Water Off a Duck's Back

Blog Category
Discover Nature Notes
Published Display Date
Mar 28, 2021

“Like water off a duck’s back”.  It’s a common saying meaning something has no effect on a person or situation. Ducks have a complex system of feathers that keep them warm and waterproof.  And airborne on those cross-country and inter-continental flights during migrations.

Down feathers next to the skin keep ducks warm. Contour feathers with vanes that function like zippers aid flight and keep ducks insulated from the water and cold. A gland near their tail, known as the uropygial or preen gland, has a wax-like, oily substance. Ducks dip their bills into it and spread it over their feathers from head to tail.  This makes water literally roll off their backs, keeping them dry, warm, and afloat. Ducks are constantly preening to repair feathers and keep them waterproof.

This oily sheen also helps males look and function their best to attract females during mating season. It makes the blue-winged teal's white crescent pop in spring plumage.  The sunbirds of the duck world, blue-winged teals are last to arrive in the spring, and first to leave in fall during migrations. Teals are dabbling ducks and dip tail-up on lakes and marshes in open country to feed. See them in action in the video below.

Watching ducks dabbling, diving, and moving about is entertaining.  And recalls another saying about natural ability, “takes to water like a duck”.

Duck Skills

Ducks have fascinating functions that help with everyday survival.

  • Like many other bird species, ducks possess hollow bones, which helps them fly. The bones are strong, yet incredibly light, allowing them to easily take off. The bones also help with floating.
  • Duck feathers also trap air, which helps in floating. The feathers are interlocked with a system of barbs that hold air in. 
  • If they need to dive underwater for food, ducks just squeeze the air out of their feathers by pressing in their feathers. They trap the air again soon after resurfacing and shaking off. (How Stuff Works)

Discover more about Blue-winged Teals in our Field Guide.

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