Raising Backyard Ducks: A “Fowl-proof” guide
So, you’ve got this harebrained idea to raise poultry in your backyard. For many of you, this means chickens! They lay fresh eggs, they are relatively easy and inexpensive to maintain, they are entertaining, and make dynamite bug catchers. With a picture-perfect idea set in your mind, you head off to the feed store. You walk back to the chick brooder to the tune of a hundred happy, peeping voices and the first tank you gaze down into contains not chicks, but a dozen or so bright, beady-eyed ducklings happily waddling about the brooder. If you’re anything like me, your heart is instantly captured by these wonderfully fuzzy specimens and images of the little ducklings begin to flood your so-called picture perfect idea. And so it begins.
The first question you’re going to ask either the nearest associate, or yourself (depending on whether you impulse-purchased the little fuzz-heads and raced home first or not) is “Okay, now what?”, “Do ducks require the same things that chickens do?”, “Can both live in harmony together?” Hopefully, after reading up a bit, you will feel ready to take on the wonderful world of waterfowl!
Firstly, lets cover some fun factoids about ducks. Did you know that the average Indian Runner Duck female lays approximately 150-200 eggs a year? Did you also know that duck eggs are incredibly delicious and nutritious?? Duck eggs are larger and typically richer in texture than chicken eggs, but are perfectly edible…they are wonderful in baked goods and the saving grace of many who are allergic to chicken eggs. Domestic duck breeds, with the exception of the calls, are completely flightless just as standard chickens are flightless. Did you know that feeding ducks bread is actually bad for their health? Bread is full of carbohydrates and offers very little in the way of nutrition, it also discourages them from foraging for their own food, which is much healthier. Did you know that housing a duck is even easier than housing a chicken? Ducks do not require roosts, or nest boxes. They are perfectly happy sleeping in a straw-bedded old dog house and will create their own nests on the ground. Ducks are also extremely disease-resistant and are not prone to many of the afflictions that chickens are.
Okay, okay, so you got your little guys, or gals, home…..wait…guys or gals? How do we tell? Ducks are sold either sexed or straight-run just like chickens so be careful if you want egg-layers that what you bought were from a sexed bin. If not, you will end up with a handsome looking lawn ornament. So here’s a “TMI” fact for you, male ducks actually do have penises unlike male chickens so they are relatively easy to sex when they are a week or so old, but don’t try this one at home! Only experienced hatchery sexers or longtime duck owners have the know-how to do it correctly. If you are unsure, 3 months will tell the tale. This is when most ducks begin to quack. Drakes (males) will have a raspy sounding, whispery voices while females typically let out loud, resounding trumpets. Have you ever heard a duck call? That is what females will sound like. Males will also start to grow a feather curl right at the base of the tail. Anyway, ducks and chicks will get along just swimmingly in a brooder together, so if you got both, feel free to put them in together. Ducks have the same requirements at this age as chickens do, with a few tweaks:
-They cannot eat medicated starter, the medicine is not good for ducklings.
- Ducklings benefit greatly from extra niacin supplements which help their legs and feet grow strong. Get yourself a bottle of caplets, grind them up and add to the water at about 100 mg per gallon. This won’t hurt chickens.
-Ducks LOVE, LOVE, LOVE water, so the ramifications of this are two-fold; the water in the brooder must be elevated and in a container that cannot tip and that the ducklings cannot get into. You will also benefit from a more absorbent bedding like wood pellets or sand rather than pine shavings or straw.
