Ducks are not especially awe-inspiring creatures. They’re important parts of our ecosystem, sure, and are more powerful and smart than they appear. But consider their rank on the food chain—and the fact that they bob for food with their entire hindquarters stuck up in the air—and their cool factor takes a major hit.
Even so, ducks have been a point of cultural fascination for quite some time. They’re the basis for some of the most popular cartoon characters ever, they’ve starred in their fair share of commercials, and—shockingly enough—they have even made for iconic sports mascots. That last point is especially important this week, as Disney+ gets ready to release its Mighty Ducks reboot series The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers on Friday. The series follows the Ducks into a new era—one in which they’re inexplicably playing the bad guys. But it also gives us multiple instances of Lauren Graham going full Minnesota Hockey Mom and telling Emilio Estevez off, so we’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
In honor of this release—and just generally because we like to rank things—my Ringer colleague Miles Surrey and I are ranking the 25 most important pop culture ducks of all time. Please enjoy, and as always: Quack quack. —Megan Schuster
25. Duck Dynasty
Miles Surrey: A reality series about a family that made a fortune selling, of all things, duck hunting accessories sounds like a harmless guilty pleasure. And for a while it was, to the tune of 11.8 million viewers, $80 million in ad sales, and $400 million in merchandising. But ultimately, the Robertson clan gives humans and ducks alike a bad name. Just keeping things to the Robertson patriarch: He’s a racist homophobe who believes sexually transmitted diseases are a punishment from God, he doesn’t support transgender bathroom laws, and he harbors violent fantasies about what should happen to atheists. We should duck away from giving the Duck Dynasty clan any more time in the spotlight.
24. The Aflac Duck
Schuster: Try telling me you haven’t been jolted awake in the middle of the night by the haunting echoes of Gilbert Gottfried’s “Aflaaaaac.” TRY IT.
23. The Friends Duck
Schuster: The duck and the chick were always pretty cheap plot devices in the Friends universe. They served primarily as excuses for Chandler and Joey to fight; reasons for Monica and Rachel to get pissed at the boys; and, in one case, they were the impetus for Rachel’s date to flee a dinner because he had a fear of “farm birds.” But out of the two, the duck-centric story lines are the worst. The highlights (or lowlights, rather) include trying to eat the chick and getting sent to the hall, successfully eating all of Rachel’s face cream and throwing up all over the apartment, and swimming in a basin during a credits sequence. At least the chick got some shock value when it grew up to be a rooster.
Surrey: This is why I’m a Seinfeld guy.
22. Devlin “Duck” Hodges, Rams Quarterback
Schuster: Hodges earned the nickname “Duck” because he won both state and national duck-calling contests as a kid. No, I’m not kidding.
That feat on its own is pretty cool—saying “I’m one of the best people in the world at imitating ducks” must get you a lot of attention in social situations. (Whether that attention is good or bad is a debate for another day.) Unfortunately for Hodges, it seems he’s much better at duck calling than he is at playing professional football. He had a 71.4 quarterback rating over his eight games with the Steelers in 2019, didn’t suit up in any real contest in 2020, and now he’s charged with backing up Matthew Stafford in L.A. At least that gives him more time to work on his life’s true calling (pun absolutely intended).
21. Howard the Duck
Surrey: Picture this: You’re George Lucas in the 1980s, and you’ve just completed the original, beloved Star Wars trilogy. It doesn’t matter what you want to do next—Hollywood is going to throw a blank check your way. Naturally, it’s time to spend $37 million on a big-screen adaptation of a Marvel superhero, and naturally, the superhero you pick is ... [squints] ... Howard the Duck?!
It’d be one thing if Lucas made a movie about a talking duck from outer space as a commentary on the oversaturation of superhero movies, but this happened in 1986, preceding everything from Tim Burton’s take on Batman to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Surprising no one but Lucas, Howard the Duck ended up being a commercial and critical bomb, perhaps in part because its title character is legit nightmare fuel who tries to have sex with Lea Thompson:
While we’d be better off if this character was erased from existence—help me Thanos, you’re our only hope—Howard the Duck has since made cameo appearances in two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Still, I’m pretty sure the MCU will need to exhaust dozens of other ideas before this anthropomorphic duck gets another starring vehicle.
Schuster: There are a lot of things that are haunting about Howard the Duck, but I think it’s the human-esque eyes that get me the most.
