Disney’s Donald Duck likely comes quickly to mind, or any of his extended family, including his girlfriend Daisy, and Uncle Scrooge McDuck, or nephews Huey, Dewie and Louie. Or Warner Brothers’ Daffy Duck, or that ill-tempered Howard the Duck from Marvel Comics.
The expression ‘lame duck’ is familiar, or “Duck!” (as in, watch out!) Or the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. Or, ‘Ducky’, the term of endearment. There’s Peking Duck, duck a l’orange, ‘sitting duck’ and ‘dead duck’ (yikes!), and rubber ducky, and-the poor duck has been co-opted into our modern culture without much respect for the many natural characteristics that, through the ages, have made it a symbol of honesty, simplicity, and resourcefulness.
Time for a reality check-ducks are the largest and most diverse and versatile group of waterfowls, being as much at ease on land as in the air or on the water. Their short legs, webbed feet and efficient wings allow them to allude enemies by flying, diving, swimming or running. As a result, they’ve earned a reputation for being resourceful.
Their habitat is predictable-wet reedy lakes to which they return year after year. Their broad, flat bill is well suited to foraging in these shallow waters. Native North Americans long ago took notice of the duck’s patience, placidity, and their apparent knowledge of the edible treasures that lie underwater. One creation myth involves a duck heroically diving to the bottom of the sea to bring up mud, so that Coyote could put the finishing touches on his creation-’the earth’.
In the Celtic tradition, the duck symbolizes honesty, simplicity, and once again, resourcefulness. It is revered as much for its proportion and beauty as for its adaptability and sensitivity to its environment. Honesty and understanding are other duck attributes and associations that have grown up over time.
The male of the species owns the most colourful plumage, but both sexes are graceful and agile in the water, and are known for their easy adaptation to nature. They seem very much at home in their chosen water world. For most people, the duck connotes comfort. It seems the perfect bird, unperturbed and enjoying life. ‘Water off a duck’s back,’ refers to a disregard for worldly concerns.
The duck’s strong sense of community provides the hunter with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of targets in a single sighting. The hunter’s decoy – a wooden facsimile of the duck that floats on the water to attract the flock – has become a decorative feature in many households of the Canadian prairie and the Great Plain of the United States. And duck hunting in the Fall and Autumn as the flocks make their annual migratory pilgrimage south to warmer climes is a deeply engrained cultural practice in many rural areas. Duck hunters have long recognized their unique role in protecting duck environments and ecosystems to ensure the long-term viability of their sport. Ducks Unlimited is an international organization with three quarters of a million members that has been protecting wetlands and estuaries to ensure the survival of waterfowl species since 1936. And while the role of hunters in protecting species may be controversial to some, there is no denying that the Ducks Unlimited Organization has been instrumental in wetland conservation and educating the public about the importance of habitat protection for wild animals. Duck habitats and breeding grounds have been threatened by overdevelopment, agriculture, the use of herbicides and pesticides, climate changes, dams and oil and mineral exploration. Poisoning from lead shot was once a problem, but the switch to steel and other alternatives has alleviated the problem. Whatever your position on duck hunting, there is no denying that duck hunting enthusiasts have led the fight for greater conservation and management of waterfowl populations. In 1918 in the United States, duck hunters were at the forefront of the movement that led to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibited the possession of migratory waterfowl without a license.
The Mallard is the most common species, and the one from which most others have evolved. The Wood Duck ranks as North America’s most beautiful species, but in the Orient the Mandarin Duck is the one most often depicted by artists. This oriental species wins the beauty contest with its purple breast and orange ‘sails’ on its back. Because it’s a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity, the Mandarin Duck often shows up at Chinese weddings as a harbinger of wedded bliss. Never mind that the species isn’t monogamous at all. A popular motif in Chinese households, the artful depiction of a duck holding a lotus stem in its beak is a promise (wishful thinking) of having many sons, one after the other.
In India, ducks are associated with the rice harvest, since they predictably show up for the harvest’s leftovers, then lay their eggs. They symbolize the constant cycle of birth and rebirth. Ducks are a symbol of prosperity and fertility in Korea, where a duck-shaped funerary cup was found from the 6th century A.D.
In 13th century Europe, the ‘drake’ (Mallard) was a symbol of male promiscuity and fertility. Pagan cults took the drake as their symbol.
As a spirit guide or favourite tattoo, the duck is there to teach you about free will, even if greater wisdom ultimately reveals it to be an illusion. A model of grace and the ability to see clearly through emotions, the duck is the spirit helper of mystics and seers. A duck tattoo is an announcement to all that you are a seeker after grace and comfort in your life. If you’re superstitious, a duck showing up in a dream is a good omen.
If you are a conservationist, a duck tattoo is an excellent symbol of your commitment to protect the environment for future generations and to preserve wildlife in their natural settings.
Get inspired by some great images and tattoos in our Duck Tattoo Gallery