What Is a Drake?
(noun) A drake is a fully sexually mature adult male duck of any duck species, wild or domestic, though males do not have to have attracted a mate or sired ducklings in order to be called drakes. The term drake refers exclusively to males while the term duck can refer to either gender, and the term hen refers exclusively to females. Immature birds of either gender are called ducklings, not drakes or hens.
(rhymes with lake, fake, rake, and bake)
For many ducks native to the Northern Hemisphere, a drake can look significantly different than hens of the same species. In addition to some minor size differences, males often have more vibrantly colored plumage, including bolder color patches, greater contrast, more elaborate markings, specialty feathers, and even iridescent patches. Males' bills may also be more brightly colored than females. Particularly for dabbling duck drakes, these differences contrast boldly and make it easy to tell duck genders apart. Examples of strongly dimorphic drakes include:
- The boldly painted and elaborately marked harlequin duck
- The strong color pattern and bright eye of the northern shoveler
- The bright blue bill and chestnut body of male ruddy ducks
- The rainbow-like colors and bulbous bill of the king eider
- The pied and iridescent colors of the tiny bufflehead
In each of these cases, and many others, females are much more camouflaged, though they may still have some distinct markings. Females are generally less bold and colorful, with neutral plumage in concealing hues such as brown, black, buff, gray, and similar earth tones. Their bills, eyes, legs, and feet may also be more muted than their male counterparts, and their markings are not usually as well defined. For many similar duck species, females may be very challenging to tell apart, while males can be instantly identified.
Many male ducks also have oddly shaped feathers that attract additional attention to their plumage. Familiar examples include:
- The tightly upward curled tail of the mallard
- The wide fan or sail feathers of the mandarin duck
- The long, iridescent crest of the wood duck
- The long, thin, sharp tail of the northern pintail
- The thick, arcing hood of the hooded merganser
These unusual feather shapes are critical for attracting mates and showing off strength and health to defend a territory. Both the bright colors and the unique feathers often play critical roles in courtship displays. Males will use postures and movements that show off their feather colors and specialized shapes in order to attract the attention of desirable females.
While dabbling ducks often have the most vibrant visual contrasts between genders, any male ducks, including mergansers, stifftails, whistling-ducks, and other types of ducks, are all called drakes. The term is not used for other waterfowl, however, and male swans, geese, coots, and similar birds are never called drakes.
When Drakes Look Like Hens
For a brief period after the breeding season, many male ducks molt to an eclipse plumage that more closely resembles the camouflaged colors of the females. During that short period they are flightless and more vulnerable to predators, including hunters and poachers. For protection, eclipse males may gather in all-male flocks or opt to stay in more densely vegetated, isolated habitat where they are more easily concealed. Fortunately, this flightless period is short and drakes quickly replace their full, colorful plumage and flight abilities. The exception is some of the most elaborate feathers or plumes, which may take longer to regrow and may only reappear just before the next breeding season begins.
Juvenile males also lack the brighter colors of fully sexually mature birds, and will not develop any specialized feathers until their first breeding season when they begin to seek mates. When young, all male ducklings look similar, and as they mature, they first develop camouflaged coloration similar to adult females. This helps protect the inexperienced birds as they continue to grow. In time, these young male ducks gradually molt into the brighter colors and marking patterns characteristic of their gender, just in time to find their first mates.
There is less sexual dimorphism among ducks in the Southern Hemisphere, but most drakes are still able to be distinguished from females, though the differences are not as dramatic.
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