Eclipse Molt 5

One of the boys who helps with the animal care asked me, “What’s wrong with our duck?” At first I didn’t understand what about the duck he was questioning. I was thinking it had something to do with a broken wing or maybe leg. After looking at our duck for a moment I realized what the boy was trying to ask. Our duck looked different.

Some of the boys understand the concept of molting in poultry. That’s when birds “shed” their feathers and regrow new ones for the breeding season or the winter. Molting is kind of fun for some of the younger boys as the extra feathers seem like buried treasure hiding in the yard. The boys and I compared molting in poultry to a dog shedding his coat. However, when the dog sheds his fur doesn’t grow back a different color!

Our duck was losing all of his “manly” feathers; the beautiful green head, the crisp white collar, and the creamy gray feathers on his body. Instead, all of these brown feathers with black stenciling are growing back in place. Concerned about our 4-H prize-winning Rouen (breed) drake (mature male) I contacted a local poultry breeding specialist, Jean Ribbick of Pips and Peeps. I explained what we are experiencing.

For ducks closely related to wild mallards, this kind of molt is common. “He is in what we (breeders) call eclipse plumage,” said Jean. She went on to explain that, “ he is an in between stage before getting his final drake feathers in the fall.” Often time eclipse plumage leaves the duck without flight feathers. These feathers are what generates the lift need to get the body off the ground and into flight. If a duck cannot fly, then it is vulnerable to predators. To combat this, male mallards (and their descendants) regrow their temporary feathers with same color pattern as female mallards. This helps to camouflage the earth-bound male until his traditional mallard-colored plumage returns.

This is a wonderful experience our 4-H project has given us. This lesson is not something most 4-Her’s would have learned with a terminal (annual) project. This could only be experience through a breeding project or a long term project meaning two years or more must be invested. We are fortunate here at the ranch to reuse some of our 4-H projects; what a priceless opportunity! Excuse the pun; but this is just another feather for boys to add to their 4-H caps!

Gina Pebles
Equine and 4-H Programs
Agricultural Program Development