When Waterfowl Molt

When Waterfowl Molt

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Sherri Talbot Waterfowl, like chickens, molt once a year and can look pretty ragged during the process. A hard molt can look as if the birds are being attacked or fighting on a regular basis. Frequently, on our homestead, we will do morning chores and find dozens of feathers scattered throughout their goosehouse where they’ve spent the night preening. I’ve seen this for years, but my heart still stops for a minute while I make sure there wasn’t a predator attack. 

When molting, individual feathers may look crooked rather than lying flat all in the same direction. Eventually, they will simply drop out. The down will sometimes show through when a large number of feathers fall out at once. In other cases, the rachis — the central stem of the feather — will be broken off in one or more places before the entire feather falls out. The vane — the individual strands that sweep from the sides of the rachis — may become torn or even come off in clumps, giving the goose an unkempt, pathetic look.  

Since geese tend to lay a limited number of eggs in the springtime, molting comes after these eggs would usually have hatched, so it rarely interferes with laying or incubating. Our observation has been that those adults who did not have young that year seem to molt first, while others begin to lose feathers after the goslings begin to feather in.  

The process is usually complete within 20 to 40 days, getting them ready for migration — if domestic geese still did that! Here in New England, this means our American Buff geese usually molt between June and August but are usually complete by mid-July.  

Duck molting is more complicated. First, differentiation needs to be made between wild ducks and domestic, as well as between the descendants of wild Mallards and the Muscovy duck. While wild ducks and mallard-offspring domestics are similar in most cases, there are a few outliers, where breeds may molt more or less than the “normal” and where the patterns of that molting may be different. In addition, while they are usually called “ducks” or “Muscovy ducks,” Muscovy are scientifically different birds; their physical make-up, social habits, and mating customs are different enough to earn them their own, distinct category.  

Domesticated Mallard descendants molt twice a year. Most but not all wild ducks follow this same pattern. The first molting is in the early winter, and, despite the early season, this gives them a head start to the following spring’s mating season. This molt only includes the body feathers and allows the males to develop brand-new, brilliant plumage in order to attract females in the spring.  

While not monogamous in the way we would think of it, most ducks choose a seasonal mate with whom they will mate, nest, and sometimes even care for young together for a season. Unlike geese or swans, these mates can change from year to year, so putting on a good show each season is important to the male passing along his genetics.  

Sometime after the couple’s eggs are laid, the ducks begin their second molt. Timing on this varies, but the male almost always begins first. In some breeds, this may result in the male leaving the clutch and his mate early as his flight feathers begin to drop. Others may remain with their mate until later in the reproduction stage but are still likely to change their colors before the female.  

Changing their color is meant quite literally. The later molt includes their flight feathers as well as body feathers, leaving the ducks vulnerable to predator attacks, so after their eggs hatch, ducks develop a dull, boring plumage that will allow them to hide out for the 20-40 days they will be flightless. The color change is far more obvious in the males, as their bright mating colors give way to the earth tones of their surrounding area. 

Like other birds, molting and regrowing feathers is a nutritionally demanding process and the ducks need to increase their protein intake to maintain a healthy body weight and proper nutrition. Wild ducks and ducks able to forage will meet this need with an increase in the number of insects, fish, or other chosen pretty sources. If the necessary food sources are not available, they need to be provided with a proper grain mix or supplements.  

Muscovy ducks

As mentioned, there are some exceptions to these rules. Some wild ducks molt three times a year, rather than two. The Muscovy is probably an exception to the “twice a year” rule as well, but it’s difficult to know. While there are a number of sources studying both wild and domestic waterfowl and their molting habits, little research exists specifically on the Muscovy molting cycles.  

This may be because a Muscovy’s courtship behaviors make it difficult to tell when they are molting. Unlike the males of most duck species, males become very territorial and will fight amongst themselves. This results in the same destruction of feathers observed in other waterfowl when molting. In addition, Muscovy are completely non-monogamous. Males will simply mount females that are willing, or that they can catch, whenever and wherever they are found. Since these are not always gentle interactions, the female’s feathers can take on a ragged appearance. These feathers do regrow eventually, so perhaps the very aggression of their lifestyles is how they lose the feathers that others drop naturally.  

So, the next time feathers start flying, remember that it isn’t just chickens that molt, and that your waterfowl also need a little extra nutritional support!  



SHERRI TALBOT is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered, heritage-breed livestock and hopes someday to make education and writing on conservation breeding her full-time job. Details can be found at SaffronandHoneyHomestead.com or on Facebook.



Originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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