20. Herman “Duck” Phillips, Mad Men
Schuster: There are a lot of bad things I could say here, but nothing is more damning than the fact that Duck Phillips abandoned his dog, Chauncey. In a low moment in a life full of them, Phillips led Chauncey out the door of Sterling Cooper so he could drink alone in his office. And then Chauncey just vanished from the show. Duck Phillips made plenty of alcohol-fueled mistakes—the man tried to defecate on an office chair—but this one is the worst. We are animal lovers here at The Ringer dot com, and I demand justice for this beautiful boy:
19. Anaheim Ducks
Schuster: This team was named after the greatest film franchise of all time (more on that later), and things have been downhill from there. Sure, the Ducks managed to win the Stanley Cup in 2007, and they’ve been perennial playoff contenders since. But in the past decade this team has had more frustrating postseason exits than satisfying conclusions. And did I mention that after a 2005 sale they moved away from the Mighty Ducks name to become just regular Ducks? At least their 2020-21 reverse-retro jerseys are incredible.
Surrey: Hold on, the Anaheim Ducks rebranded and settled on this as their new logo? Put the entire franchise in the penalty box for this (sorry) fowl play.
18. Duckie, Pretty in Pink
Schuster: Before I say anything else, please just look at this style icon:
Duckie, played by Jon Cryer in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, was not only well-loved in his time, but he’s since helped launch an entire character archetype that’s proved crucial to countless romantic comedies (especially ones about teens): the off-beat best friend who winds up being the lasting influence—romantically or not—of the protagonist’s life. Duckie is charming, funny, witty, and loyal, and he proves to be Andie’s constant as she juggles the ups and downs of being noticed by the Popular Boy (Blane, played by Andrew McCarthy). That’s not to say Duckie is perfect: as Kevin Smokler wrote for Salon in 2016, the character can be controlling and doesn’t know how to properly express his romantic feelings for his best friend without resorting to pettiness and occasional cruelty. But in the end, he and Andie are two parts of the same whole, and this story—and many a rom-com that came after—is better off for it.
17. “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots
Surrey: True story: In my dad’s rockin’ disco days, of which there is thankfully little photographic evidence, his nickname was “Disco Duck.” And, well, have you seen the “Disco Duck” music video?
This will hopefully clear things up as to why (a) I ranked “Disco Duck” much lower than Megan did and (b) I’m currently in therapy.
Schuster: OK, but when is your dad releasing his own version of this video?
Surrey: When he’s willing to be cut off from the rest of the family.
Surrey: Seeing as how Duckman was an adult animated series with a self-hating anthropomorphic lead character navigating Los Angeles while ranting about the banality of existence, yes, the BoJack Horseman parallels write themselves. Duckman to Horseman comparisons notwithstanding, though, the USA Network series is a glorious artifact of the ’90s, emphasized by the fact that its eponymous character is voiced by Jason Alexander. If he didn’t just show up in a Super Bowl commercial, I’d have assumed Alexander was cryogenically frozen after trying to have sex with Larry David’s wife in the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
15. Sonic Duck, Yu-Gi-Oh
Surrey: Sonic Duck is a sensible addition to a Yu-Gi-Oh beginner deck, as I can attest from owning the card when I started playing in middle school. Sure, it might not have any special effects, but a monster card with 1700 attack points that doesn’t acquire a tribute summon has its uses at the start of a duel. Plus, the description for Sonic Duck is hilarious: “A duck which can walk at a sonic speed. Sometimes, he cannot deal with his incredible pace and loses control.” So relatable! Sonic Duck might not be as cute as Kuriboh or as effective in a duel as Jinzo, but hey, at least it’s no Skull Servant. (Yu-Gi-Oh-heads know what’s good.)
On a totally unrelated note, I didn’t talk to a lot of girls in middle school.
14. Scrooge McDuck
Schuster: We live in a capitalistic society that overvalues money and physical goods and having more of those things than one person could ever need. But it’s still my lifelong dream to swan-dive into a pile of gold coins ($5.4 trillion worth, to be exact), and I have Scrooge McDuck to thank for that.
Surrey: All I have to say about Scrooge McDuck is I’d gladly eat the rich if it meant getting my hands on him.
13. Duck Hunt
Surrey: The original Duck Hunt must have seemed like a technological marvel for kids in the ’80s. The game came with a “Nintendo Zapper”—which is corporate speak for “a toy gun”—that you’d aim at a television screen to shoot down waterfowl lured into flight by your asshole companion dog. (And here I thought the only thing kids could do in the ’80s was sneak into matinee screenings of Howard the Duck!)
My own, slightly more contemporary Duck Hunt experience was limited to playing inside arcades, and while video games have evolved to the point that aiming and shooting at a target is the bare minimum you’d expect from the experience, it remains a fascinating artifact of an earlier era. Also, I’m pretty sure Duck Hunt is the first and only thing to ever prompt an anti-dog stance at The Ringer.
