What you need for ducklings and what ducklings
need from you from the day you get them.
The Brooder (the hothouse)
You will need to create a “brooder” to house your ducklings for the first 4-6 weeks to keep them warm. There are many different models of all-inclusive brooders from battery style boxes to hovering space ship looking canopies; they can utilize gas or electric. They can be expensive and you can often just as easily create your own brooder for less. Ducklings need .75 sq ft each for the first two weeks, 1.75 until 4 wks, 2.75 until 6wks. Half this for the bantams. We have found plastic Rubbermaid totes/tubs to work best for smaller numbers of ducklings as they are easily maneuverable, however a kiddy provides much more space especially for larger numbers but is very awkward to get move outside when full of used bedding and needs additional guards to be set around the perimeter to keep ducklings in and drafts out.
We find Rye straw to be the best bedding source because it is cushiony, makes a nice nest, it keeps deep litter aerated, and when it needs to be changed it can be used as fertilizer rich mulch in our garden. Shavings, sawdust, peanut hulls, and crushed corncobs have all been used satisfactorily, NO cedar and treated woods. We have tried peat moss seeing it is a wonderful mold-resistant bedding source but found that our ducks liked to forage in it creating muddy water in minutes. Some say ducks can choke on the straw, ducklings start foraging hours after they hatch, if it looks like it could be food (grass/ a worm), they might try to eat it, make sure the straw is large and gets changed as soon as dampened. Start with a few inches and add more as needed, change when damp. Always be careful that bedding provides stable footing for ducklings, slippery surfaces like newspapers can cause “sprawled legs”. and wire floors . Pine chips work for the first couple of weeks then we move to other materials, try to get chopped up straw if possible.
Until a few weeks of age ducklings need a constant supply of fresh water and need feed 24 hrs a day until two weeks of age at which point they can be fed a few times a day. After a few weeks they can go 8-10 hours at night without water if denied food as well. If ducks have food they must have water to wash it down or they can choke. Ducklings drink often and poop a lot especially after the first week, so it will get puddly quickly requiring bedding to be refreshed often.
Waterers must be designed deep enough to fully submerse their bills to ”blow out” or dislodge food/dirt but shallow or tall enough so that ducklings cannot get in them at all. We feel it’s best to purchase a waterer designed for this, a good investment are a plastic screw on water and foods ring from the feed store. Water rings are cheap and will attach to any small mouth mason jar, prop the water up on a stand a couple inches so they cannot sit in it. Having multiple water and feed locations to reduce competition prevents less dominant ducks from getting pushed out of their share. Until 7 weeks of age they do not have oily plumage that allows them to float and can easily drown. Ducklings should not be allowed to swim until at least a few weeks of age and should never be left in water unattended, water should be changed as soon as it gets muddy, stagnant water can be extremely harmful. In an outdoor yard it is best to move water and kiddie pools often, ducks like to muddle where they drink and will quickly ruin the forage in these areas. Make sure to keep your ducklings warm and draft-free, a ducklings get cold easily, especially when wet, and may die if not warmed quickly.
For a small amount of ducklings, for 0-12 weeks you can use one or two 40-65 watt blue tinted bulbs, usually found at home improvement store, research has shown blue light is more gentle on the ducklings eyes and can reduce the incidence of feather eating. For more ducklings or just a larger area you will need a red 250 watt heat lamp or a radiant heater.
