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Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Day–night patterns

  • During the day, rest in groups on shore, in dense vegetation, or in open water (Frith 1965; Johnsgard 1965; Frith 1967; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Remain inconspicuous
    • Sometimes roost on objects protruding from the water (e.g., stumps, tops of fence posts)
  • At dusk, fly to shore to feed (Frith 1967)
    • Cruise the shallows
    • Remain through the night

Feeding

  • Most feeding occurs either at dawn, dusk, or at night (Fullagar et al. 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Forage intermittently at any time of day
  • During non-breeding season, daytime foraging often followed by bathing and preening (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

Movements and Dispersal

Influence of water

  • Resident to permanent marshes and temporary lakes but range widely to capitalize on newly formed habitat or avoid drought conditions (Frith 1965; Wood and Simcock 1993; Kingsford, Curtin, et al. 1999, and as noted)
    • Often move to coastal areas when inland areas dry up (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Dispersal depends on water availability (flooding) (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Sedentary during years of abundant rain (Johnsgard 2010)
    • Move to permanent wetlands during dry season and drought (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
  • Movements during non-breeding and dry seasons described as nomadic or “erratic” (e.g., Frith 1967)

Social Behavior

Breeding season

  • Found in pairs or small groups (Frith 1965)
  • Behavior subtle (Fullagar et al. 1990) or not well understood

Non-breeding/dry seasons

  • Gregarious (Fullagar et al. 1990)
  • Small to moderately large flocks (Johnsgard 2010)
    • Usually found in family groups of 5-6 individuals (Frith 1965; Frith 1967)
      • Rarely more than 20 individuals in a flock
  • Sometimes found in groups of several hundred to thousands of individuals (Frith 1965; Frith 1967)
    • Up to thousands of birds in exceptionally dry years (Richard Kingsford, personal communication, 2019)
  • Groups maintain fairly close spacing (Johnsgard 2010)
    • Little aggression evident

Other behavior

Communication

Vocalizations

  • Generally silent or make very quiet calls (Fullagar et al. 1990; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Calls difficult for humans to hear, except at very close range
    • Calls distinct from those of other waterfowl
  • No calls during flight (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Male generally quieter than female (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Vocalizations of adults
    • Threat and greeting call (Raucous Roar) (Frith 1967; Fullagar et al. 1990; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
      • Deep “Growl–snort–hiss”
      • Given by both sexes
    • Advertising call (Fullagar et al. 1990)
      • Rapid “Buzz–squeak–moan”
      • Given by male
        • Accompanies Axle-grind display
          • See Visual Communication, below
    • Distress and defense calls (Frith 1967; Braithwaite 1976; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Loud “bray” and “snort–hiss–grunt”
      • May be exaggerated forms of Raucous Roar (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Given when restrained by humans, or when female defends nest or ducklings
    • Alarm call
      • Loud clipped Raucous Roar (Fullagar et al. 1990)
      • Given by female
    • Throaty chuckle accompanies Head-raised Chin-lift (Fullagar et al. 1990; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Given by female (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Female also reported to make loud quacking calls (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Calls between mother and young
    • Mother maintains contact with young with soft calls (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Ducklings
      • Contact call trill and cricket-like (Frith 1967; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
      • Given in response to mother and siblings
        • Appears to be multi-functional
      • Given with upward movement of bill
  • Juvenile vocalizations (observations from managed care) (Fullagar et al. 1990)
    • “Geroo…gerook-gerook-gerook”
    • “Geruk…geruk…gruk-gra-hoo”

