When doing research, you will find a fair amount of information available on chicken molts. When I browse through posts, it becomes clear that chickens molt around fall. Some chickens have hard molts (lots of feather loss), and some have soft molts (only some feathers lost).
According to these posts, everyone agrees that chickens need more protein during that time. Also, their egg production will decline. During hard molts, egg production may even stop entirely for a while.
When you do the same research on duck molting, you get a very different picture. There are only a handful of posts on duck molting. They each give different variations on the details of duck molting.
For example, I read in one post that ducks molt once a year. I read in another that ducks replace all their feathers each year, but that they molt multiple times.
None of what I read matched up to the molt-activity I've seen in my flock over the years. So, I decided to dig deeper and get to the bottom of this duck molt mystery.
A Tale of Two Duck Families
The first thing you need to know about duck molts is that there are two different families of ducks. There are the Mallard-descendants and the Muscovies.
If your backyard duck is not a Muscovy, then it is a Mallard-descendent. Pekins, Khaki Campbells, Runners, Swedish, Cayuga, Call, Silver Appleyard ducks and more, are all distant relatives of the wild mallard.
precisely matters because Mallard-descendant ducks molt on a different cycle than Muscovy ducks. Mallards are migratory birds that lay, nest, and hatch eggs seasonally. Molting, for this family of ducks, revolves around the timing of migration and mating.
Domesticated mallard-descendants don't migrate. However, they still have the genetic triggers that tell them when migratory seasons would begin and end based on the climate conditions and availability of forage. Their biological clocks related to breeding and molting are still impacted by these natural patterns even when they don't act on them.
Muscovies are not migratory birds. In the wild, they live in tropical or subtropical environments. They may fly short distances to find food. However, their ability to fly is related to predator protection rather than migration.
Let's take a closer look at the differences in molting between the two families of ducks.
Molting Patterns for Muscovy Ducks
Based on the limited research available, it is believed that only female muscovy ducks molt annually. Females have a “nesting molt” where they remove downy feathers from their body to use to feather their nest. It's not clear when females re-grow these feathers or how long that regrowth process takes.
Among my female Muscovy, some molt profusely while nesting. Others will only use a small number of feathers to line their nests.
There is one academic study on Muscovy that noted a molting period between July and August. However, there was no documentation to support that statement. Other researchers have suggested that it may only occur in controlled environments that may induce molting using things like dietary practices.
In my breeding flock of Muscovy, other than nesting molts, I have not seen adult Muscovies molt. Two of my older males broke wing feathers almost three years ago, while fighting, and have not replaced the damaged feathers. So, they also do not appear to molt to replace damaged feathers annually.
Managing Muscovies Through Molts
During the breeding season, Muscovy female ducks benefit from additional protein before they start to sit a nest so they can build up reserves of muscle to sustain them during the 35-day egg incubation period. Increasing protein from late winter to early spring is an excellent strategy to prepare females for breeding.
Additionally, their body condition is typically depleted after their ducklings have hatched, so additional protein after breeding expedites recovery. Increasing protein in relation to breeding may also assist with the regrowth of lost feathers after nesting.
Insects such as mealworms, grubs, and crickets are excellent protein sources. If you usually feed your ducks chicken layer feed, consider upgrading to game bird feed with 20-22 % protein before and after your Muscovy females nest. For non-nesting Muscovy females, a normal diet, and some time to forage is sufficient.
For molts not related to nesting, make sure your Muscovy doesn't have underlying health problems, injuries, or stress factors that may have caused the molt. Then, adjust protein content to match the extent of the molt.
Minor feather loss probably does not require much additional dietary protein if your duck has access to green pasture areas. For significant feather loss, particularly of protein-dense wing feathers, raising protein levels to 20-22% may expedite feathering.
Now, let's take a look at Mallard-descendant molting patterns and management strategies.
Molting Patterns for Mallard-Descendants
Mallard-descendant molting patterns are entirely different from Muscovy molting. Male and female Mallard-related ducks also have two separate molting timelines.