12. The Oregon Ducks
Surrey: Weirdly, it feels like we might love the Oregon Ducks for the wrong reasons. The University of Oregon is more synonymous with continually flexing some of the coolest uniform designs on the planet, while the actual duck mascot doesn’t generate nearly as much fanfare as, say, rival schools that bring adorable animals onto the field. Though maybe that has something to do with the mascot’s vacant expression and its serious “I will stare into the depths of your soul and there’s nothing you can do to stop me” energy:
But whether we got caught up in athletic aesthetics or are simply too afraid to rank the Oregon Duck any lower for fear of our personal safety, this placement seems right. Megan, do you have anything you want to say to the Oregon Duck?
Schuster: In the immortal words of Kent Brockman, I for one welcome my new duck overlord.
11. Duck, Duck, Goose
Schuster: Duck, duck, goose is an enduring children’s game that basically consists of one child smacking another on the head and then running away from them. It’s a classic. But my personal history with this game is much more complex.
I am from Minnesota, and here we don’t play duck, duck, goose—we play duck, duck, gray duck. The premise is nearly identical: There’s still plenty of head-smacking involved, and the running is just as frantic. But as we go around the circle, we say different colors—“blue duck, green duck, red duck, purple duck”—and then we run after we say “gray.” From my limited online research, I’m pretty sure Minnesota is the only place that plays this way, but I didn’t realize it was weird until I attended college out of state. At the time I felt like my whole life was a lie. Did I grow up in some Twilight Zone where all my childhood games were the same, but just slightly off? What other staples had I done differently? How could I trust anything if the foundational games of my youth were this bizarrely warped? I’ve since recovered from the trauma (mostly), but any time this game comes up I still get a little rattled.
Surrey: Megan, don’t bury the lede: You played duck, duck, goose in college?
Schuster: I don’t remember exactly how the subject got brought up, mostly because I’ve repressed the memory pretty successfully.
10. Peking Duck
Surrey: We’ve avoided having this awkward discussion until now, but there’s no way around it. Ducks are adorable creatures, and I love them dearly. They are also, unfortunately, quite delicious. Growing up in Hong Kong, I got a taste for Peking duck early, and it’s an objectively perfect dish. I could eat thin slabs of duck meat rolled into a pancake for the rest of my life. For those wondering, yes, this is how I want Scrooge McDuck prepared.
Does this admission mean that the Oregon Duck is going to burst into my living room like the Kool-Aid Man? Probably, but so long as I can get one more round of Peking duck in before the day of duck reckoning, it’ll have all been worth it.
9. Psyduck, Pokémon
Surrey: Sure, this Pokémon technically isn’t a duck, but he has “duck” in his name and that’s good enough for us. Besides, what’s not to love about Psyduck? He’s a weirdo prone to headaches who gets stressed out by everything around him. He is, in other words, your run-of-the-mill blogger.
Bloggers have never been more accurately represented in cinema than when, in Detective Pikachu, Kathryn Newton plays a budding investigative journalist tired of writing listicles who has a perpetually anxious Psyduck for a Poké-companion. The Detective Pikachu Psyduck was a perfect embodiment of blogger neuroses, and he also made very funny noises when the titular Detective Pikachu rubbed the bottom of his feet. Psyduck is perfect.
8. Duck Tape
Surrey: There’s duct tape, and then there’s Duck tape. (Seriously, though, it’s actually its own brand with a duck on the logo and everything.) Duck tape is just an essential item to have in the house at all times, because you never know when you’re going to need it in a pinch. To wit: One time my cat, an idiot, attacked the strings of my blinds and got them wrapped around her neck. Since then, Duck tape has prevented her from making any other makeshift nooses.
Just in case my cat’s incident was a commentary on the feeding situation, I did change up her wet food. Incidentally, her favorite meat is duck. She just loves eating duck. Oh dear, I hear a knock at the door ...
7. The Ugly Duckling
Schuster: I don’t think we as a society have adequately grappled with the strangeness of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.” Don’t get me wrong—the fairy tale’s underlying message of not getting caught up with physical appearance is a good one. It’s just presented in a pretty twisted way! Like, do you remember that at one point the duckling tries to end it all because of the amount of verbal and psychological abuse he’s suffered at the hands of ducks, geese, a cat, and even an old woman? Or that he spends half the book wandering alone because he can’t bear to be around other creatures? We ranked the story this high because it’s a lasting entity, and because the duckling deserves some recognition for all the shit it undergoes. But I think this exchange from The Simpsons best sums up my feelings about this fairy tale:
Marge: “Lisa, I know a song that will cheer you up: There once was an ugly duckling ...”
Lisa: “So you think I’m ugly?”
Marge: “No! No, I meant you were one of the good looking ducks ... that makes fun of the ugly one. Hmm.”
Surrey: This is also a bit of a controversial pick for the top 10, seeing as—spoiler alert for “The Ugly Duckling”?—the duckling in question is actually a swan suffering from a case of mistaken identity. It’s hard to feel too sympathetic for our guy when he got the glow-up of a lifetime; plus, based on my college experience with the campus swans, their beauty belies something far more sinister. (One time there was a rumor that the geese tried to drown a kid.)
