1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Duck

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DUCK. (1) (From the verb “to duck,” to dive, put the head under water, in reference to the bird’s action, cf. Dutch duiker, Ger. Taucher, diving-bird, duiken, tauchen, to dip, dive, Dan. dukand, duck, and Ger. Ente, duck; various familiar and slang usages are based on analogy with the bird’s action), the general English name for a large number of birds forming the greater part of the family Anatidae of modern ornithologists. Technically the term duck is restricted to the female, the male being called drake (cognate with the termination of Ger. Enterich), and in one species mallard (Fr. Malart).

The Anatidae may be at once divided into six more or less well marked subfamilies—(1) the Cygninae or swans, (2) the Anserinae or geese—which are each very distinct, (3) the Anatinae or freshwater-ducks, (4) those commonly called Fuligulinae or sea-ducks, (5) the Erismaturinae or spiny-tailed ducks, and (6) the Merginae or mergansers.

The Anatinae are the typical group, and it is these only that are considered here. We start with the Anas boschas of Linnaeus, the common wild duck, which from every point of view is by far the most important species, as it is the most plentiful, the most widely distributed, and the best known—being indeed the origin of all the British domestic breeds. It inhabits the greater part of the northern hemisphere, reaching in winter so far as the Isthmus of Panama in the New World, and in the Old being abundant at the same season in Egypt and north-western India, while in summer it ranges throughout the Fur-Countries, Greenland, Iceland, Lapland and Siberia. Most of those which fill British markets are no doubt bred in more northern climes, but a considerable proportion of them are yet produced in the British Islands, though not in anything like the numbers that used to be supplied before the draining of the great fen-country and other marshy places. The wild duck pairs very early in the year—the period being somewhat delayed by hard weather, and the ceremonies of courtship, which require some little time. Soon after these are performed, the respective couples separate in search of suitable nesting-places, which are generally found, by those that remain with us, about the middle of March. The spot chosen is sometimes near a river or pond, but often very far removed from water, and it may be under a furze-bush, on a dry heath, at the bottom of a thick hedge-row, or even in any convenient hole in a tree. A little dry grass is generally collected, and on it the eggs, from 9 to 11 in number, are laid. So soon as incubation commences the mother begins to divest herself of the down which grows thickly beneath her breast-feathers, and adds it to the nest-furniture, so that the eggs are deeply imbedded in this heat-retaining substance—a portion of which she is always careful to pull, as a coverlet, over her treasures when she quits them for food. She is seldom absent from the nest, however, but once, or at most twice, a day, and then she dares not leave it until her mate, after several circling flights of observation, has assured her she may do so unobserved. Joining him the pair betake themselves to some quiet spot where she may bathe and otherwise refresh herself. Then they return to the nest, and after cautiously reconnoitring the neighbourhood, she loses no time in reseating herself on her eggs, while he, when she is settled, repairs again to the waters, and passes his day listlessly in the company of his brethren, who have the same duties, hopes and cares. Short and infrequent as are the absences of the duck when incubation begins, they become shorter and more infrequent towards its close, and for the last day or two of the 28 necessary to develop the young it is probable that she will not stir from the nest at all. When all the fertile eggs are hatched her next care is to get the brood safely to the water. This, when the distance is great, necessarily demands great caution, and so cunningly is it done that but few persons have encountered the mother and offspring as they make the dangerous journey.[1] If disturbed the young instantly hide as they best can, while the mother quacks loudly, feigns lameness, and flutters off to divert the attention of the intruder from her brood, who lie motionless at her warning notes. Once arrived at the water they are comparatively free from harm, though other perils present themselves from its inmates in the form of pike and other voracious fishes, which seize the ducklings as they disport in quest of insects on the surface or dive beneath it. Throughout the summer the duck continues her care unremittingly, until the young are full grown and feathered; but it is no part of the mallard’s duty to look after his offspring, and indeed he speedily becomes incapable of helping them, for towards the end of May he begins to undergo his extraordinary additional moult, loses the power of flight, and does not regain his full plumage till autumn. About harvest-time the young are well able to shift for themselves, and then resort to the corn-fields at evening, where they fatten on the scattered grain. Towards the end of September or beginning of October both old and young unite in large flocks and betake themselves to the larger waters. If long-continued frost prevail, most of the ducks resort to the estuaries and tidal rivers, or even leave these islands almost entirely. Soon after Christmas the return-flight commences, and then begins anew the course of life already described.

For the farmyard varieties, descending from Anas boschas, see Poultry. The domestication of the duck is very ancient. Several distinct breeds have been established, of which the most esteemed from an economical point of view are those known as the Rouen and Aylesbury; but perhaps the most remarkable deviation from the normal form is the so-called penguin-duck, in which the bird assumes an upright attitude and its wings are much diminished in size. A remarkable breed also is that often named (though quite fancifully) the “Buenos-Ayres” duck, wherein the whole plumage is of a deep black, beautifully glossed or bronzed. But this saturation, so to speak, of colour only lasts in the individual for a few years, and as the birds grow older they become mottled with white, though as long as their reproductive power lasts they “breed true.” The amount of variation in domestic ducks, however, is not comparable to that found among pigeons, no doubt from the absence of the competition which pigeon-fanciers have so long exercised. One of the most curious effects of domestication in the duck, however, is, that whereas the wild mallard is not only strictly monogamous, but, as Waterton believed, a most faithful husband, remaining paired for life, the civilized drake is notoriously polygamous.

Very nearly allied to the common wild duck are a considerable number of species found in various parts of the world in which there is little difference of plumage between the sexes—both being of a dusky hue—such as Anas obscura, the commonest river-duck of America, A. superciliosa of Australia, A. poecilorhyncha of India, A. melleri of Madagascar, A. xanthorhyncha of South Africa, and some others.

Among the other genera of Anatinae, we must content ourselves by saying that both in Europe and in North America there are the groups represented by the shoveller, garganey, gadwall, teal, pintail and widgeon—each of which, according to some systematists, is the type of a distinct genus. Then there is the group Aix, with its beautiful representatives the wood-duck (A. sponsa) in America and the mandarin-duck (A. galericulata) in Eastern Asia. Besides there are the sheldrakes (Tadorna), confined to the Old World and remarkably developed in the Australian Region; the musk-duck (Cairina) of South America, which is often domesticated and in that condition will produce hybrids with the common duck; and finally the tree-ducks (Dendrocygna), which are almost limited to the tropics. (For duck-shooting, see Shooting.)

(A. N.)

2 (Probably derived from the Dutch doeck, a coarse linen material, cf. Ger. Tuch, cloth), a plain fabric made originally from tow yarns. The cloth is lighter than canvas or sailcloth, and differs from these in that it is almost invariably single in both warp and weft. The term is also used to indicate the colour obtained at a certain stage in the bleaching of flax yarns; it is a colour between half-white and cream, and this fact may have something to do with the name. Most of the flax ducks (tow yarns) appear in this colour, although quantities are bleached or dyed. Some of the ducks are made from long flax, dyed black, and used for kit-bags, while the dyed tow ducks may be used for inferior purposes. The fabric, in its various qualities and colours, is used for an enormous variety of purposes, including tents, wagon and motor hoods, light sails, clothing, workmen’s overalls, bicycle tubes, mail and other bags and pocketings. Russian duck is a fine white linen canvas.


  1. When ducks breed in trees, the precise way in which the young get to the ground is still a matter of uncertainty. The mother is supposed to convey them in her bill, and most likely does so, but they are often simply allowed to fall.