The timing for molting can vary significantly between domesticated duck breeds and even genetic lines in the same breed. They can also be affected by environmental conditions including care practices and natural factors like climate and weather.
Besides all that, there's a noticeable amount of variation from duck to duck, even in the same breed and genetic line. Each duck may molt on schedules that vary as much as 1-2 months. Feather loss, too, can range from being imperceptible to almost total.
The Annual Molt
The good news is that there is a basic overriding pattern to the Mallard-descendant molt. Unlike the Muscovy, these ducks do molt every year. However, unlike chickens who molt all at once, duck molts are progressive and happen over a good portion of the year.
It is not entirely clear to researchers if the replacement of feathers is a continuous process or an intermittent one. It could be that there are stop and start points and short breaks in between each phase of molting. Or, this may be one long process that appears faster or slower depending on some environmental and dietary factors.
The Nuptial Molt
Drake (male duck) molts start with what is often called the nuptial molt. The nuptial molt happens at some point after completion of the winter migration, usually in fall to early winter.
During the nuptial molt, males lose their drab-colored contour feather and get brightly colored new dress-up feathers. Often, duck owners only notice this molt when it is completed in late winter period is because drakes may suddenly look all dressed up for their impending spring nuptials with iridescent blue or green feathers (in some breeds) under their wings or on top of their heads.
The Nesting Molt
The female version of the nuptial molt is the nesting molt that occurs from spring to early summer. The ladies don't have to put on new feathers to attract the drakes. However, they do need to have a good supply of feathers to use to make their nest comfy and warm for the little ones on the way.
It's not entirely clear when females add new downy feathers. However, by the time it is warm enough for females to lay and sit a clutch of eggs, they have downy feathers to spare for feathering their nest. Even in ducks that do not get broody or sit nests, they still tend to molt during this time frame.
This is the time of year when most people notice their duck molting because there are often lots of downy feathers flying around the homestead.
The Wing Molt
Toward the tail end of the breeding season from summer to early fall, adult Mallard-descendants lose their wing feathers. Similar to chickens, this can be either a hard (almost all wing feathers) or soft (only a few wing feathers) type of molt.
The extent of the molt is believed to be based on the state of the feathers, the available protein in the duck's diet, when the molt starts (e.g., did they sit a nest early or late), and other factors. Also, like chickens, some ducks seem to put back on new feathers in no time, while others seem to drag it out for months.
In other words, there can be a considerable difference in wing molts from duck to duck, from year to year.
The Safety Molt
There is one more molt. Around the time of the wing molt, male ducks will also lose those fancy nuptial feathers and grow some new dull, boring feathers.
The purpose of this molt is to make the males inconspicuous to predators while they are regrowing their wing feathers and then later during migration. During hard wing molts, Mallard-related ducks that can usually fly, are grounded and more vulnerable. Drab-colored feathers blend in better and offer a greater chance of survival.
Some people lump this molt in with the wing molt or consider it part of the nuptial/nesting molt. However, in my drakes, I have witnessed this safety molt both before and after the wing molt.
In my Mallard-related ducks that still fly like my Mallard-looking call duck, this molt happens weeks before the wing molt starts. In most of my Pekin drakes, this occurs well-after the wing molt is noticeably underway.
The Whole Molt Picture
Now that we've gone through the different phases of the molt, let us back up a step and look at the big picture. Molting is the process of both losing and replacing those old feathers.
Male Mallard-descended ducks can essentially be molting from fall to late summer. For the most part, the only time when feather loss and production isn't likely to be going on in drakes is during the winter migration.
You might think from the description above that females spend less of the year molting since they don't have those drab and colored feathers to worry about. However, on average females are believed to lose more feathers than males.
They also tend to start their wing molts later. They can also have a nesting molt multiple times if their first few attempts to nest aren't successful.
Females can be molting from their first nest through to the moment their wild ancestors would typically take off for their winter migration. They are also probably putting on extra downy feathers in winter while the boys are swapping out their nuptial feathers.
Overall, molting – as in the replacement of old feathers with new – is a process that takes places throughout most of the year in Mallard family ducks.
