The ubiquitous quack is always associated with ducks, but ducks actually make many other vocal and non-vocal sounds. Recognizing the sounds ducks make is essential for birding by ear whenever these wonderful waterfowl are involved.
Vocal Duck Sounds
The familiar "quack" attributed to all ducks is usually the female mallard's quacking, though many female dabbling ducks make similar quacking noises. Quacks are not the only sounds in ducks' vocabularies, though. While ducks generally do not sing, they can make a variety of vocalizations, including:
Any given duck may have different sounds for courtship songs, fending off an intruder, showing stress or begging for food. The pitch, rhythm, volume, raspiness, breathiness, number of repetitions, and other qualities of the sound can also vary depending on the situation, species, age, and gender of the bird. For example, nestlings generally have quieter, breathier, more urgent vocalizations as they beg for food. On the other hand, an adult duck's alarm call is generally more strident and louder to alert other ducks to a potential threat.
Non-Vocal Duck Sounds
Adult ducks are often silent, but just because they aren't vocalizing doesn't mean they don't make noise. There are several non-vocal sounds ducks make that can be noticeable and helpful to birders, such as:
- The soft, rustling splashes as a duck filters its bill along the surface of the water.
- Rustling leaves, grass and brush as a duck searches for food on land.
- Louder splashes made as a duck runs along the water to take off.
- The long, smooth splash of a duck gliding in for a landing on the water.
- Thumps, swishes, and whistles of duck wings in flight.
- The pattering of webbed feet on different surfaces, such as mud, gravel, wet sand, asphalt or concrete.
Each of these sounds can be a clue about duck behavior, which in turn can be helpful for proper identification of individual duck species.
Tips for Birding By Ear With Ducks
Any bird sounds can be useful for identification, and birders who want to sharpen their birding by ear skills where waterfowl are involved should try:
- Listening carefully to positively identified ducks, such as the familiar ducks at a local pond. This will help birders learn to better identify those common species and note when other sounds are audible that would indicate unusual visitors.
- Studying duck calls online or through various bird sound recordings, including hunting calls intended for specific duck species. Practicing with those sounds can be especially useful when migrating ducks may not be nearby all year for in-the-field listening.
- Visiting a local aviary, botanical garden, farm, zoo, or another facility that is home to different duck species and listening to their calls and other sounds. Avoid facilities that specialize in domestic duck breeds, however, as their sounds are different from those wild birds make.
- Attending a duck calling contest where participants may be demonstrating the calls of different duck species. These contests may also have participants show the differences between different types of calls, such as alarm calls or courtship noises.
While it can be tempting to use duck calls as the only identification clue, it can be very challenging to tell different ducks apart by voice alone, and even experienced birders may be fooled by a unique duck sound. As with any bird identification, it is best to use a variety of clues to positively identify the bird, including not only sounds, but also plumage, size, behavior, range, and other characteristics.
Other Birds That Quack
One of the hardest things to note about duck sounds is that ducks aren't the only birds that quack. Because ducks have such an array of different sounds in their vocabulary, their voices can sound similar to many other types of birds, including the other members of the Anatidae family, geese, and swans. Cranes, herons, pelicans, cormorants and even some raptors can make similar sounds and could be confused for ducks. In areas with large, vocal duck populations, skilled bird mimics may even incorporate duck-like sounds into their repertoire.
While the urban legend that a duck's quack won't echo is false, it is completely true that ducks make many sounds other than quacking. Birders who are familiar with those sounds will be much better prepared to properly identify ducks and enjoy all their varied noises.