Ducks Float, Don’t They?

Or, the Uropygial Gland and You

Or – Why You Need Your Life Jacket!

An article from WWA’s Words From The Wardens.

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Waterfowl Association’s November, 2020 eNewsletter

By DNR Recreation Warden Mark Little

Be the duck… BE the duck.

It’s what the voice in my head said while I was making some pretty sweet sounds on my call while waiting for the flock to side slip into my decoy set.

Bang, bang, and another BANG out of desperation, but only one bird folded in a blurry mess of airborne chaos.

Splash, down and an easy retrieve, and I’ve got lunch.

“Just made my day!”  I look out and think about the physical characteristics of our waterfowl.

Ducks have what’s called a uropygial gland or preen gland located at the base of their tails. Ducks spread this oil over their feathers to help them float. Duck feathers also interlock and trap air that gives them additional buoyancy.

A wood duck pair floats on one of WWA’s Adopted Wildlife Areas. Photo by Mike Alaimo

If they need to take a quick dive or grab a tasty treat below the water’s surface, they press their feathers against the sides of their body to release the trapped air. A quick shake-off, and the air is trapped again.

Internal air sacs, including the duck’s lungs, act as little balloons to help them float. Finally, avian bones are hollow, strong and light, providing reduced weight, helping them stay afloat. The duck’s delicate structure helps them achieve the lift required for a quick escape from the water or ground, and providing those snap airborne maneuvers that keep shotgun shell manufacturers in business.

Biology, anatomy, whatever, it’s all good.

What does this have to do with me and my dinner?

Well, since you’re not a duck, you don’t float and that’s the point.

Statistics gleaned from the 2019 United States Coast Guard Recreational Boating Executive Summary states that where the cause of death was known, 79% of fatal boating accident victims drowned, and of those drowning victims, 86% were not wearing a lifejacket.

Further, where length was known, eight out of every ten boaters who drowned were using vessels less than 21 feet in length. This means that conservation wardens and other recovery personnel aren’t likely to pull a victim from the water that’s wearing a life jacket.

It only takes a few breaths of heavy carbon dioxide-laden air on the water surface, or the paralyzing effects of stray currents caused by a boat’s failing electrical system, to wreck your day quickly. That knee-deep water is choked with enough ankle-grabbing weeds, brush and lily pad roots that you’ll need at least an ATV winch to jerk yourself free even if you ever touch bottom in the big, boggy bottom. That sudden rush of October swamp water into your hip boats is never welcomed.

Take a boating safety class to prep for a hunt – and WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET!

You need to take a boating safety class if you were born after 1989. Remember to use those navigation lights after sunset and before sunrise on the pond.

However, circling like a crippled duck avoiding a hailstorm of non-toxic #4 shotgun shells is the biggest point at hand – take your life jacket with you and wear it!

  • Wear it for yourself or to save your buddy or certainly a total stranger.
  • Use it to keep breathing in the foray of icy wetness following an unexpected dunking.
  • Use it to stay warm and add another pad to your bottom.
  • Store your jerky and gorp in a pocket next to your car keys and duck stamp.

We’d all like to see you again and hear your stories about the wonderful waterfowl and hunting experience you had.

Ducks float, and you don’t.