Duckling winter care involves diligent, but not complicated or overly time consuming husbandry techniques. The cute little fuzzy ducklings that you hatched or bought will be totally dependent upon your care in order to survive their first few days to weeks of life.
While ducks are incredibly more winter cold hardy than chickens, who can only comfortably tolerate 45 degree temperatures before illness or frostbite could occur. Ducks can waddle about down to temperatures of 20 degrees before seeking shelter or being in danger of frostbite to their legs and feet.
But, ducklings are not ducks…not yet at least. Ducklings will need the heat provided by their momma hens or a heat lamp to keep them alive and healthy their first three weeks of life – at a minimum. Wild duck hens are conditioned to give this type of constant warmth and care of their little fuzzy charges.
Domesticated duck breeds are a mixed bag when it comes to mothering. Ducklings are taken as day olds from their mothers by large scale breeders that supply agricultural supply stores like Rural King and Tractor Supply. Duck eggs are notoriously more difficult to hatch than chicken eggs due to the ill effects stemming from even a slight and brief change in humidity levels. Many duck keepers and small scale breeders take the fertilized duck eggs as soon as they are laid to place in an incubator to increase their chances of hatching. All of this intrusion in the natural egg to duckling to hen process has diminished the inherent mothering skills that kept duck flocks sustainable and thriving for centuries.
You can care for your ducks in the winter by simply adding more straw to a momma hen’s nesting area and cross your fingers she will know what to do and never get bored and abandon her post. Even if she is an excellent duck hen, a seasonal winter storm or the hard winter climate in general could claim half or more of the eggs long before they get a chance to hatch.
For best results when trying to hatch and raise ducklings, I recommend doing so indoors in a brooder environment. If you build or buy a large enough brooder, the momma duck can come along with her eggs and help in the hatching and rearing process.
Duckling Oils And Winter Time Woes
Another good reason to care for ducklings indoors during the winter has to do with their natural oils. These oils do not develop until the ducklings are at least two weeks old. If they are exposed to a bowl or puddle deep enough for them to get inside – or rain, they will not be able to rapidly dry themselves like their elder peers.
A wet, damp, or soggy duckling is far more susceptible to respiratory problems and other immune system attacking illnesses that can cause death than a duckling kept tucked away safely in a brooder. A duckling that works and works until it can get itself inside of a livestock tub for a swim before its oils come in is not only likely to become very chilled and ill, it can also become waterlogged and ultimately drown in mere minutes.
Duckling Brooder Options
A wood framed box style brooder that has the frame covered in metal sheeting and the open areas between the frame enclosed with hardware cloth is the best and most safe brooder option for ducklings – and chicks.
A brooder of this type can be used indoors or outdoors because the hardware cloth will keep the young birds safe from predators. Unlike the thin and highly pliable chicken wire, raccoons, mink, and other deadly creatures in search of a free meal, will not be able to easily bite through or pull apart this type of wire.
You do not have to cover the wood framing pieces with metal, but it will make it fare more fire retardant when the necessary heat lamps are attached or hung above the brooder.
We built a brooder using a wood frame covered in thin metal sheeting and hardware cloth. Using metal materials will vastly reduce if not entirely eliminate the chance of a fire being caused under the intense rays coming from the heat lamps.
Plastic kiddie pools, plastic storage tubs, and even cardboard boxes have all been used as brooders. While they will work, brooders of this type are far more likely to catch fire when the heat lamps are turned on and not turned off for a minimum of two full weeks. Galvanized tub brooders are fire resistant, but the metal heats up and can scorch the ducklings, and really are not ideal for keeping young poultry birds.
The temperature inside of the duckling warming area in the brooder has to range between 90 to 92 degrees for the first 72 hours after the ducklings hatch. Leaving chicks in an incubator for a few days is an option not afforded to ducklings because of their size and the high possibility of injuring their webbed feet in the rotating trays as they move about.
The remainder of the brooder area should be 75 to 80 degrees – preferably 75 degrees in the area where the waterer and feeder are placed. How many heat lamps it will take to create these optimal conditions for the ducklings will depend on the number of birds, size of the brooder, and the placement of the temporary living quarters.
If the brooder is kept in an unheated garage, it will take more heat lamps to maintain the proper temperature than if the brooder is kept in an enclosed area with at least mild heat.
Brooder Heat Lamp Tips
- If the ducklings are all bunched up together under or very near a heat lamp, the temperature in the rest of the brooder is too chilly for them to be comfortable in.
