Raising Ducks For Beginners

ducklings in a brooder

Ducks are one of the least expensive and easiest to keep poultry birds as either a backyard egg layer or farm pet. Unlike roosters, drakes (mature male ducks) neither become aggressive or loud – a definite plus if you are keeping ducks in a non-rural setting. 

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to have a pond in order to raise ducks. While any member of a duck flock would love to have a pond of their very own, a plastic baby pool or small decorative garden pond can easily suffice. 

In my personal experience, ducks are smarter than the average chicken. They can quickly and easily be taught to free range – whether their boundaries are a 56-acre homestead or a fenced suburban backyard. In fact, I allowed a small duck flock to free range in our small town and un-fenced backyard before we moved out in the county. Only once after a big rain did they venture off our property ….. A big mud puddle in a neighbor’s yard across the street apparently proved too enticing. 

Most duck breeds lay eggs at least as frequently as many chicken breeds – and the eggs ducks produce are far larger and excellent for baking and scrambling both. Hatching duck eggs and chicken eggs in the same incubator as well as keeping both types of flocks in one coop and run also proves unproblematic – in my personal experience. Some duck breeds, just like with chicken breeds, are great layers but lousy sitters. Choosing a breed carefully if you want to grow the flock of either type of poultry bird sans incubator is incredibly important.

As you can see there are many reasons you should have ducks, and I want to encourage our readers to entertain the idea. If you are strongly considering, keep on reading to get the general idea of what is required to keep your own.

Free Range Training And Sustainability

Setting up a duck habitat with sustainability in mind will not only keep the cost and chore time down but also provide the birds with the most healthy and natural environment possible. Training the ducks to free range for at least part of the day will allow them to eat lots of pesky insects in your backyard or even the garden when permitted to roam in the area or visit it inside of a “chicken tractor.”

free range ducks

I teach all of our poultry birds to free range by offering them a little bit of a healthy favorite treat or a small amount of bread just before dusk each evening. The ducks will soon be honking or quacking to get your attention if you are late for “put up” with their treat. They will often waddle towards your backdoor clamoring for you to hurry and then line up and follow behind you in a row all the way back to the safety of their coop and run. 

Free ranging can be a riskier proposition during a disaster. You could lose birds to both typical wild predators and humans being desperate for a meal. Adapting typical “turn them loose for the day ” free ranging behavior can be a viable compromise to coop and run style husbandry. 

Coop And Run Size And Features

There are some differences in raising ducks verses chickens. Ducks are larger than most chicken breeds and need more room to waddle around and a spot for a water feature inside of their run. Ducks should have a minimum of 10 to 20 square feet of individual movement space inside of the coop and run habitat. Because ducks are larger and more awkward with their waddling movements than chickens, the entry door from the coop to the run and any exterior poultry doors should be at least one foot to 14 inches tall and 14 inches wide.

ducks feeding by coop

Do not use chicken wire to enclose a duck run – or chicken run, for that matter. Chicken wire is only good for keeping birds in and not predators out. A craft mink or raccoon can pull apart the openings in chicken wire to reach inside and grab a poultry bird and hold onto it while devouring it alive. Minks can often get inside of stretched chicken wire because they need a space only slightly larger than that of a mouse, to gain entry.

Locks on the exterior of the run and coop should be of a two step variety. Raccoons are smart enough to flip a one-step hook or latch style latch. I also recommend lining the bottom of the coop under the floorboards and trenching around the run with hardware cloth (rabbit cage wire) to deter digging predators. Dig a trench about one foot deep along the boundary to place the hardware cloth before covering it with dirt to place farming boards, wire, posts, etc.

Ducks prefer to spend the bulk of their time outdoors. Make sure to factor in the attachment of pressure treated lumber or a tarp to cover a portion of the run in order to provide shade and protection from inclement weather for the flock.

ducks in coop

Lighting 

Ducks will benefit from having a solar coop light during winter months just like chickens. The light will help the birds feel comfortable during the winter months when they will spend more time inside and also help provide the minimum number of light hours per day necessary to induce egg laying.

