A duck hatches a duckling that is remarkably large and ugly. He is made fun of by all the other ducks, and in fact, all the other animals in the barnyard. He runs away, and is allowed to join a flock of wild ducks. But hunting season has begun, and he must run and hide from the hunters, taking refuge in a small cottage. The woman keeps him, hoping for duck eggs. Her cat and hen, however, make fun of the duckling, who soon decides to go out into the world again.
It is now autumn, and soon becomes winter. The duckling spies a flock of the most beautiful birds he has ever seen: swans. As they fly off for the winter, he feels a strange sensation, and cries out to them. Not envious, he wishes only to be as beautiful as they are.
As winter becomes colder, his pond freezes over, and he becomes trapped in the ice. A passing peasant frees the duckling and takes him back to his hut, where the duckling gets a nasty scare from the children.
Finally, it is spring again. The duckling finds that he can fly, and before he knows it, has flown into a garden nearby where he spies some swans. He decides he will fly at them and let them peck him to pieces for being so ugly. When he lands and spies his image on the water's surface, he finds to his surprise that he is a swan too. He is welcomed into the flock and fed by some children, and generally lives happily ever after.