A duckling’s environment and the temperature
A duckling’s environment should be 90 degrees the first week and then 5 degrees less every week after. At 6-8 weeks when they are well feathered and can stand temperatures down to 50 degrees so long as the temperature doesn’t fluctuate drastically. Buy a thermometer from the farm/feed store, or I have used a probe style BBQ thermometer with great success since you can set an alarm to go off if it gets to hot or cold. The thermometer needs to be level with the ducklings and if the probe is metal you can tape some tissue over it to keep it a more natural temperature. A better way to accurately tell if the brooder is right temp is to watch their behavior. When ducklings are perfectly comfortable they will mill around the light happily, when they are cold they will huddle together under the lamp shuffling uncomfortably in a pile, and when they are too hot they try to escape to the outer edges where it is coolest. If they’re too hot, raise the brooder light, if they’re too cold, lower it. Make sure to have a space they can escape the intensity of the lamp if they are hot. Always hang it higher than 18 inches above the bedding, we start with the lamp .5-1 ft above the brooder tub. The heat lamp needs a porcelain fixture with light reflector and sturdy rubber coated wire clamp. Be sure to position it far from the edges of a plastic tub any other combustible frame, it will brood up to 40 ducklings depending on breed and temperature. Be very careful that the lamp is securely clamped in place before ducklings are placed under it, make sure it cannot slip and whatever it is attached to not flammable, cannot fall or collapse. The brooder should be located in a draft free, peaceful place of the house. Ducklings are very sensitive to smells and smoke, they should not be placed in a kitchen or a bathroom, do not handle them with heavy perfume on or after smoking. Ducklings are susceptible to salmonella, wash hands before and after handling to keep your birds and yourself healthy.
Talking to them
Even before they hatch they can hear voices and they start communicating back while still inside their egg. They imprint easily but can be frightened just as easy. Always announce yourself by talking to them before you enter their room or house, this way you won’t startle them. It is important to socialize your ducks, talk to them often or sing them a song, be playful with them and they play back. This imprinting process establishes a trusting bond which will make raising and keeping them easier and more joyful later on. You know you are doing a good job as mama duck when you have to watch your footing for ducks running under and I promise, the sight of your baby duck running its little wheels to keep up after you can bring tears to your eyes.
Putting them outdoors early on
Ducks thrive on a routine from an early age and do best
when given access to outdoor forage, sunlight, and fresh air, about 10 ft of space per bird, during the day starting as early as a couple weeks old depending on temperature/climate. In addition to increasing sanitation, this encourages ducklings to eat foods rich in minerals and nutrients naturally balancing deficiencies in supplemental feed and reducing their consumption of it, and giving them necessary exercise to grow slower and stronger. A tractor or coop can be set up as an outside brooder for ducklings over one week old, they may need an additional heat source inside depending on outside temp but again this should always be adjusted before putting ducklings in. This is where a thermometer with a separate handheld alarm comes very handy. Be careful of poultry netting and wire fencing or for strings used for trellising; ducks and especially ducklings, they can easily get their heads, bills, and feet stuck and twisted.
Only Bantams can fly well which is sometimes very beneficial when encountered with predators as their size can make them more susceptible to predators in the first place. We dont lock them away at night but have full time nest house access and tree and brush shelter, only try this with a full time guard dog, & poultry netting.
Predators are the number one cause of death in backyard poultry; this includes neighbors’ dogs and cats. Raccoons can smell a duck from 5 miles away and will reach through 1 inch wire and eat them through the cage, never use larger than ¼ inch. You can read the horrific stories on web forums like backyardchickens.com or you can just take this advice, it’s better to build it predator proof, you can never have too many safeguards. Fencing must be 5ft tall to keep out dogs/coyotes even though ducks cannot jump a 3ft waddle fence. In some places you will lose a full grown duck to hawks in the daytime the day you put the bird out, in those places a tractor or covered run is essential. Sometimes electric fencing is a good investment as long as it is positioned so ducks cannot get stuck in it. Predators also will dig under to get into a pen or coop, raccoons, skunks, foxes, opossums, mink/weasels, and even rats. Be careful that shaded places such as brambles, bushes, trees, and tall grasses make perfect environments for predators. We have found the only way for us to ensure our ducks are safe is to employ the help of guardian dogs who live with and watch out for our ducks full time. This may not be the solution for everyone; we have included more tips on predator proofing coops/enclosures/yard in our housing section.
