we hate to see them grow up, but can’t wait for those hormones to cool down.
Adulthood comes next. To read more on those, you will find various blog posts here on different aspects of brooding, mating, being a duck Mom and more. You’ll find these in our Duck 101 section.
And here’s a general taste of life with a duck~
PS: Love Ducks?
We have a selection of duck gifts available for you or those you know who love ducks. Some vintage, some our own designs, all unique.
(Simply click on the photo to see more, and/or purchase.)