Drake Duck Definition

Bird Gender Identification

a drake of the mandarin species

The Spruce / Giuseppe Intrieri

A drake is a fully sexually mature adult male duck of any duck species, wild or domestic. Males need not have attracted a mate or sired ducklings to be called a drake. The term "drake" (rhymes with "lake" or "bake") refers exclusively to males while the term duck can refer to either gender. The term "hen" refers solely to females. Immature birds of either gender are called ducklings, not drakes or hens.

Drake

A term that refers to a sexually mature adult male duck of any species, both wild and domestic.

About Drake Birds

For many ducks native to the Northern Hemisphere, a drake can look significantly different than hens of the same species. In addition to minor 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:

  • Boldly painted and elaborately marked harlequin duck
  • Strong color pattern and bright eye of the northern shoveler
  • Bright blue bill and chestnut body of male ruddy ducks
  • Rainbow-like colors and bulbous bill of the king eider
  • 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 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:

  • Tightly upward curled tail of the mallard
  • Wide fan or sail feathers of the mandarin duck
  • Long, iridescent crest of the wood duck
  • Lengthy, thin, sharp tail of the northern pintail
  • Thick, arcing hood of the hooded merganser

These unusual feather shapes are critical for attracting mates and showing strength and health to defend a territory. The bright colors and the unique feathers often play crucial roles in courtship displays. Males will use postures and movements that show off their feather colors and specialized shapes 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. However, the term is not used for other waterfowl; 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. They are flightless and more vulnerable to predators, hunters, and poachers during that short period. For protection, eclipse males may gather in all-male flocks or opt to stay in a 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.

Bring on the Color

Younger male ducks that are not sexually mature often have duller feathers than their drake counterparts. Typically, male ducks won't develop the bright plumage associated with drakes until their first breeding season.

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 seek mates. When young, all male ducklings look similar, and as they mature, they first develop camouflaged coloration similar to adult females. This camouflage 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 can still be distinguished from females, though the differences are not as dramatic.