Nesting

Duck hens will need a nesting area, which can be a wooden or plastic box or a tire filled with dirt and straw, to lay their eggs, Ducks rarely turn broody like chickens, so removing their eggs is not typically a battle. The run area will often become more soiled when ducks are roaming inside, especially during rainy times of the year. Factor some extra straw bales into your husbandry budget so they can be scattered about the messy eater inside of a duck or combo duck and chicken run.

Feeder

A duck feeder should be placed on an elevated space, like atop two cinder blocks placed closely together to avoid the messy eater from getting mud and straw into their feed, 

Because they love to be in and out of their water features frequently and their droppings are a lot larger and more liquid than those of chickens, expect to change the straw in their run more frequently, once a week is highly recommended. 

Waterers 

Placing two poultry waterers for every dozen ducks kept is highly recommended. Ducks will go through A LOT more water when literally copped up, than birds. The water in their garden pond or baby pool will quickly become too dirty for them to want to use for drinking. 

Do not use an open tub for a duck waterer, No matter how small it is the ducks will try to climb in it – even when they have a larger water feature, or at least dip their dirty beaks into it to cleanse them. Duck waters that are positioned on the outside of the poultry run with a closed top and fountain drinking attachments that are positioned through the fencing on the inside of the run keep a constant source of clean water for the flock. 

Poultry Feed

Ducks can eat the same feed sold for chickens and other poultry birds or chicks. Ducklings should not be fed medicated chick feed. Unlike baby chicks, ducklings are not really susceptible to coccidiosis like young chicks. Because ducklings grow at a far faster rate than chicks, they only need to be fed a non-medicated chick starter for two weeks instead of the eight recommended for chicks. Once the ducklings are around 18 weeks old, they can be fed a typical layer feed in pellet or crumble form.

feeding ducks

A duck flock need niacin levels that somewhat exceed the needs of chickens. If you flock does not free range to garner this niacin naturally from eating bugs and plants, consider sprinkling a two and a half percent single packet of brewer’s yeast on top of the feed or as a free choice supplement in a separate feed container inside of the coop. 

Providing some grit and calcium supplements as a free choice treat for ducks, just as you would with chickens, is also highly recommended if the flock is not free ranging to garner these items on their own naturally. 

Foraging 

You can grow some of your own poultry bird food in the run for the birds to eat or in a separate area where they ducks can have access to it while free range foraging. When plants are cultivated inside of the run, wrapping a hardware cloth cage around them to avoid indulging before the plant has matured, is highly recommended.

Top 35 Foraging Crops For Ducks

  1. Lettuce
  2. Jerusalem Artichokes
  3. Blackberries
  4. Blueberries
  5. Purslane
  6. Sorghum
  7. Honeysuckle
  8. Amaranth
  9. Jewelweed
  10. Chamomile
  11. Chicory
  12. Kale
  13. Oregano
  14. Plantain
  15. Buckthorn
  16. Thyme
  17. Grapes
  18. Rosemary
  19. Comfrey
  20. Basil
  21. Tarragon
  22. Sage
  23. Dill
  24. Yarrow
  25. Mullein
  26. Bee Balm
  27. Wild Carrots
  28. Duckweed
  29. Calendula
  30. Water Lettuce
  31. Echinacea
  32. Ginger
  33. Broccoli
  34. Zucchini
  35. Squash

Top 10 Foods You Should Never Feed Your Ducks

  1. Uncooked or even undercooked beans of any variety
  2. Peaches with intact pits
  3. Onions
  4. Cherries with pits
  5. Apples with seeds
  6. Green potato peels
  7. Dry Pasta
  8. Dry Rice
  9. Raw eggs
  10. Food with salt or artificially added sugar

