A number of H5N1 influenza outbreaks have occurred in aquatic birds in Asia. As aquatic birds are the natural reservoir of influenza A viruses and do not usually show clinical disease upon infection, the repeated H5N1 outbreaks have highlighted the importance of continuous surveillance on H5N1 viruses in aquatic birds. In the present study we characterized the biological properties of four H5N1 avian influenza viruses, which had been isolated from ducks, in different animal models. In specific pathogen free (SPF) chickens, all four isolates were highly pathogenic. In SPF mice, the S and Y isolates were moderately pathogenic. However, in mallard ducks, two isolates had low pathogenicity, while the other two were highly pathogenic and caused lethal infection. A representative isolate with high pathogenicity in ducks caused systemic infection and replicated effectively in all 10 organs tested in challenged ducks, whereas a representative isolate with low pathogenicity in ducks was only detected in some organs in a few challenged ducks. Comparison of complete genomic sequences from the four isolates showed that the same amino acid residues that have been reported to be associated with virulence and host adaption/restriction of influenza viruses were present in the PB2, HA, NA, M and NS genes, while the amino acid residues at the HA cleavage site were diverse. From these results it appeared that the virulence of H5N1 avian influenza viruses was increased for ducks and that amino acid substitutions at the HA cleavage site might have contributed to the differing pathogenicity of these isolates in mallards. A procedure for the intravenous pathogenicity index test in a mallard model for assessing the virulence of H5/H7 subtype avian influenza viruses in waterfowl is described.