What is a Duck?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A duck is a waterbird in the family Anatidae. Numerous species are encompassed within this family, including the domesticated ducks, which are descended from wild mallard ducks. Ducks can be found in many regions of the world, in both salt and freshwater environments, and they are a common feature of the barnyard, as well, thanks to their gentle dispositions, tasty eggs, and flavorful flesh.

Roasted duck legs.
Roasted duck legs.

Several features can be used to distinguish ducks from other waterbirds. Ducks have muscular bodies built for diving and dredging, with short legs and webbed feet which allow them to navigate a watery environment. Ducks also have distinctive broad, flat bills, which they use to root through aquatic grasses and mud to snap up various prey along with plant materials.

A duckling.
A duckling.

On the water, ducks often look quite graceful, as their bodies are well-adapted to swimming and diving. On land, however, ducks look rather ungainly, thanks to the fact that their legs are set far back on their bodies, causing them to have a waddling gait. Ducks are also capable of flight, except when they are molting, and some duck species make long annual migrations to mate and raise young.

Numerous duck species are descended from wild mallard ducks.
Numerous duck species are descended from wild mallard ducks.

The word “duck” comes from the Anglo-Saxon ducan, which means “to dive.” Male ducks are known as drakes, while baby ducks are known as ducklings. Generally it takes around a year for a duck to fully mature, with most ducks pairing off only briefly during mating season to breed and raise their ducklings. Most duck species are also sexually dimorphic, with brightly colored males and more drab females.

A flat bill is one feature used to distinguish ducks from other waterbirds.
A flat bill is one feature used to distinguish ducks from other waterbirds.

Ducks come in a wide range of colors and sizes, with some ducks having decorative crests and other interesting physical features which make them stand out from a crowd. Among domesticated ducks, in addition to the run of the mill white Pekin duck, one can also find Blue Cayuga, Crested Swedish, Khaki Campbell, Mallard, Call, Indian Runner, and Aylesbury ducks, along with the charmingly ugly Muscovy Duck, which has a bald neck and head. Wild ducks are divided into a number of groups, including perching, diving, and dabbling ducks.

Although most people associate quacking with ducks, not that many duck species actually quack. Instead, ducks make a range of other calls which are used to signal information to others in the flock. Incidentally, contrary to folklore, a duck's quack will in fact echo.

Ducks can often be turned into a meal.
Ducks can often be turned into a meal.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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