Top 30 Healthy Duck Treats For Free Range Training

  1. Pumpkin – just cut it open and let the birds consume it
  2. Watermelon – cut and serve
  3. Cooked rice
  4. Cooked pasta
  5. Mealworms
  6. Tadpoles
  7. Crushed eggshells – during the winter the calcium boost can help increase egg production and harden shells
  8. Raisins
  9. Oatmeal – cooked or uncooked
  10. Pineapple chunks
  11. Bananas
  12. Sweet Potatoes – uncooked
  13. Cabbage – uncooked
  14. Orange chunks and peels
  15. Finely chopped carrots
  16. Strawberries
  17. Asparagus
  18. Celery – chopped
  19. Cantaloupe chunks
  20. Corn Stalks – chopped
  21. Cauliflower
  22. Pear chunks
  23. Brussels Sprouts
  24. Cottage Cheese
  25. Garlic – chopped
  26. Small fish
  27. Grapefruit chunks
  28. Mango chunks
  29. Plain yogurt
  30. Bread – in small amounts only as a special treat

Hatching And Keeping Ducklings

I have always kept ducklings and chicks in the same brooder without any bad results, but other folks may have had different experiences. Raising ducks and chickens together is completely doable and can be very rewarding.Keeping poults (young turkeys) and guineas in the same brooder as either a duckling or chicks is highly discouraged due to the difference in size and demeanor of the poultry birds. 

Fertilized duck eggs should be incubated at a temperature between 99.3 and 99.6 degrees for 28 days. Duck eggs are very susceptible to humidity changes, even those caused by briefly opening the incubator lid. Using an incubator with an automatic turning arm to negate the need to manually turn the duck eggs simply cannot be recommended highly enough.

duckling hatching

The pointy end of the duck egg should be placed down in the incubator tray. Unlike chicks, ducklings should be removed from the incubator quickly because they are too large to have enough room to safely move about inside of the machine.

The brooder being used should have a “hot” area around the red heat lamps (do not use white, it alters the ducklings sense of night and day) and a cooler area where less lights or lights suspended higher above the brooder are located. This allows the ducklings to cool themselves when needed and provides a space where food and water containers can be placed. 

ducklings in a brooder

Ducklings should not be permitted to get into water until they are at least two weeks old when their oils come in – these oils allow them to dry quickly and not become chilled. Ducklings will try to get into any small water bowl placed in the brooder. Use a chick waterer that is of a glass or plastic drip jar into a tray variety to prevent the ducklings from getting waterlogged and chilled.

The poultry bird bedding used in the brooder will need to be changed about every two or three days because of the numerous droppings by the tiny ducks. The bedding will smell incredibly sour and be filled with potentially dangerous to deadly bacteria for the birds if not regularly cleaned out. Straw, sawdust shavings, or even shredded newspaper all make good bedding for ducklings. I often use a few scoops of quality compost alone or beneath the other types of bedding noted above to help absorb the droppings and nasty smell better – and to give the ducklings something more natural to walk upon.

The floor or the brooder must be hardy and level. A duckling can develop severe to permanent damage to their feet and legs if kept on constantly uneven ground or sagging wire.

When ducklings are hatched when it is warm enough to keep them in an outside brooder or to move them to one quickly, do it. The quicker they are integrated into an established flock, the better. I built a brooder inside of my coop run so any ducklings or chicks born during nice weather can rapidly learn the smells and sounds of the barnyard and witness the free ranging routine from an extremely early age.

Duck Health

Some poultry bird disease can spread through the flock quite quickly. Doing a brief health check of all the birds when they are fed in the morning is an excellent way to notice a potential health problem or injury during the early stages. If a sick bird is discovered, it should be quarantined in a cage away from the rest of the flock and coop and the entire coop and run disinfected immediately – including any waterers or feeders.

Signs That May Indicate A Duck Is Ill

  • Showing signs of lethargy, not wanting to free range or even get up and walk around the coop run.
  • Nostrils sound stuffy or are runny.
  • The bird has no desire to get into the water and wash itself.
  • A lack of desire to either eat or drink – or both.
  • Bloody droppings
  • Feathers are falling out of constantly plucked out by the duck.
  • Droopy head and not responding to sound stimuli
  • Eyes should be alert and clear and respond to both movement and sound if the duck is healthy.
  • Bow legged or limping ducks may be either ill or injured.

