I was watching a recent video from one of my favourite YouTube channels ‘Gold Shaw Farm’. The video topic was ‘Do ducks grieve’? He wasn’t certain, hence the question, but I can tell you one hundred percent, absolutely, categorically – Yes.
It made me realise that this is a duck tail topic we’ve not yet written about. Sure we have written about ourselves grieving for ducks, but I hadn’t written from the perspective of the ducks and how, and why, they feel grief.
There are a few factors that can contribute to a duck grieving. The first time we saw it was when we were the caretakers at a little Chateau and were looking after 3 chickens, a rooster, and a duck. The duck we quickly named Mr Drake. Very original, I know.
Time for a little story… Mr Drake followed the chickens and rooster everywhere. They very obviously put up with him. If he kept his distance, he was allowed to hang out with them. It’s that flock instinct. The instinct to flock supersedes everything, including species, in the duck world. Safety in numbers.
Our Mr Pumpjack felt very bad for Mr Drake. He went out and bought a female duck and brought her home. She was a beautiful Wood Duck. Mr Drake fell instantly in love and followed her everywhere.
Now Wood Ducks like to roost in trees. We would find Mr Drake walking around a certain tree or sat below and if we looked up, there would be Mrs Drake. However, Wood Ducks also like water, and nesting near or above it. So when Mrs Drake wanted a nest, she decided that she should explore beyond the Chateau’s enclosed land to a nearby river.
Mr Drake always went with her. They would explore out, and come back in the evenings. And then one day, Mr Drake came back alone. He went in to the duck enclosure, stuck his head under his wing, and didn’t move for 2 days. Normally a very, very talkative duck, he went completely silent. We never saw Mrs Drake again. That’s when we first realised that ducks grieve.
If a duck has hatched with and grown up with certain other ducks, there’s a form of imprinting between them. This can happen growing up with other species, too.
Both our imprinted, and thus grown up in the house ducks, Maggie and Gabby recognise our cats. However, if an outsider cat comes in to the boundaries of our land, the alarm is called out by the ducks. Our cats have learned to recognise this sound and scare them off.
In the case of Gold Shaw Farm he has different breeds of duck that hang out together, even one duck that hangs out solely with geese, because she grew up with them. In this sort of case, there can be grief for these well known siblings if they die.
This happened between our Sir Studly and Sunny. After our first year and winter in our new home, during the night a fox tore a gap in the stone wall of our duck enclosure. Sunny was on a nest at the time. The fox killed Sunny and took her away.
After that we housed our ducks in our stable in the barn each night while we made repairs and strengthened our duck enclosure. Each morning, when we would shift the ducks from the stable to the enclosure, Sir Studly would go straight to where Sunny’s nest had been. He would search it and call out for her.
We would find him often searching the garden on his own, always calling for her. It was absolutely heart breaking to see and hear. He had lost not only his sister, but his mate (it’s a duck thing), so his grief was tangible for quite a while.
We’ve found that the intensity of their grief, like with humans, depends on the type and level of the bond, how long they have known each other, and very importantly if they saw the death. A duck simply disappearing, for example, may cause no grief. Especially amongst younger ducklings or siblings.
When we have too many ducklings, come teenagerdom they go to new homes, usually in pairs. Even though we collect them in front of the other ducks, or maybe because we do, the other ducks do not show grief at their going away.
However, if they see the death, the ducks grieve. This happened when our little Pecan and Pumpkin were taken by predator birds. All the ducks went quiet, but their sister Pi was at a complete loss and kept calling for her sisters.
Immediately, as the only remaining young duck, she latched on to me from then on and wouldn’t leave my side. (Sadly we, rather than the ducks, then went on to grieve for Pi as she reached adulthood and was not able to lay eggs.)
There is definitely a survival of the fittest moniker amongst ducks. If a duckling or even a duck is weak or there is something wrong with it, the other ducks may kill or abandon it, rather than weaken the flock. This is how we ended up with an imprinted Gabby.
He was abandoned by Maggie, his mother, as he had niacin deficiency. This vitamin deficiency is not uncommon in ducks, especially ducklings, but is curable with human attention and additional niacin.
Hence, although abandoned, we were able to save Gabby, though with the result he imprinted on me as I became ‘mom’. Maggie did not grieve his disappearance when I took over nurturing him, and in fact would continue to attack him if she saw him again. Until he became an adult male.
This year we lost our Maggie, our first duck, our first imprinted duck and Queen of the flock. It gave us the biggest understanding in consequence of whether ducks, like ourselves, grieve. George, who had been her duckling, grew up to be her mate (again, it’s a duck thing). He was like velcro for 4 years, never leaving her side. Until she left his.
George’s level of grief equalled our own, and we still have moments where he comes to us to be consoled, hugged and commiserate with him. To read and understand more about George, grieving and ducks, read our Helping a Grieving George.
PS: Love Ducks?
If you are like us and are fascinated and 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 or purchase.)