Don't use Chemical pesticides and herbicides
Be aware that chemical pesticides and herbicides are exponentially more poisonous to ducks than to us, and are potentially fatal. It is important to teach ducklings to forage for bugs, we toss them snails and slugs to eat as soon as they are outside, be careful that bugs do not come from areas with pesticides. Whatever you teach them is a treat now will be what they search for later on, i.e., do not feed your tender lettuce and beet greens to your ducks and expect them to leave them alone in the garden. We find keeping waddle fences around the perimeter of garden beds allows them to catch slugs and snails as they come and go. You can trap snails for them by angling wood boards against the beds, the snails will climb up the shaded side and then you flip them to expose them to the ducks.
Keeping them happy
Keep your ducklings safe from trauma like kids or dogs chasing or loud noises, even angry music. Dave Holderread told us he plays classical music in his hatchery which keeps the ducklings calm, he has gone to consult at other hatcheries where they play heavy rock and observed the birds on edge. In as few as a few weeks ducks will learn their routine and enthusiastically put themselves away at night and wake you to let them out in the morning. They will develop their favorite places, foods, toys, and will develop personalities as unique as their spots.
HOUSING FOR LAYERS - Optimum egg production
Light requirements, egg laying and life cycle:
Ducklings from 0-8 weeks of age require 24hrs of light, natural daylight from 9-20wks, and after 21wks 15minutes more light should be added daily until they receive 14hrs of daylight. Use an automatic timer. Be aware of daylight patterns. Too much light at a younger age can cause them to develop quicker and start laying prematurely, this causes ducks to lay smaller fewer eggs, and it shortens their production life. For optimum egg production ducks require 14 hrs min, 16 max. Routines with lighting are important, a decrease of even 15 min can heavily stunt a laying ducks egg production. Houses need 1 bulb watt 4sqft at 7-8ft off the ground, this is one 40-60watt incandescent 6-8ft off the ground for 150-250sqft of space. For outside use one 100watt with a reflector for each 400sqft. Ducks start laying at around 17-34wks and will continue to lay some until they are 5-8yrs old although they lay the most amount in the first year only showing minor decrease in productivity in the second and third years (but the eggs are bigger). Ducks can live 10yrs or longer.
What does Safe Housing consist of?
Ducks require housing at night to keep them safe from predators, to provide them a comfortable routine, a place to lay their eggs, and to give them protection from the elements in extreme weather. A minimal duck coop requires 2.5 sq ft per bird and if many are kept, ensure 1 nest box (12’’ all around with a solid floor) per 5 birds and should be provided 2 weeks before laying. You can place dummy eggs in them to encourage their use. Nest boxes can be removable and attached to the side of the structure and preferably have a hatch that opens to collect eggs from outside. Ducks are very good at making nest themselves if provided enough hay and if they are unsatisfied with their nest or get pushed out of it by a more dominant female they will make one elsewhere, if a duck seems to have disappeared you might want to look in the most overgrown places. Some duck coops are designed with an outdoor pen attached which is helpful when you may not be home for a period of time and need a safer environment free from aerial predators. Predators can easily dig under a pen so the coop still needs to be shut nightly for the optimum protection. Depending on your space/acreage you may decide to build a light duck house on wheels or skids so it can be moved around when the forage gets low. Using portable fencing you can control where the ducks are concentrated and how much grazing and fertilizing they do in a particular area.
