So what exactly is a duck? It’s simply a small bird with waterproof feathers, short neck and legs and webbed feet to swim, with flat bills to feed. England has two types of ducks: ‘surface feeders’ and ‘diving ducks’. Ducks live most places on earth, although they often migrate to breed and nest. So many of the world’s ducks live in northern Europe and come here for winter, as they find it sunny and warm in comparison! In the wild, ducks eat a wide range of plants and insects, worms and fish eggs. They have plenty of food in the wild, and feeding artificially just encourages them to come into contact with roads, dogs etc.
Ducklings are too-cute but at risk of all kinds of hazards when born (a hungry heron can often find and eat all of them, before they become grown). Alas that’s nature. Ducks are wonderful parents, one duck in the US was found pestering a policeman for ages until he followed her – to her ducklings who had fallen down a drain. He rescued them, for a happy ending!
Mallard darks are the ones we see the most (males have dark green heads and females are brown). Some spend summer in Scandinavia and Iceland. Gadwall ducks are smaller grey ducks with black markings, Garganey ducks have broad white stripes on their eyes and pale blue wings. Pintail ducks are bigger than mallards.
Tufted ducks are smaller than mallards found in lowlands, with white stripes on their wings (many migrate from from northern Europe and Iceland). Scaup ducks are similar but with different colours (our rarest duck, just a handful breeding each year).
Shovelers are surface-feeding ducks, with blue and green wings and big spatula bills, mostly found in southern and eastern England, often migrating from the north. Smew ducks are small with little bils, and often arrive from Scandinavia, Russia, Denmark or Holland as it’s warmer here! Teals are small ‘dabbling ducks’ found on moors and wetlands, who also arrive from northern Europe and Siberia. Wigeon ducks have white bellies and migrate from northern Europe to northern England.
Red-Breasted Merganser ducks live in large flocks on the coast, with long serrated bills to catch salmon and trout, as do Common Scoter ducks. Also at the sea are Goosander. Only visiting temporarily are Velvet Scoter ducks (Norfolk) and Long-Tailed Ducks (Northumberland). Eider ducks mostly eat mussels. All are at risk from oil spills and over-fishing.
Colourful ducks include Goldeneye (with beautiful amber eyes), Pochard (the males and females look different but the same, when growing new feathers). Shelducks are big ducks with red bills and green heads. Mandarin ducks were escapees when brought as captives from China, hence their exotic plumage.
Ruddy ducks are small diving ducks found on freshwater, but due to mating with rare white-headed ducks in Spain, alas they are likely to be extinct. Despite a trial finding that dipping duck eggs in paraffin was 100% effective (unlike shooting, which also costs more).
Muscovy ducks are those big lovely odd-looking ducks you sometimes find in public parks, with big red heads that get ‘warts’ as they age. A descendent of wild mallards, they are the result of escapees from the pet, egg and meat trade, and actually originate in central/south America.
things ducks do like
- Ponds. Public ponds are usually best, so vote for councillors who know ecology and how to build and care for ponds, which provide ideal freshwater environments for ducks. Likewise, take part in volunteer beach clean-ups, to keep the coasts litter-free for sea-feeding ducks.
- People who leave them in peace. Obviously people who care for rescued ducks is good (as they know the many dangers and toxins to avoid). But for most people, leave ducks alone. As well as being better for them, ducks (and their faeces) can sometimes carry diseases that can transmit to humans, which is more likely if people artificially feed ducks.
things ducks don’t like
- Litter – this can range from banned lead shot and discarded fishing line to plastic bags. Just take your trash with you, to leave the lakes and seas free for wildlife to enjoy.
- Oil spills as these not only pollute, but stop the waterproofing/insulation of feathers, causing ducks to freeze or drown.
- Buttered crusty bread. Although wild ducks can eat a little soaked fresh wholemeal bread, hard or crusty bread and choke, stale bread can harm and butter (on leftover sandwiches) smears on feathers, and again causes loss of waterproofing/insulation. Feeding ducklings bread, also means they then don’t eat what nature tells them too, and they can die.
- People that eat or shoot them. Health shops sell ‘mock duck’ in tins if you like the taste, otherwise try some more humane plant-based foods. And don’t shoot ducks, it’s bad karma!
- People that eat pate de foie gras. This is a cruel food from France, made by force-feeding ducks (and geese) until their liver turns to pate. It’s illegal to produce here but not to sell, so boycott shops and restaurants that sell it, and tell them why.
does eider down harm ducks?
If you visit Icelandic sites that sell eider down, you’ll be reassured to know that the collection of eider is a mutually beneficial arrangement where the farmers pick out eider from the nests, then replace it with dry hay. The birds are nesting in ‘sanctuaries’ so it’s good to prevent predators too.
This may be true, but the reality is that most eider down is plucked from birds that are slaughtered in abbatoirs. So unless you are buying eider from a friendly Icelandic farmer, give eider down a miss, and treat yourself to an alternative ethical duvet made from cotton, hemp or bamboo.