Common Duck Diseases

  1. Fowl Pox – This disease, also commonly referred to as “avian pox” can affect a wide variety of poultry birds. It is typically transmitted via mosquito bites and is highly contagious. It is most often spread from exposure to droppings as well as shared food and water containers. Two types of fowl pox exist, dry and Wet. The wet variety causes canker sores on the interior of the throat and mouth that prevents proper air flow and the swallowing of food and water. The dry version of fowl pox causes warts  to grow on the both the feathered and unfeathered parts of the bird’s body. Dry fowl pox tends to heal up and go away when treated with a Neosporin type ointment. Wet fowl pox is often painfully terminal. 
  2. Duck Virus Hepatitis – This is also a deadly and contagious illness. It is most often contracted by ducklings who are one to 28 days old. It would be incredibly odd for a duckling over four weeks old to contract duck virus hepatitis. A duckling can die within 60 minutes of contracting the disease. If a duckling is arching backwards and having spasms in the legs, this is a likely cause. The duckling’s liver becomes enlarged and hemorrhagic spots are often visible. Some duck breeders vaccinate mature hens against this illness to help prevent ducklings she lays from contracting it. 
  3. Duck Plague – Duck Virus Enteritis – The duck plague is an especially contagious and deadly disease contracted by waterfowl through a herpes virus. It typically only infects mature ducks. Birds stricken with duck plague often experience a green or yellow scours (diarrhea) that can be bloody, are sluggish, and have unusually ruffled feathers. Hemorrhages are often found throughout body tissue and cause eruptions of mucous lining of the intestines and esophagus. Immunizations of mature breeding birds are often used to prevent this terminal disease.
  4. Worms –  A poultry bird is susceptible to a variety of different parasites, roundworms being the most common. I sprinkle diatomaceous earth onto the poultry bird feed to help prevent and kill both internal and external parasites in the members of my flock. Commercially manufactured poultry bird wormers are sold at agriculture supply stores.
  5. Colibacillosis – Ducks and other poultry birds can contract this potentially deadly E-coli disease when the coop and run are not ventilated properly and their living quarters are too cramped and/or soiled. There is currently no known treatment for this contagious disease but mature birds can be vaccinated against it. Keeping the coop and run clean and spacious enough to accommodate the number of birds you are keeping is the best way (in my opinion) to prevent this painful illness. A duck will often show signs of respiratory distress, grow lesions on various parts of the body, and stop eating when it contracts colibacillosis. 
  6. Aspergillosis –  When ducks and other poultry birds are exposed to mold and inhale the spores, they contract this painful and often deadly fungal infection. It is also commonly referred to as “chicken pneumonia.” Symptoms of aspergillosis include gasping for air, gaping, and a gurgling sound coming as the duck struggles to breath while their lungs fill up with spores and plaque. Regularly removing moldy straw or other bedding from the coop and run and proper ventilation can prevent any of your ducks from contracting this type of poultry pneumonia. Do not allow grain feed to become damp because it too can create the same deadly mold spores.
  7. Riemerella Anatipestifer Infection – A duck that contracts this typically deadly infection shows a rapid and distinct weight loss, has discharge coming out of one of both eyes, scours, is listless, and twists its neck and shakes its head almost constantly. A duck with this disease is often found on its back and paddling their legs in the air after lesions infecct their heart, liver, and air sacs. Vaccines are available against this tragic duck infection, but proper husbandry techniques can go a long way in preventing your flock from catching it.
  8. Botulism – Ducks exposed to stagnant water in a natural or man-made water feature may become exposed to toxins and bacteria that cause deadly botulism spores to grow. Common symptoms of this illness include paralysis of the wings, neck, or legs. Once a duck has contracted botulism, it usually falls into a coma-like state and dies within one to two days. 

Keeping ducks is a fun and rewarding experience – and one that produces delicious and creamy eggs, as well. Watching the ducks preen while diving and swimming in their water feature can be a relaxing and enjoyable experience for the entire family. Providing the duck’s with a habitat that is clean, ventilated, and feeding them properly should allow you to keep a healthy flock for many years to come. While the actual lifespan of a duck varies by breed and is influenced by both environmental conditions and husbandry habits, most domesticated ducks live eight to 12 years, on average.

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