If you’re considering getting birds for meat or eggs, ducks may be an excellent choice for your homestead, farm or backyard operation. They are hardy, relatively disease free, easy to care for, reliable egg producers, and are exceptional foragers, eating many garden pests such as slugs, snails, grubs, and a wide variety of plants (including many weeds).
Ducks also do much less damage to gardens than chickens, so they’re more appropriate to allow into certain gardens. If you’re considering getting ducks, here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Choose Your Breed Carefully
There are many duck breeds, and what breed you get depends on what your goals are. There are breeds for meat and eggs, as well as dual-purpose ducks. There are also breeds that are better at foraging and weeding, such as runner ducks. Different breeds also require different care, so be sure to carefully research your breed options and plan accordingly before diving into getting ducks.
2. Acquire the Right Equipment
Once you know what you are getting ducks for, you can equip yourself accordingly. Get good quality feeders with a water drip to prevent a wet coop, and make sure to have cleaning equipment for the ongoing messes the ducks will make of their shelters (ducks are much messier than chickens).
3. Create Suitable Shelter
Although ducks are very cold hardy, they need a good shelter to protect them from predators and extreme weather. It should be ventilated and should be easy for you to access to keep clean. The coop floor should be piled with bedding material such as straw or wood chips, and it should be cleaned once a day to prevent disease. Try piling straw up a foot or two in the corners or on small raised platforms to encourage hens to lay eggs away from the mess of the coop. Unlike chickens, ducks will not use perches.
Ducks must be kept in their shelters at night to protect them from predators such as minks, fishers, raccoons, cats, dogs, birds of prey, and rats.
4. Free Range
Ducks are happiest and healthiest when they have time during the day to free range, which will give them foraging time for a healthier and more diverse diet, and decrease feed costs, while giving them exercise, and of course the freedom that all animals appreciate. If you must keep them in a large pen (6 square feet per duck of space at least), make sure they have a run (at least 20 square feet per bird) and bring them a variety of foods such as grass, kitchen scraps, fruits, vegetables, and insects.
5. Diversify Feed
It’s best to use non-medicated feed. Ducklings should be started on a crumble feed with supplemental niacin contained, and not chick feed. At three weeks old, grain such as oats and wheat can be introduced. Other good options for food include mealworms (which you can raise at home for them, or purchase), different types of greens, chickweed, plantain, and fruits like watermelon.
Ducks should have access to water when they feed, as they use it to clean their beak vents when feeding and to help them swallow the food. Baby ducks, especially, should have access to water at least one hour before they are fed. Whatever you do, do not feed bread to ducks (it can result in diseases and growth issues). Most of their diets should consist of grass, other plants, and insects. Ducks, like many other birds, require grit to help them digest their food, so make sure they have access to fine gravel or similar small stones.
As mentioned, ducks are stellar foragers, and will require much less feed during the warm seasons, but should always be given nutritional pellets at the very least to supplement their forage diets. To decrease feed costs and increase diet diversity further, consider planting forage crops for your ducks such as comfrey, chickweed, and amaranth. Giving them access to insect habitats such as tall grass and wooded areas will further increase their forage fun.
6. Take Sanitation Seriously
Ducks may carry salmonella in their droppings, which may contaminate any part of their bodies, and anything the duck touches (especially in their coops, and around areas the ducks have been). It is therefore important to wash your hands well after handling ducks or anything around where the ducks have been, and to take care when touching potentially contaminated shoes or clothing. Children should be supervised carefully around ducks and should be thoroughly cleaned if they come in contact with ducks or anything in the coop area.
It’s best not to hold ducks much since it can be bad for your health and the duck’s health. Handle them as little as possible, though it’s fine to lift little ducks out of their brooder, for example, as long as you wash afterward.
It must be emphasized again that the bedding material in the coop should be replaced daily, and things should be kept as clean as possible, within reason.
7. Nurture Baby Ducks (Ducklings)
Ducklings, like any baby fowl, must be kept at the appropriate temperature in their brooders. For ducks, that’s between 90 to 95 degrees for the first week of their lives, followed by a decrease of about 10 degrees per week until fully grown.
Heating brooders can be created with incandescent light bulbs or specialized heat lamps. Be sure the lights are secure and high enough so as not to be knocked to the ground where they can quickly start fires. Monitor temperatures closely with a thermometer and adjust ventilation and number of lights on as needed. Brooders must be kept dry, as wet brooders can be fatal to ducklings. Dry bedding should be sprinkled on the floor as often as needed, perhaps 2 or 3 times per day. To keep the brooder dry and clean, limit water to just enough from a small trough and remove for a few hours during the night. Clean the brooder regularly, as often as needed to keep it clean and dry.
8. Give Them Swimming and Cleaning Water
As you might have guessed, water is very important for ducks. They must have enough water that they can dunk their entire bill. They will also be much happier if they can swim in and preen their feathers with water. Although they will survive without a pool or pond to swim in, they do need enough water for at least a regular bath. Consider constructing a small biofiltered pond just for the ducks, or having a wading pool that you regularly change the water from. Constructing a drain for small ponds may also be a good idea.
For ducklings, chick fountains are great so they can stay dryer. If they have a water container or pool, make sure the water is no more than ¼ inch deep, and that they can easily get out so they don’t drown. Additionally, newborn ducklings should be given water to drink for 5 to 10 minutes only at first, taking the water away for about a half hour to ensure they don’t overdrink. After a few waterings, you can give them full water access.
Learning about caring for ducks can be a lifelong hobby, so use these tips as a starting point to further learning about caring for these beautiful and highly useful creatures. If you have any of your own tips or care to comment, please do so below!