Domesticated Mallard-Descendant Molt Variations
Now that you have the big picture let's take a closer look at your tame backyard ducks. You probably have ducks for a reason such as eggs, meat, garden fertility.
Depending on your needs, you likely chose breeds that lay lots of eggs year-round. Or, maybe you picked ducks that gain weight fast which means they are flightless and have probably lost the instinct to go broody.
Through the process of breeding, those preferred qualities were selected at the expense of some of the other Mallard-like behaviors. What this means for molts is that your backyard ducks might not keep the same timing as Mallards.
They may start their molts a bit earlier or later depending on your climate. They might take longer or finish faster depending on whether and how much they forage in addition to the feed you provide. They may molt more or less.
In some cases or stages of duck molts, molting may not even be apparent. This makes it hard for us homesteaders to know exactly what to do when our ducks molt.
Don't worry though; there's an easy way to manage your flock during their many and varied molts!
Duck Molting and Egg Production
Before I tell you my secret for managing Mallard-descendant duck molts, there's one other issue that has to be addressed – duck molts and egg production. With chickens, there is a very clear reduction in egg production during molting.
With ducks, again this is not so clear. Breeding season is when ducks are most productive at laying eggs. Even in year-round layers, the start of spring and the abundance of food in pasture seems to kick egg-laying into overdrive.
Broody ducks stop laying when they have a clutch of eggs and begin to sit a nest. So, if you let your ducks sit a nest, of course, you'll see a slow down in egg production while they molt. Otherwise, losing downy feathers during the nesting molt period should not lead to reduced egg production.
If you have a slow down in egg production during the breeding season, even if ducks are molting, there could be a different reason. For example, ducks might be hiding eggs or be egg-bound. Or maybe snakes are stealing your eggs.
For me, a reduction in egg production while ducks are losing downy feathers would prompt me to do a health inspection of my duck and a search of my duck areas.
There's not a lot of scientific research on wing molts and egg production. However, the wing molt marks the tail end of the breeding season and tends to occur during the hottest weather. These three factors may lead to a slow down in egg-production during wing molts.
Managing Mallard-Descendant Duck Molting
If you are like me when I first learned all this stuff, you're head may be spinning from the complexity of molting in Mallard-descended ducks. I mean, how do we know when to get them extra protein if this process could be going on, at different rates, for up to 10-11 months out of the year?
Well, I've got one more interesting fact about ducks that can help you answer that question. Mallards and their descendants are designed to be able to manage their protein for molts.
Their bodies make extra muscle in preparation for molts. They then use that stored protein, combined with abundant forage, to meet their needs in re-growing feathers.
Domesticated ducks don't have the same foraging range as wild ducks. So, we as duck keepers need to support our ducks with high-quality supplemental feed throughout the year.
The simple trick to keeping your ducks health during their multi-staged molts is proper year-round nutrition.
Adult free-range ducks can usually do well on 16% layer feed because they can forage for supplemental protein.
Confined ducks will do well on layer feed with regular protein supplements such as mixing in game bird feed. Alternatively, using formulated duck feed (rather than chicken feed) or offering insect treats like grubs, meal worms, or crickets can help.
During the breeding season, give any broody ducks that you will allow to sit nests extra protein before and after their 28 day incubation period.
If your ducks are having hard wing molts and seem to be slow in regrowing feathers (e.g., it won't be done in 6-8 weeks), then consider switching them to a feed that has 20-22% protein to expedite the process. There is some evidence to suggest that higher protein during complete wing molts might help.
Final Thoughts on Duck Molting
Every duck is different and we each raise ducks in slightly different ways. Extra productive layers, or ducks who sit multiple nests each year, tend to need a little bit of extra feed and protein in the first place. So, high performers may benefit from a special boost during actual molting.
Understanding the molting process, seeing it as a progression, and thinking of it in relation to the patterns of migration and breeding that are built into your bird's genetic nature, will help you make informed choices on managing molts in your flock.
In case you are a research junkie like me and want to learn more about your ducks, here are some of the sources I used to draw together the information presented above.