How to Recognize Duck Courtship Displays

By Jessie Barry
January 20, 2015

As winter’s chill sets in, ducks are heating things up. Winter is the season when many ducks pick their mate for the year. Our featured video gives you a mash-up of some of the best duck mating behaviors from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library. Watch for these behaviors on neighborhood ponds, lakes, and rivers that don’t freeze over.

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Most species of ducks find a different mate each year. Many waterfowl pair bonds form between the months of December and March on the wintering grounds or during spring migration, which is different from songbirds that find their mate after they arrive on their breeding grounds spring.

In waterfowl mating, it’s the female’s choice. Groups of males perform for the female, and she picks her favorite drake with the best plumage and the best display. Some waterfowl species have some incredible courtship moves, such as the Head-Throw-Kick performed by Common Goldeneye and the Salute-Curtsy signature move of a Red-breasted Merganser. These are ritualized behaviors— members of the same species perform the same display that is hard-wired into their genetic makeup. Courtship displays range from elaborate postures to subtle gestures that you may notice only if you are watching for them.

Commonly Seen Mallard Courtship Behaviors

To see duck courtship in action, find a group of Mallards and take a minute to watch what they are doing. Most of the time they’ll probably be feeding or resting, but if they’re actively swimming around, watch for these behaviors.

P10-Head-pumpingNARROW

Head-Pumping: Males and females rhythmically bob their heads. This display is often repeated and followed by mating.

P10-Head-up-Tail-upNARROW

Head-Up-Tail-Up: With a loud whistle, the drake pulls his wings and tail up, shows off his purple-blue secondaries and compresses his body. This is a quick gesture, often given by males in a group to impress the female.

P10 Grunt-whistle

Grunt-Whistle: A one-second display where the male raises out of the water, pulls his head up, and gives a remarkable whistle, followed by a grunt as he moves back into a normal posture. Often given by groups of males to show off for females.

P10-Nod-swimmingNARROW

Nod-Swimming: A male or female swims rapidly for a short distance with its neck held low, just grazing the surface of the water. Females use it to express they are interested in courtship and stimulate the nearby males to display. Males perform this display during bouts of Head-Up-Tail-Up display and immediately after mating.

A Common Goldeneye performs a Head-Throw-Kick. Photo by Cos van Wermeskerken/GBBC.

 

Looking for Ducks This Winter? Over the course of the winter waterfowl shift south as frigid lakes of Canada and the northern U.S. freeze over. National Wildlife Refuges, coastal bays, reservoirs, and warm-water outflows can have incredible duck concentrations! Check out eBird under the ‘Explore Data’ tab for recent sightings near you.

 

Find out more about ducks and bird courtship:

Comments

  • Cheri

    Very interesting article! I was surprised, on a very cold walk today, to see 2 mallard pairs swimming in a fast running creek….upstate New York….did not know they would be here!

  • jay gertz

    I saw a pair of mallards doing a type of head-pumping type courtship dance. This pair was facing each other about a foot away and each would take turns dabbing their beaks into the water. I had not viewed this before, it was adorable. Just the two of them on a small pond near UNCA (Asheville, NC)

  • Kate

    Our pond froze in the past couple of days. Where do you think those – 30 or so ducks – may have gone?

  • victoria

    Thanks for writing Kate! Ducks are very good at finding open water, so I’m sure they found another place for now.

  • Phyllis Henady

    We have many Mallard ducks visit our small pond in our backyard. This
    year a male and female came and spent much time on our pond. Then one
    morning another male came with them. The two males got into a fight
    lots if contact between them and splashing of water. I believe the were
    fighting for the right to be the female ducks mate for the season. As
    one of the ducks retreating and flew away. The remaining male and female stayed for a short while. Later the male duck that flew away came back stood near the edge of the pond in one leg and hung his head down,am sure he felt ashamed and not proud to have lost his new mate.

  • Karin

    We have 2 bird feeders kin our backyard and today a male and female mallard showed up. They haven’t left. There is a very plush area of the yard that is most likely suitable for a nest. We are not near a river, pond or lake. What are our chances that they are looking for a place to lay their eggs? We love wildlife, is it appropriate to put out a small pool for them so they have water?

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Fran

    Will mallards move there eggs to another location?

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Sandy Bancroft

    We live in Minnesota and our backyard extends into a wetland. There was a male and female in our yard for over an hour again this afternoon. The male approaches from the wetland first and takes his time to make sure everything is safe, and then the female follows. The male watches and protects her while she eats the seed we have on the ground left over from our feeder. It amazes me every time I see the love displayed in nature.

  • Maresa Fanelli

    We have a small pond on our three acre lot in Columbus Ohio.. About 8 years ago a pair of mallards showed up. At first my husband wanted to chase them away lest they “poop in the pond”. However, I thought they were adorable and very touching together. They would come every morning and then again in the evening. Always together and seemingly very devoted to each other. Then about a month or so after they showed up only one or the other would appear which we took to mean that they were brooding their eggs. Although I have since learned that only the female does.
    Now every spring what we take to be the same pair of mallards show up. This has been going on for at least eight years maybe longer. Along about the second or third year of their coming our cat sitter took to feeding them cracked corn. She said they would waddle up to her car as she drove into the yard. We continued putting cracked corn out for them and now they waddle up to our window door and look in at us until we go put out corn for them. Sometimes I think they are interested in observing us through the window door.
    Over the years another male would occasionally show up and be driven off by mr. Duck. They appeared to be in all respects a very devoted old married couple and we were quite certain it was the same two ducks because of their behavior , their lack of fear when I approached or did some maintenance on the pond. I could usually drive off an interloper male by just approaching while the two regulars were nonplussed.
    This spring, however, a new male has showed up. He is considerably bigger than the first male and easily distinguishable from him because the feathers on his back are lighter . Mrs duck seems to tolerAte him which was not the case with other males in the past. I feel very sorry for Mr Duck who seems definitely intimidated by the new male.
    If anyone monitors this forum I would be interested to know if it is unusual for a pair of mLlards to bond year after year and if a female would forsake her old partner for a new guy- . I have some pics I could share

  • Draco Slaya

    I absolutely am OBSSESSED with ducks. Great at identifying them too. I saw a group of Male Mallrds doing the Grunt-Whistle display a couple months ago, back in late December. I didn’t know that’s what they were doing at first, but many males were gathered in a tight little circle, females swimming freely around (inspecting). Males would rise up out of the water, do this weird head motion, and make a bunch of peeping sounds. It was pretty weird, yet captivating to have a first hand experience in it.