Schuster: Swans and geese are demon birds sent up from the depths of hell, everyone knows this.
6. The Ducks From DuckTales
Schuster: The DuckTales ducks are a certified squad if I’ve ever seen one. There are the major players, obviously, like Donald, Daisy, and Scrooge, but there are so many other greats, both from the original series and the 2017 reboot. You’ve got Huey, Dewey, and Louie (or Hups, Tups, and Lups, if you’re from Estonia); Webby, the granddaughter of Scrooge’s housekeeper who basically becomes a fourth triplet; Darkwing Duck; and dozens of others with names as wild as Walter Cronduck, John D. Rockerduck, Gosalyn Waddlemeyer, and Quackerjack. Is there a group of writers that’s ever had more fun with a naming convention than the DuckTales writers? I doubt it.
5. Rubber Ducks
Surrey: A must-have for any bathtub rotation. When the rubber duck goes squeak squeak in between the bubbles? So dope. But one, maybe two rubber ducks in the tub is enough. I can’t even fathom what it looked like when—and this really happened—29,000 rubber ducks fell out of a shipping container and drifted all throughout the ocean.
Imagine being a fisherman going about your day when, as far as the eye can see, the ocean is just one giant bathtub.
4. Donald Duck
Surrey: Arguably the first pop culture duck that comes to mind. A legend of the duck game, Donald Duck’s been around since the 1930s. He was a phenomenon before Howard the Duck attempting to sleep with Lea Thompson was even a twinkle in George Lucas’s eye, and even though his thick (quacky?) accent is virtually unintelligible without subtitles, there’s no mistaking Donald Duck’s infamous temper. It’s a staple even in the most recent takes on the character:
But you know what? While I’m sure the fact that he isn’t no. 1 will invite some controversy, maybe that’s why we didn’t rank Donald Duck even higher. The dude’s been around for nearly a century, and he still hasn’t taken any anger management courses. At the very least, Donald Duck needs to take a page out of Psyduck’s book by chilling out and avoiding stressful situations.
3. Ducky, The Land Before Time
Surrey: The Land Before Time is an animated film produced by George Lucas—who knew there was so much duck overlap in his career?—and Steven Spielberg that was made with the express purpose of traumatizing small children. It introduces viewers to young herbivores separated from their parents on the journey to an oasis called the Great Valley—basically the Garden of Eden for dinosaurs, a location said to provide sustenance and safety from carnivores like the T. rex. (We witness the main character, an Apatosaurus named Littlefoot, lose his mother in a devastating scene that has been seared into my brain and will never fail to make me cry.)
Anyway, one member of the herbivore gang is Ducky, a little Parasaurolophus with a penchant for talking too much. (If she has a catchphrase, it’s responding to things with a hearty “Yep yep yep!”) She is the cutest thing in the world and the keeper of my soul:
Released in 1988, the original Land Before Time is by far the most depressing entry in the franchise, which has incredibly spawned 14 films as well as an animated series and video games. Much like Fast and Furious fans, Land Before Time–heads are anxiously waiting for the installment in which the characters head to outer space—the Great Valley of the cosmos, when you think about it. Give Ducky a tiny astronaut suit, cowards!
2. The Mighty Ducks
Schuster: Who would have ever thought that unironically chanting “quack” could become a cool thing to do?
The Mighty Ducks—the eponymous team that headlined three Disney movies in the 1990s and is now returning (albeit in a different way) for a forthcoming show on Disney+—were the ultimate underdogs; a scrappy crew of soul skaters (well, for those on the team who could actually skate) who hailed from Minneapolis and were up against the richer, better-equipped teams of the suburbs. Throughout their run, they took down the cake eaters of Edina; the militaristic, Gunnar Stahl–led Iceland team at the Junior Goodwill Games; and a stuffy prep-school varsity team that, even two movies in, had yet to learn that the Ducks were a force to be reckoned with.
Along the way we got comeback stories, incredible nicknames, more Emilio Estevez romances than I can count on two hands, and a getting-the-gang-together montage to end all getting-the-gang-together montages.
Most importantly, though, we got family. And enough Goldberg farts to last a lifetime.
1. Daffy Duck
Schuster: I mean, who else could it have been? One of the most enduring cartoon characters of all time; an original foil for Bugs Bunny; a comedic genius; and an all-time meme factory. Daffy Duck is the most important pop culture duck of all time, and it’s not particularly close.
My favorite clips of Daffy come from Space Jam, with his journey into Michael Jordan’s house taking center stage. But there’s no one moment that defines this character. Rather, it’s his swaggering, self-important attitude that makes him instantly likable—as well as someone who’s good to laugh at when it all goes wrong. Daffy is a king, and it’s time we gave him his proper crown.