|Ducks come in bold and goofy colors.Their feet are perfect for swimming in water or walking in mud. They wear a warm suit of waterproof feathers, and they have a flat beak that works great for sloshing in shallow mud for food.
The design of a duck-perfect as it seems-is a result of adaptation. Adaptations help animals escape danger, find food and raise young.
Ducks don't have hands, so they need strong beaks to gather and hold food. Most ducks have wide, flat beaks. The duck's bill is soft, except at the end, which has a hard hook. Bumps along the edge of the beak help a duck strain food from water.
Many ducks feed by "dabbling," tipping forward and dipping their heads into the water. A duck sucks water in through its bill and squirts it out the sides. This allows it to strain out good stuff to eat, like plants, seeds and animals. To help sort the insects and seeds from mud, the edges of a duck's bill have touch receptors that can feel food.
Some other ducks, such as mergansers, have narrow beaks with sharp edges. These work like teeth to help them catch and hold fish. They are not real teeth, or even bone, but toothlike notches in their beaks.
If a duck needs to go somewhere fast, it flies. Duck bones are hollow to make the body light for easier flying. They beat their large wings constantly during flight. Powerful muscles in the duck's chest give it the strength to fly long distances. A migrating duck might travel nearly 1,000 miles in a single day, averaging more than 40 miles per hour. That's real power!
Water really does run off a duck's back. Duck feathers are coated with oil to make them waterproof. Ducks and other birds "preen," or comb, their feathers to keep them clean, neat and well-oiled.
Ducks have an oil gland on their back at the base of the upper tail feathers. They use their bill to spread oil from this gland onto the feathers. Head scratching moves the oil over the head feathers where the bill can't reach. The oil waterproofs the feathers and helps them stay together during flight. Ducks get into some pretty strange positions to preen all their feathers. Imagine, a green-winged teal has to groom about 11,500 feathers!
After a time, feathers wear out. That's why all ducks shed their feathers and grow new ones. This is called "molting." It happens twice a year with body feathers, and once a year with wing feathers.
Special air sacs blow up like balloons inside the duck's body to keep it floating on the water. When a duck dives, it empties the sacs so it can sink. A duck's feathers also hold air. The trapped air not only helps keep the duck warm, it helps it float. To dive, a duck flattens its feathers, removing the trapped air.
Look at a duck's feet and you know how it makes its living. Long toes with skin between them work great for swimming or diving and for wading in mud and as rudders for flying.
Ducks waddle because their feet are short and far apart. As they walk, they must move from side to side, with the body swinging one direction and the tail swinging the other.
Dabble or Dive?
Ducks are split into two groups-dabblers and divers. Dabbling ducks spend most of their time in shallow water. They are also called puddle ducks. Diving ducks swim in deeper water. Each has special adaptations for living in their habitat.
A dabbling duck's feet are smaller and nearer to the front of its body. It usually skims food from the surface of the water or feeds in shallow water by tipping its bottom up so that its head and neck are underwater. Dabbling ducks eat a lot of plants, as well as tiny animals.
Dabblers sit high in the water and kick their feet one at a time to paddle along. They can dive when they are in danger, but they do not go very deep. A dabbler's wings are long and wide for its round body. They can take off easily from the water, springing straight up into the air from anywhere with just a few wing beats. They can land easily, too, sometimes dropping straight down into small openings in flooded forests. Examples of dabbling ducks are teal, mallards, pintails and shovelers.
The legs of diving ducks are far back on their bodies for better diving, but they look unbalanced on land. They walk straight up, moving their short legs carefully so they don't fall. Divers include canvasbacks, redheads, scaup and ruddy ducks.
Divers often go 20 feet underwater to find food. Extra large, webbed feet give them great diving power. Divers eat more animals, such as insects and snails. As divers go underwater for food, they squeeze the air out of their feathers and kick with both feet at the same time for a bigger push.
Divers have small wings and large bodies for better diving and swimming. They also have to work harder at flying. They fly faster than dabblers, but they also need lots of space for take-offs and landings. To take off, they must run along the surface of the water, flapping their wings and kicking their feet to pick up enough speed. Look out when a diver lands! They splash and slide across the water when they hit.
See for yourself the many adaptations that ducks have made to better survive in a wetland. You can watch ducks along most rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands. Watch for divers out in the open water. Look for dabblers along the shore playing and eating in the shallow water.