- Ducklings that do not venture away from the heat lamp to drink and eat will not remain healthy very long. Ducks of all ages have to be able to dip their beaks in water to keep their mucous membranes moist, the membranes in little ducklings do not take very long to dry up and create serious health problems.
- If you see ducklings spread out or sitting entirely alone and panting heavily, the temperature inside of the brooder is far too hot. Adjusting the angle or height of the heat lamp should fix this problem.
- Use only 100-watt bulbs in the brooder heat lamp to avoid the area from being either too hot or not getting hot enough.
- Using red bulbs in heat lamps will not disturb the sleeping cycle of the ducklings like a bright white bulb will. If chicks are in the same brooder the red lamp bulb will hide any blood marks a duckling gets from plucking its fuzz or from a scratch – chicks can peck even small drops of blood to the point of serious injury.
- Make sure ducklings cannot stretch their necks and beaks and touch the bulbs. They will initially be drawn to the light and want to poke at it – which can also result in serious injury if it breaks, or due to the intensity of the light, especially on their eyes.
Hardening Off Ducklings To Prepare Them For The Great Outdoors
After the first three day post hatch, the temperature in the brooder warming area can be decreased to around 85 to 90 degrees. All following weeks you should adjust the height or angle of the heat lamps so the temperature drops five degrees until reaching a temperature of 70 degrees.
When Should Ducklings Be Moved Outdoors?
During warm weather months it is usually safe to relocate ducklings outdoors when they are 3 to 5 weeks old. But, as noted above, most domesticated breeds of ducklings will not be fully feathered until they are seven to nine weeks old.
During the winter, ducklings should not leave the indoor brooder until they are fully feathered and the evening low temperature is not below 20 degrees.
Do not use a shallow dish as a duckling waterer in the brooder, they will try to climb in it and swim. Ducklings ALWAYS want to be in water but should not be permitted to do so, even under heat lamps, until their natural oils come in.
Until that time, use a chick style water with a shallow and narrow tray with a bottled attachment to water the ducks – this will also help to keep the water clean. Only after the natural oils are present should a container of some type the ducklings can safely get into and out of be placed in the brooder for swimming.
A one week old duckling will drink about half a gallon of water weekly. Once the duckling is seven weeks old it will consume half a gallon of water a day. Always make sure the waterers are filled (this is the most time consuming task when keeping ducklings in a brooder) because it helps them cool down and nestling by the heat lamp to warm themselves and prevents them from choking while eating. Water has to be provided during feeding or you WILL lose ducklings to choking.
You can use any type of common duck house or duck coop bedding i.e. straw, sawdust shavings, hay, or even dirt in the brooder. I have found that dirt absorbs the large and liquid duckling droppings the best but becomes compact and hard quickly and is more difficult to change out and replace with clean bedding once a week – which is 100 percent necessary to prevent bacteria, mold, and mildew growth that can kill the ducklings.
Straw, sawdust, and hay will get soiled and stinky more quickly and will need to be cleaned out and replaced twice a week.
Keep all bedding out from under the heat lamps to reduce the fire threat it would pose when it becomes dried out from the direct heat being cast upon it.
Even before the ducklings have water to swim in, they will splash any water they have access to with their bills, making a big mess inside of their brooder. You will have to change the bedding in a brooder far more often when keeping ducklings than you do chicken because of this reason – and the larger more liquid nature of their droppings. I recommend keeping bedding away from the waterer area as much as possible.
Provide a shallow feeder – the chick feeders with individual hole openings will keep the mess down inside of the brooder. Keep the feeder away from the warming area so it will not melt if it is made of plastic and will not become hot and harm the ducklings if it is made of metal.
In addition to the non-medicated poultry bird starter you would feed ducklings any time of the year, I highly recommend introducing natural items the ducklings will find during free range foraging time. Duckling safe natural treats include: tadpoles, grass, berries, crickets, small feeder fish, and worms.
Handle the ducklings frequently and chat with them while they are in the brooder during the winter so they will become accustomed to both the sight of their keepers and the sound of their voices. Ducklings imprint on the first things they encounter rather quickly after hatching. They will form a bond with their brooder mates and hopefully you as well. The trust you build with the ducklings when they are in the brooder will help you not only when teaching them the barnyard free range routine but also so they will waddle towards you and not away if they become injured or sick.