Chick Days is here again and all those yellow, fuzzy faces are absolutely irresistible at the feed stores. You know, where you walk into Tractor Supply, hear those tiny peeps, black out, and somehow leave with a box full of birds? I fell into the duck trap early last year when I took home my first two ducklings from a local farm swap. I tried to learn as much information as I could prior to bringing them home but the best information I've learned has been solely through experience. I get dozens of messages from new and prospective duck owners seeking advice for how to care for their new feathered babies so I'm sharing my most helpful tips with you on how to raise backyard ducks.
1. What kind of duck should I get? Can I get just one?
While the ducks at Tractor Supply are adorable, they aren't sexed. It's so important that you have a proper female to male ratio or your females can be seriously injured or killed. It is suggested that there be 5 females to every male duck but I stuck with all females to be safe (plus, eggs!). Males can get extremely aggressive, especially during mating season, and will mate with the same female repeatedly if there aren't enough. She can lose feathers, bleed, drown, or die. You can order sexed ducklings online from Metzer Farms or buy from a local farm that can sex the ducklings before you buy.
You can never have too many ducks but you can have not enough. Ducks are very social flock animals that require a companion other than you. If you do not plan to be with your duck outside 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, get another duck. Your duck will be happiest with a friend.
2. What do I keep the ducklings in when I take them home?
A brooder is a container for ducklings to live in until fully feathered. Most people find that an extra large rubbermaid container, dog play pen, or blow up pool works great but I've seen some pretty creative setups. I trial & error'd my brooder for the entire 8 weeks and found my favorite set up was a $20 large inflatable pool filled with a layer of pine shavings that I changed daily.
3. Wait, they live in the HOUSE?
Yup. Expect to have the ducklings live inside your home for 8 weeks or more. This was one I was totally unprepared for. 8 weeks of incessant quacking, pooping, smelly MESS. While it completely depends on your brooder setup and climate, it is more often than not the safest option to keep ducklings inside until they're fully feathered to protect them from predators and cold weather. If you have other animals that might not get along with ducklings or you‘re a neat freak, the ducks' brooder will require a little extra effort and security.
4. What else should I put in the brooder?
Depending on your climate, ducklings should be under a heat source for the first few weeks of their life with the first 1-2 weeks being around 90 degrees F. The temperature should be gradually decreased by 5 degrees over the next couple weeks until the ducks feathers start coming in. Your ducks position inside the brooder will tell you if the heat source is too hot or too cold. Ducks huddling under the heat = too cold. Ducks huddling as far away from the heat source as possible & panting = too hot. I prefer brooder heating pads versus the traditional heat lamp due to fire hazards. You can grab one on amazon here.
Ducks of any age will need to have access to water deep enough to dunk their whole heads in so they can rinse out their nostrils and eyes to prevent blockage or infection. The holy grail of waterers for ducklings (and even adult ducks) is a gallon milk jug with an opening cut at the top so the ducks can still submerge their heads but not swim. Ducklings need access to water 24/7.
While it's not necessary, I always had fun giving my ducklings a mirror. They curl up next to the mirror like they're cuddling more friends and love the extra "company".
5. What do they eat?
Ducklings should eat non-medicated chick starter crumbles for the first 2 weeks of their life. Because chick-starter does not contain high enough niacin for a growing duck, niacin supplement should be added to the food or water source. I used nutritional yeast flakes found at my local EarthFare store or Walmart and sprinkled it on top of their food.
After two weeks, it is important that you reduce the amount of protein the ducklings are consuming so they don't develop growth issues (such as angel wing). You can cut the feed 25% with raw rolled oats and switch to a chick grower feed with 16% protein.
At 18 weeks old, the ducks can be switched to an adult chicken layer pellet feed. Crushed eggshells oyster shells can be added to ensure they are getting enough calcium for egg laying.
Treats can be introduced around 3-4 weeks of age. An entire list of treats for ducklings and adult ducks can be found here. When giving ducklings anything other than their feed, it is important to provide access to a bowl of chick grit. Since ducks don't have teeth, chick grit are small pebbles that ducks eat to grind their food in their gizzard.
6. When can they swim?
Because ducklings don't produce oils to keep their feathers waterproof at such a young age, ducklings shouldn't swim until at least 2-3 weeks of age. Even then, ducklings should still be completely dried after swimming before returning them to the brooder. I blow dried my ducklings after every bath and they loved it. Never leave ducklings unattended in the bath and keep swimming time to no more than 20 minutes. Ducklings can drown quickly if left too long in the water without the buoyancy and waterproofing oils that adult ducks have.
7. How do I build a coop?
This will completely depend on your budget and vision for the space. I’ve seen people build some really creative duck coops and enclosures but their area should always include: a predator proof shelter for after dark, access to clean swimming water, and room to exercise & forage for bugs. A great list of predator proofing ideas for coops can be found here.
My own setup is a sectioned off 850 sqft corner in my backyard using fence panels from Lowe’s to keep my German Shepherd and the ducks separate when we're all outside. Inside the fence I have a 16’x6’ predator proof run custom built so the ducks have an enclosed area to cool off in the summer, hide from aerial predators, and be locked up safely if need be. Inside the run, my husband & I built a 4'x4' cube coop using plywood painted with outdoor paint that the ducks are put into every night. It's recommended that the coop be at least 4 sqft per duck.
The coop is extremely important because this is where the ducks will be locked up at night to stay safe from predators.
Any gaps or holes should be covered with hardware cloth and secured. Weasels can fit through a space as small as 1/2 inch and raccoons can rip out staples, both of which you do NOT want in your coop.