The Duck “tractor” set-up
It is possible to keep ducks permanently in a “tractor” set-up, which is an all inclusive coop and run, and depending on how many and what kind of predators you have it could be necessary. We feel that with the exception of meat ducks it is most humane and most respectful to the animals natural instincts and behaviors, it is also most healthy for ducks to have a house with 2.5 sq ft per bird at night and a grassy (or weedy) yard with the minimum of 15 sq ft per bird in the day. Ponds are big perks but certainly not necessary, plastic kiddy pools work wonderfully for their sanitation and amusement, and you can siphon or hand fill the water in watering cans to fertilize your plants. Your set up will depend on your landscape and amount of space, types and density of predators, and the size of your flock/s. A doghouse or shed bought from craigslist can be converted into a comfortable duck coop, even the shell of a car makes a nice well lit coop on wheels, and often the best ideas come with creativity. Most domestic ducks are short and do not fly or use a roost, the exceptions are Muscovy’s and the completely unrelated Mallard, the other original wild “duck” from which all other domestic ducks are derived. Ducks do not need a tall house but it is a benefit to be able to stand in it while cleaning it out if it’s large and if you use deep litter you must account for this building up a couple feet. Design in a door big enough to use a pitchfork or shovel to scoop out the litter. The coop needs adequate ventilation, in larger houses this may require exhaust fans in the summer, in smaller houses this can be accomplished by grated vents and/or windows. Be careful that windows (even after the bedding has accumulated over the winter) are high up so that ducks are free from drafts.
Materials to consider
Make sure to only use ¼ inch wire, raccoons that can smell a duck from 5 mile away can easily reach in and grab them while they sleep, they cannot pull them out whole but they can eat it through the wire. It is best to build a coop with a raised wire mesh floor to keep ducks safely dry in floods, away from dirt which they will turn to mud, and again, to keep ducks safe from predators. We use plastic coated 1/8 inch wire secured in a frame for the floor. You can also place wire or wood around the coop to discourage digging. Wire mesh allows the straw to breath which is important when using the deep layer method. This is when bedding is replenished and changed out as little as once a year. Many studies have been done on the inactivation of bacteria when bedding is kept dense in this manner. The stacked litter generates heat during the decomposition process, killing bacteria and heating the coop. The key is to have ample bedding to absorb the manure, if you smell ammonia or attract flies you aren’t adding enough and should start over. The ammonia smell was from nitrogen vaporizing, nitrogen is valuable fertilizer in your straw garden mulch. Coops with deep litter do not need supplemental heat in our climates, Holderread says deep litter can account for 20% more eggs in the winter months from added heat. In colder climates houses benefit from added insulation like straw bales or earth bags piled up around the structure or air cells added to the structure itself which can be filled with an insulating material. To allow as much natural light in as possible use clear plastic corrugated, they are also light and easy to install.
Ducks are not suited for confinement
Ducks require some kind of outdoor pasture and forage, they are not suited for confinement. Ducks kept in small pens will not learn to use their muscles properly. This can be accomplished using a “tractor”, or preferably a fenced yard providing a minimum of 10-15sqft of space per bird, 50 is more ideal. The duck yard must be free from obstacles that can trip or injure a duck, thorns can get stuck in a ducks foot and an infection can easily develop. Ideally the duck yard is well drained with a slope to prevent stagnant water holes and mud. It is sometimes necessary to import pea gravel, sand, or wood chips to spread in highly trafficked areas. If possible it is best to rotate duck pastures sometimes by moving their permanent housing and or fenced yard which will prevent overgrazing, and even out manure/fertilizer spread and grass growth. You should also move waterers and kiddie pools often as ducks like to muddle where they drink and will quickly ruin the forage in these areas. Ducks do enjoy tender greens in the garden and may need to be fenced out of smaller crops or kept out of others like corn until they grow taller. Ducks can be used to increase fertility and sanitation in this rotation. Ducks can be used to clean up fallen orchard fruit before it rots, or eat dung beetles and fly larvae, spreading manure after livestock. When used on ponds they can be used to eradicate mosquito larvae and control heavy growths of unwanted vegetation such as green algae, duckweed, pondweed, widgeon grass, musk grass, arrowhead, and wild celery. Two to six ducks per acre or six to ten per acre of water, or in more heavily grown areas fifteen to thirty ducks can be used initially but eight birds will maintain it.