There’s little question color plays a large role in selecting a breed of poultry to own. Ducks are no exception, and come in a wide array of beautiful colors.
In fact, color is undoubtably one of the main factors that goes into selecting a breed of poultry. Other factors like eggs laying ability and temperament certainly come into play, but I’d wager the majority of people pick a duck based on its physical appearance.
So, it’s understandably alarming when that beautiful chocolate duck suddenly sprouts white feathers. Many people are taken by surprise when their duck grows new feathers after molting, horrified to find their lovely dark-feathered duck is blemished by white feathers.
The realization your ducks are turning white can be more than a little alarming if you aren’t sure what’s going on.
So, what happened?
Blue and black runners and a blue Swedish mix all showing varying amounts of bleaching.
There are two reasons for pigment loss in feathers: injury and bleaching.
When the delicate feather shaft and underlying follicles are damaged, it is very common for feathers to grow in white. This is why even breeds of ducks not prone to bleaching commonly wind up with white spots, particularly female ducks that routinely suffer minor feather damage from mating.
But some breeds of ducks–particularly Cayugas, and solid blue, black, and chocolate varieties of other breeds–are extremely prone to feather bleaching. This bleaching effect is commonly called “snow”, since it tends to look like snowflakes upon an otherwise dark bird. This means with each molt, they lose pigment in an increasing number of feathers. If you have a duck that bleaches, it will eventually turn pure white with age.
While some can find this disappointing (which is understandable, since solid black, chocolate, and blue ducks are so beautiful) I personally love the snow effect. I think it adds variety and interest to have a random assortment of white speckles covering my ducks.
A black runner with a black Ancona. The snow effect is harder to see on the Ancona, but her black patches were once solid and now have a smattering of white feathers.
What is also interesting is no two ducks bleach the same. I have runners that are the exact same age, yet some are nearly pure white while others only have a few speckles on their wings. It’s fascinating!
There are some benefits to bleaching, of course. If you are a person that has ducks primarily for pets, it can be fun to be able to tell them apart easier—and since no two ducks will bleach in exactly the same way, the sudden appearance of white feathers makes it easier to tell who’s who.
It’s a purely aesthetic choice, but I dare you to look at the ducks on this page and tell me they don’t have their own unique beauty!
These two black runners are the exact same age and were raised together. One is almost entirely white, while the other only has rings around her eye and bill to show her age!
Can anything be done to prevent bleaching?
Not really. The name “bleaching” is actually misleading, even though it’s the commonly accepted term for when ducks are turning white.
This isn’t a case of a feather turning white due to sun exposure or anything like that. Instead, it’s about damaged follicles. Since ducks only mate once a year, you won’t notice the damaged follicles until they molt and grow their new feathers. The damaged ones will grow in white.
This black ancona used to have black markings on her face; now all that’s left are a few black dots, since she’s bleached so much.
Curiously, age also counts as damage. It works the same way gray hair works on humans. Your healthy hair doesn’t suddenly turn grey—it grows in that way (unfortunately!). So, there is really no way to prevent damaged feathers from growing in white.
However, there is little question that females turn white at far greater rates than males. The reason is almost always mating. When mating, it’s not uncommon for feathers to be torn out or damaged by overzealous males. So, many females wind up growing in tons of white feathers if housed with too many males.
Therefore, the only way to really try to mitigate your ducks turning white is to simply not keep male ducks—or if you do, make sure you only keep a few. It’s generally accepted that you should have at least 3-5 female ducks for every male you desire to keep, which will help minimize damage at least somewhat.
This cayuga has some normal bleaching from age, but she has a dramatic spot on her head from where drakes have bitten her over the years during mating season.
What breeds can turn white?
I’ve noticed the phenomenon of feather bleaching is really only commonly mentioned when you’re reading about Cayugas. I suppose this is because it’s most obvious ducks are turning white if they’re black to start with. But, any duck can turn white with age—even light-colored ones.
There is no question it’s most commonly linked to color, though. Black, blue, and chocolate all have a similar genetic base (with blue and chocolate simply being different dilutions of the black gene) and ducks of these colors are most commonly afflicted.
This muscovy hen used to have solid black patches, with only a white head and wings. Now she’s grown in a cute polka-dot pattern!
So, to look at the breeds most likely to turn white, you need only look at the breeds with solid blue, black, and chocolate varieties. This means the following varieties of ducks are all likely to grow white feathers with age:
- Swedish – Black, Blue, and Silver
- Runners – Black, Blue, Silver, and Chocolate
- Cayuga – Black and Chocolate
- Ancona – Black, Blue, Silver, and Chocolate
- Magpie – Black, Blue, Silver, and Chocolate
- Muscovy – Black, Blue, Silver, and Chocolate
Keep in mind that while it isn’t common for some other colors (addressed below) to turn white, it is possible for any breed to grow white feathers from injuries.
This Muscovy is fairly old, but has minimal bleaching. She is starting to grow in more white on her face every year, though.
Are there any breeds that DON’T turn white?
For one reason or another, it’s extremely rare for any duck with a Mallard-type pattern to turn white. This means Mallards, Rouen, Welsh Harlequin are generally going to maintain their plumage throughout their lives.
Fawn & white runners are another I very rarely notice white feathers on. I have some that are pretty old, and only one has grown a few white feathers, which seem to be from mating injuries.
So, if you really can’t stand the thought of your ducks changing in appearance from year to year, you will be pretty safe simply avoiding breeds that come in blue, black, silver, or chocolate.
And, of course… you can’t go wrong with keeping white breeds like Pekins if you hate the multicolored effect!
I am especially enamored with how this duck has bleached out. I think the contrast of white head with black bill is lovely.
To sum it up...
Whether or not you enjoy the visual effect, it pays to be aware of the bleaching phenomenon–both for making a breed choice and being assured your ducks are perfectly healthy and just showing their age!
If you’d like to learn more about duck genetics, including the specific genes that lead to ducks turning white in their old age, I highly recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. I first read this book in 2000, and it is what really gave me my start in the duck world. I still employ knowledge found in this book to this day, and the genetic knowledge alone is worth the price tag.
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