Visual communication

  • Mainly involves head and tail movements (Johnsgard 1965)
  • Pre-flight display
    • Silently raise head fast, then lower more slowly (Fullagar et al. 1990)
      • Signals a bird’s intent to take off (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • May help coordinate the flock’s departure (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Greeting
    • Head low and forward (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Axle-grind display
    • Given by male, typically during breeding (Fullagar et al. 1990; Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
      • Often given on water; rarely, on land
    • Suggested functions (Fullagar et al. 1990)
      • Advertising to females
      • Asserting dominance
      • Defense of nest site
    • Display elements (Fullagar et al. 1990; see Figure 3)
      • With forehead and crown feathers raised, and bill pointed downward, male shakes head side-to-side then thrusts it forward
        • Enhances appearance of red–black contrast of the bill
        • Side-to-side head movements may be omitted
      • Display ends with vigorous tail wagging
      • Quiet complex double squeaky note accompanies the visual display (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Female responds with “Head-raised Chin-lift” display (Fullagar et al. 1990)
      • Stretches neck upwards and slowly moves tip of bill up-and-down
        • Accompanied by a “throaty chuckle”
  • Aggressive displays
  • Appeasement posture of ducklings (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Given as submissive signal to adults
      • Less common by 30-50 days old
    • Flick bill upward and make a clear trill call

Agonistic Behavior and Defense

Defense

  • When alarmed, stretch neck and head high (alert posture) (Fullagar et al. 1990)
    • Group together in tight flock (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Dive underwater to escape danger (Carboneras and Kirwan 2018)
    • Ducklings swim well underwater (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Said to be less likely to flush (flee), compared to other duck species (Johnsgard 1965)

Aggression

  • Freckled Duck not considered aggressive (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Prolonged conflict rare
    • Do not defend territories
    • Tolerate mates or group members close by
      • Exception: mothers with young
  • Compete for preferred nesting or resting sites (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Protection of nest and young
  • Dominance contests
    • Initial confrontation
    • Escalation
      • Individuals rapidly stretch neck up and down, while opening bill and calling (Johnsgard 1965; Marchant and Higgins 1990; Johnsgard 2010)
      • Rise up and withdraw head and neck (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Stare at each other with bills almost touching and hiss (Fullagar et al. 1990; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
        • May strike, attempt to grab, or chase opponent
          • Subordinate retreats
    • De-escalation (Fullagar et al. 1990; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
      • Subordinate moves away
      • Dominant individual flaps wings and wags tail
        • Sometimes bathes and preens
  • Bill cleaning display (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Bill thrust down into water as duck exhales, making a loud snort and burst of bubbles
    • Probably only given during flights between males

Territorial Behavior

Not territorial

  • Do not defend feeding territories (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Defend resting sites and nest sites but only a small area (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

Interspecies Interactions

Other water birds

  • Commonly associate with Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa) (Frith 1967; Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Also Hardhead (Aythya australis), Grey Teal (Anas gracilis), and Pink-eared Duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus)
  • Chase other birds away from nest (e.g., coots) (Braithwaite 1976)

Locomotion

Walking

  • Walk slightly tilted forwards (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
  • Waddle-like gait (Marchant and Higgins 1990)
    • Similar to most ducks

Flying

  • Often fly silently, just above the water (Frith 1967)
  • Wingbeat can be rapid or slow (Frith 1967)
  • Fly with head and neck low (Frith 1967)
    • Gives this duck a distinctive “hunched appearance”
  • During takeoff, run along water’s surface for several feet (Johnsgard 1965, except as noted)
    • Do not spring directly out of the water, like dabbling ducks
    • Slow climb, unless a threat is perceived (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

Swimming

  • Dive only to bathe or escape predators (Marchant and Higgins 1990)

Birds of a Feather

A group of three Freckled Duck swimming

Freckled Duck are usually found in pairs or small family groups.

During the day, they rest in groups and at dusk fly to shore to feed.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Typically Silent

Freckled Duck calling

Although usually silent, Freckled Duck are known for their "Raucous Roar" call.

Variations of this call may be used as a threat, greeting, or distress/defense call.

Image credit: © Ed Dunens via Flickr. CC by 2.0; some rights reserved.

Image location: Lake Wendouree, Victoria, Australia

Keep Your Distance

Freckled Duck defends resting spot

Freckled Duck are generally not aggressive towards one another but will defend preferred resting sites.

Image credit: © Ed Dunens via Flickr. CC by 2.0; some rights reserved.

Image location: Lake Wendouree, Victoria, Australia

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