Proper ventilation is required to keep the coop from becoming too moist (which mold thrives in) and keeps the smell down. I find that hay and straw mold relatively fast so I use pine shavings for bedding.
The door of the coop should be secured with latches and carabiners so raccoons aren't able to open them. They're clever.
Nesting boxes are completely optional for ducks as it isn't necessary but they won't mind having them.
You'll want to also make sure the coop is easy to get into and clean because it'll need a good deep clean frequently.
Adult ducks do not need water overnight and giving them water will make keeping the coop clean extremely difficult. Wet bedding molds fast and ducks can make a ocean from a puddle. I promise, they'll play in it all night. Skip the water.
If you're building your coop from plywood, make sure it's painted with some type of outdoor sealant to avoid wood rotting early on. I painted the entire bottom and sides. On the inside, I lined the floor and walls of the coop with stick-on vinyl tiles: best hack ever. This makes cleaning super easy and poop comes right off. Plus, it looks fancy!
Your coop should be slightly lifted off the ground so water can drain underneath without rotting the wood. My coop sits on 4 bricks at each corner.
8. What kinds of predators should I protect them from?
This will completely depend on your area. You can search online, call a wildlife facility, or ask a neighbor. While you may not be able to know every single predator in your backyard, it is important to have a general idea to be able to prepare for it. A common predator that most don't consider are Red-tail hawks and owls. They can carry off an adult duck in seconds. In the springtime when their fledglings are learning to hunt, these birds are relentless and will stop at nothing to get ahold of your flock. Stringing up fishing line has been a great deterrent so far with the circling hawks around my house. Another great predator deterrent that people commonly use for all types of predators are geese and Livestock Guardian Dogs.
Depending on your area, you'll want to learn how to protect your flock from bobcat, coyotes, foxes, minks, weasels, raccoons, dogs, eagles, possum, etc. Great predator information can be found here.
9. How can I care for them once they're outside?
The best thing you can do for your ducks is keep them on a repetitive, routine schedule. Let them out at the same time every morning, put them away at the same time every evening, and feed them at the same time (unless you leave the food out all day). Ducks are not welcoming to change and won't hesitate to let you know they're upset at the slightest difference. My ducks give me a hard time if I wear a new hat, lol! You'll notice that even in their own time outside, they'll make a routine for themselves and follow it everyday. Even though it's mostly sleep, eat, swim, forage, it's still a routine!
10. When will the girls lay eggs? How often? What do I do with the eggs?
My girls started laying around 5-6 months old but this will vary based on the season. Typically, ducks are slow layers in the winter and may not lay everyday. I live in Florida where it's warm year round so my ducks will lay every single day through any season with an occasional missed day. If you have a male amongst your females you can let nature take its course, incubate the eggs, or sell them. Since I only have females, their eggs can't be fertilized. We bring the eggs inside every morning and leave them on the counter unwashed. Fresh eggs have a bloom on the outside that keep the eggs fresh for much longer than store-bought chicken eggs. The shells are also thicker than chicken eggs, giving them a little while longer before going bad, While you can always do a float test to determine which eggs are bad, unwashed eggs on the counter and in the fridge are typically good for 2 months before going bad. You can use them for baking (they make anything fluffy), breakfast, raw dog food, or profit! People with chicken egg intolerances love duck eggs and over here a dozen sells for an upwards of $7.
11. Do they see a vet?
Some people put their ducks on dewormers annually- it's a preventative option but not required. It's great to know a vet that treats waterfowl on hand in case of emergencies because they're like finding a needle in a haystack, but they don't need to go for checkups if you choose not to. Ducks are generally hardy birds and aren't as susceptible to diseases as other birds. Countryside Network has a great list of common health issues that can affect ducks and how to treat them.
12. Are they loud?
Females, oh yes. Males, not so much. The best duck comparison video to know the difference between male and female noises can be found here. You'll definitely want to consider your neighbors before bringing home a few females but from my own experience, they typically stay quiet all day unless they're excited, scared, or just feeling extra chatty. Call ducks are the noisiest of the bunch with pekins following close behind. However, there is an alternative duck that is practically mute! Muscovies, male or female, only make whispering sounds and make great pets.
13. Do they fly?
Muscovies, Call Ducks, Mallards, and East Indies are great fliers. Most domestic ducks can't fly but some can at least fly over a 4-foot fence. For this reason, I have my ducks wings trimmed on one side to keep them inside the fence and protect them from my dog's area of the yard. I take my ducks to a vet to have their wings trimmed for $10 but you can clip them at home quickly and easily. It's completely painless and my ducks don't even notice. If you have never clipped a birds wings before and don't know how to find the blood feathers, it's best to take your duck to an avian vet the first time and have them show you what to do at home as cutting too many blood feathers can cause your duck to bleed to death.
14. Is anything toxic to them?
Yes. The best list of toxic plants that can harm your ducks can be found here. Pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, rat bait, ant granules, etc. are all extremely harmful to ducks and can be fatal. Any area the ducks have access to should not be included in your lawn treatment. There are tons of ways to naturally prevent pests and weeds without harming your ducks.
15. I have more questions.
Join a Facebook Group. Ok, It sounds slightly geeky but my duck Facebook group has been one of the most helpful tools when it comes to emergencies, ideas, and asking for advice. No question is a stupid question and group members are always willing to help. My favorite group is "Backyard Ducks" but I have to add that it's also a meat group so occasionally you get a reminder that not everyone raises ducks as pets.
There are so many "correct" ways to raise ducks based on personal preference. These tips have worked and continue to work the best for me. I encourage you to expand your research and find the best way that works for your flock. Happy duck raising!