Behavioral Adaptations of Ducks to Water

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Duck adaptations help them be able to swim in the water. Not only can ducks catch food in water but they can also take flight from water. The unique characteristics that enable ducks to live much of their life in an aquatic environment mean that duck behavior is unlike other birds. In fact, even different types of ducks can behave much differently.

Ducks are adapted to take flight from the water.
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Why ducks behave differently

If you've ever fed the ducks at a local park, you've undoubtedly witnessed some fierce competition for your pieces of bread or duck pellets. There may have even been some ducks who showed no interest whatsoever in your treats. However, left completely to themselves, many different types of ducks can congregate in a pond without fiercely competing for resources due to each species having different feeding habits, swimming habits, and other water-oriented duck adaptations.

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Various breeds of ducks are also adapted to different types of water environments. For example, the torrent duck lives in tumultuous water high in the Andes mountains and has special physical adaptations, like hooked claws and hatching ducklings on cliff crevices that helps this duck cope with a harsh and unique environment.

Duck adaptations for swimming

All ducks have palmate feet where the front three toes are webbed together, making paddling easy. The fourth toe is free and is used for balancing when walking on land. An oil gland above the tail lets ducks spread the substance throughout their feathers, helping them shed water and hold air when floating. When ducks dive, they compress the air out of their feathers to make themselves less buoyant.

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Although the webbed feet and waterproof feathers of a duck are designed for swimming, some ducks spend more time in the water than others. Muscovy ducks, for example, prefer to spend most of their time on land and usually spend their nights perched in a tree. Their big, heavy claws are perfectly suited to gripping onto a branch, and their feathers are less waterproof due to an underdeveloped oil gland.

Other ducks, such as the canvasback and ringneck, spend almost all of their life in the water, even building floating nests in which to hatch the next generation. Their powerful legs and tail set far back on their body are specially designed for swimming and diving but make them unwieldy and slow on land.

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Duck adaptations for eating and flying

Ducks compress the air out of their feathers when they dive.
Image Credit: ClaudiaWthrich / 500px/500px/GettyImages

When you think about a duck eating, you might picture ducks hungrily scooping up pieces of bread from the surface of the water or going "bottom up" to retrieve an errant food pellet. This type of duck that feeds at or just below the surface of the water is known as a "dabbler." Dabblers have legs centered midway along their body, making it easy to paddle along the surface and walk on land to nest and forage for seeds and insects. Dabblers' strong wings let them lift off into the skies almost effortlessly.

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Other ducks can dive 40 feet straight down to find small fish, mollusks, and plant matter to eat. Their legs sit far back on their body, and their powerful tails add to their propulsion underwater. They have smaller wings that lie close to the body. Although they can fly, they use their big, strong legs and feet to run along the top of the water to get enough lift for their small wings to get their relatively large bodies airborne. They'll also take a long skid along the top of the water when they land, skimming along on their oversized feet before settling into the water.

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Duck's bills also help them adapt to a watery environment. The torrent duck's strong bill enables him to flip rocks, catch prey from waterfalls, and crunch down on crustaceans found in the turbulent river waters where it lives. Diving ducks and dabblers have a vast variety of sizes and shapes of bills, allowing them to specialize in different types of food gathering to avoid competition with one another, even in highly crowded ponds.

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