Other than that, the setup is the same. They are fine to eat un-medicated chick starter or “All-Flock” crumble. All baby chicks need a heat lamp, so go ahead and fire that baby up at about 90 degrees F. Ducklings grow a little quicker than chickens do and they are much fattier and have a thick layer of down, so make sure there is plenty of room for them to get away from the heat. If you have chicks, they will really enjoy snuggling with the ducklings! Make sure that if you are using a cardboard box to line it with a plastic garbage sack so that any water spilled will not soak through the box, I’m really not kidding when I say duckies love their water! You may find yourself changing that water a little more frequently…..ducks REALLY love that water! Feel free to give your ducklings a little supervised swim time in a shallow container, sink or tub filled with lukewarm water. They will have a ball skittering around and dabbling away to their hearts content. Be sure to towel them off gently afterwards and put them under the heat lamp. As always, make sure your brooder is in a safe place away from other pets and kids. Kids have good intentions, but should always be supervised around baby animals.
Okay, so one of the cutest little quirks about owning baby water fowl is their ability to imprint. This means, you are now the Mama and they will follow you to the moon and back. My ducklings used to follow me around the house, up and down the street, into the shower…so precious, until they get older and decide there are more important things in life than you. Phaw! Silly teenagers. So to go along with this, you may find that when you walk away from the brooder and leave them “alone” they may cry because you have disappeared from sight, but don’t worry, they will stop after a time. Ducklings always enjoy little outdoor field trips just like chicks, so feel free to take them out to explore in a little make-shift pen at about 2-3 weeks if the temps outside are above 60 degrees F.
Ducks and chickens are both ready for the outdoors when they reach about 6-8 weeks of age and night-time temps stay above 40 degrees F. Hopefully by this point you have had a little time to think about their permanent housing. As earlier discussed, ducks are perfectly happy to sleep and lay on the ground, so as long as they have a place to shelter from the elements, they will be happy. A dog house bedded with straw works just fine for one or two, but with more you may need to go the DIY route and rig something together yourself. Adults do not need food in the house during the night, so I opt to pen mine up before I go to bed and keep the water and food out in the run. Ducks like to free-range like chickens, but they won’t put themselves to bed at night, so it’s important that you go out and round them up so they are locked up safe from predators. You need to be taking the same precautions with your construction of the house and run that you would with chickens because you don’t want predators getting in and making mischief of your birds or eggs.
ADULT MAINTENANCE & BEHAVIOR
Have I mentioned that ducks use a lot of water? I say “use” because not only do they drink it, they use it to soften their food, and they use it to clean their nares (noses) on a daily basis. Water should be always clean and available in a container that allows them to completely submerge their bills. I use a couple of small, black, rubber horse grain tubs. These are easy to fill, easy to clean, and easy to de-ice in the winter because they are practically indestructible. Ducks will be the happiest and cleanest if you provide them with a small wading pool to swim in. For my two, I just use a small plastic kiddie pool and clean it out every 3 days or so. The water is great in the grass or on the compost heap! Female ducks can eat layer pellets just like chickens once they start laying. They also benefit from oyster shell supplements just like chickens would. Some ducks tend to hide their eggs, or simply don’t care where they are dropped so it isn’t uncommon to find them in strange places. This is the main reason I pen mine up at night. If they are penned throughout the night, you have a better chance of finding eggs in a reasonable place. Ducks have crop-type digestive systems like chickens do, so the presence of grit is a necessity. Because ducks have large bills, you may have to use a more open-feed trough so that they can get to the feed, just make sure it is in an out-of-the way place where it won’t get dumped. Females of both chicken and duck species will co-mingle quite happily. Males will not. As we discussed, ducks and chickens have very different reproductive organs so it is important that they not have access to females of the other species or they can do damage to one another. Be sure to clean up soiled bedding on a regular basis…this will depend on how many individuals you have, but duck poop is smelly and wet and can foul up the bedding quickly, so make sure it stays clean and dry. Sand in your run will really help with drainage around waterers and with wet poops. Ducks tend to dabble, or drill into areas of standing water, so be careful if you are watering a lawn or garden to keep them out of the area until it dries. As with all vegetable gardens, they enjoy those tasty fruits just as much as you, so look out!
If you can accomplish these tasks, you are sure to have happy, healthy water fowl! Ducks are truly a joy to keep. They have a manner and personality that is very unique and you are sure to fall in love with them!