Living in France means learning French. But it has also meant, as we have gained pet ducks whilst living here, learning duck language, too.
Mallard ducks actually have a language of over 200 sounds they make. There are sounds for happy, content, flirtation and danger. There are even phrases.
Interestingly, there’s quite a big difference between imprinted ducks, and those that aren’t. Even when brought up together. Our two imprinted ducks, Maggie and Gabby, both grew up in our house and didn’t really mingle with the other ducks until they were almost 2 months old. Particularly Maggie. Consequently, we weren’t able to teach exactly what to do when the other ducks make certain sounds.
Duck language still came naturally to them. It’s the consequential actions that may differ. For example, there is a particular duck sound that warns of danger. It sounds rather like POOP! (Honest.) Said in a high loud tone.
When a duck in a flock makes this sound, all the other ducks will scurry to safety. Not our two imprinted ducks. They would just stand about, wondering where the others had scurried off to and why. Though I will say since joining the flock and flock instinct has kicked in that they have learned what this sound means by imitating the other ducks.
Low register pup, pup, pup sound, particularly when joined with a head tilt, means possible danger above, eg. predator. This sound is inherent to all ducks, imprinted to wild.
There is a little trill both our imprinted ducks do when they are feeling playful. Curiously when they do this the other ducks tend to gather round wondering what all the fuss is about. They also have a laughter sound, where they actually sound like they are laughing. At least I think they do.
And then there is the happy sound. They make this when happy, but also it truly is a happy sound. Made by imprinted and non alike, when they see something they like, they stand in front of it make a buh, buh, buh. Badda, buh sound.
This has to be my favourite sound. It’s simply so darn cute. There seems to be certain things that guarantee this sound. Straw for instance. Weirdly, hay does not get the same strength of reaction. It’s definitely linked to a nesting instinct in that they often make this sound if they think this would make a potentially good place to have a nest.
A mother duck talks to her eggs while she sits on them, teaching her ducklings what they need to know before they hatch. Sounds that will keep them safe whilst they are exceptionally vulnerable. She has a particular quiet trill to call her ducklings to follow. And as they run about she makes a spaced quiet, high pitched sound that lets them know she is there and where to find her if they lose sight of her.
Like humans, there are a few phrases they use all the time. ‘Pup, pup’ in a normal tone is general chatter. Simply saying ‘hi’ or ‘nice to see you’. And speaking of happy to see you. Ducks get very excited when they first see you. Both the females and males squawk a greeting. It’s really the only word for it. It’s a sort of ‘Wah! Wah! Wah!’ said in a low but loud register. It always makes me smile each time I hear it as they sound so excited to see me.
Duck language even includes flirting. It’s a staccato sound and is accompanied by a head movement. The females beak goes down and the head is flicked whilst making the sound. It sort of reminds me of how women flick their hair.
Its possible for ducks to learn human phrases, or commands, like a dog can. We taught both Maggie and Gabby to understand ‘come on’ means to follow. Maggie knows that her name said high, excited and repeated means I found a worm for her. She comes running when she hears this.
Beepbeep knows that her name repeated in a sing song style means I have found and am bringing a worm for her. As she is blind, she stops and listens to my voice to know I am approaching. That when I reach her, she searches with her bill to find the worm in my cupped hand.
One of my favourite YouTube channels is Gold Shaw Farm. They raise ducks, chickens and geese. His videos really capture the understanding of human phrases by ducks. At the end of the day, he calls ‘all ducks go to bed’. And guess what they do…
If duck language has caught your interest, here are some good websites for more information.
The Science of Duck Language: https://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/waterfowl-vocalizations
Listen to a Mallards sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Mallard/sounds#