Are you a duck keeper? The sudden passing of your beloved pet can be an emotionally devastating experience, and understanding the underlying cause can help prevent future tragedies. While there are many possible causes of mortality in ducks, some issues may not appear until death has already occurred.
Let’s investigate what could be causing the sudden death of your precious ducks, from illnesses, and injuries, to environmental stressors and more. We’ll give you the information you need to protect the rest of your flock from harm.
What are the Common Causes of Sudden Death in Ducks?
If you’ve been keeping ducks for any length of time, chances are you have experienced some form of sudden death in birds that may seem inexplicable. It can be devastating when your feathered friends die suddenly, leaving you confused as to what happened.
Here are some of the most common causes of unexpected deaths in the flock, plus ways you can help prevent this from happening again.
Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS) / Duck Viral Enteritis (DVE)
This one seems a little too on the nose, doesn’t it?
Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), otherwise known as Duck Viral Enteritis (DVE), or flip over disease is an extremely harmful disease of wild and domestic waterfowl, leading to dangerous hemorrhages throughout their bodies as well as necrosis in the gut. While the origin of SDS remains a mystery, scientists believe it’s connected to consuming excessive sugar and other carbohydrates.
For most duck keepers, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to detect signs of it (hence the name). Ducks (and other poultry) seem fine but then suddenly stretch their necks out, gasp for air, squawk, or squeak; they frantically flap their wings, usually fall over on their backs, and may pass away thirty to sixty seconds later. It really happens fast.
To prevent infection, producers must be extra vigilant with biosecurity measures and avoid contact between captive animals and those found in nature.
Don’t let your domestic ducks comingle with wild ones, including swans, geese, and other wildfowl. Infected water sources, such as ponds and lakes visited by wild birds, are hotspots for DVE outbreaks in flocks of ducks.
There may also be “silent carriers” which don’t show any sign of infection but still can pass it on.
Not only does the virus spread easily from bird to bird, it also has the capacity for latent infections in which recovered birds intermittently shed the disease-causing strain.
Symptoms generally appear within 3–7 days after exposure, resulting in sudden high mortality rates ranging from 5% to 100%.
Some breeders are using attenuated-virus vaccines to immunize ducks against this virus- yet another progressive step towards protecting our aquatic friends.
Ducks won’t always show outward signs of stress, and excessive amounts of it can be deadly, meaning that their death will appear seemingly “out of nowhere.”
Ducks need companionship, regular food, clean drinking water, clean swimming water, adequate shelter, and protection from predators.
These shy little fellows are slow to accept change too. If you toss a new toy in with your chickens, they will flock to it, look it over, and try to interact with it.
Ducks, on the other hand, will shy away from it, give it sideways glances, and worriedly move away from the foreign object if they can. It may take them three full days to feel safe investigating the new thing.
Even subtle changes, like a brand new feeder just like the old one but in a different color, can make them uneasy.
If you’re one to rearrange their pen, try new things out, or break up the routine, you can cause a lot of unintended stress for your ducks.
Of course, small changes in their coop won’t kill them, but it could accumulate with other stressors to lead to serious issues.
Usually, if a duck dies due to stress, it’s because of an overbearing drake (or too many drakes) or threatening predators chasing or harassing the ducks. Do your best to monitor possible stressors, and eliminate them immediately.
Believe it or not, ducks can drown. They are not truly aquatic because they cannot breathe underwater. Most will hold their breath for thirty to forty seconds, with the longest observed breath hold only lasting one minute.
If a duck is dragged underwater, gets caught on underwater debris, or is hurt and can’t swim back up to the air, they can drown and quickly. Ducks can also get “waterlogged” and have their feathers get too saturated, so it’s difficult for them to maneuver themselves and properly float in the water.
If you spot a dead duck that’s either underwater or floating on top of your lake or pond, there’s a chance it may have drowned.
Some of the best ways to prevent heat stroke in ducks is to give unlimited access to clean swimming and drinking water, plenty of shade (never from a tarp!), and good ventilation.
Still, in extreme temperatures, these may not be enough, and your ducks could suffer heat stroke and die. Most will show several signs of discomfort prior to passing, but if you’re preoccupied or away in the hottest part of the day, you could miss them, and their death will seem unexpected.
If you’re away from home for several hours a day, make sure you provide at least two water sources for your ducks. At least one of the sources should be close to their coop, too. If they aren’t feeling well, it could be difficult for them to travel to the water source, making their condition even worse. Plus, you never know when one pool may accidentally drain, flip, empty, or become too dirty for use.
Black shallow dishes in direct sunlight will heat up much faster than light-colored, deep buckets in the shade. Whenever possible, offer the cooler solution.
Don’t forget that the heat doesn’t disappear when the sun sets either! The coop needs good cross ventilation, plenty of close access to water, and shade during the day (so it can cool off faster during the evening).
Signs of heat stroke in ducks:
- Drooping wings
- Holding their wings out and away from their body
- Tiredness, lethargy
- Standing or sitting with their eyes shut
- Laying on the side with the head or wings at strange angles
- Other odd behaviors
Ascites, Water Belly, Heart Failure, or Blood Clot
This ailment is caused by a build-up of water in the abdomen of ducks (and chickens). More specifically, it’s the result of hypertension and right ventricle failure.
Duck lungs do not expand like mammals, so the fluid buildup is a serious matter that makes it difficult for the bird to breathe.
The liver will start to fail, and right after that happens, fluids filled with protein will fill up the abdomen of the duck.
This water in the belly will make their stomachs feel hard, and the duck will act listless, lethargic, completely uninterested in food, and will likely sit or lay around. They will be too weak and heavy to make it to the roost at night too.
Ascites is not common in backyard ducks, but it can still happen. It can come from heredity traits (broiler ducks and chickens are much more likely to experience it), a too-high protein diet, old age (weakened organs), environmental stress, moldy food (aflatoxins causing liver damage), or a too-high altitude which lowers available oxygen.
Thankfully, it is not contagious in any way.
Once the water belly sets in, there is nothing you can do for your duck except try to make them comfortable. It causes heart failure, and typically, this can’t be helped.
If you’re determined to do something though, you can try the fluid draw method.
For this, you’ll need a large gauge syringe needle, alcohol for cleaning the needle, and a bundle of nerves.
Insert your needle on the right side of the bird, in the belly, to the right side of the duck’s vent. Pull the syringe back, and then look at the fluid being extracted. If it’s red, withdraw, and try again.
If you’re using a small gauge needle, you’ll need a new needle. If you’re using a large gauge, try again with the same one.
When you start to pull a clearish yellow liquid, you’re in the right place.
Use your hands to estimate how much is in the bird, and remove about half. If the needle fills up before you reach half, remove the syringe, and keep the needle in place.
You can empty the syringe this way without having to jab your already stressed and in-pain duck anymore.
Don’t take more than half of the fluid because that will immediately put your duck into shock from fluid loss.
Once you’ve removed enough liquid, set your duck down in a quiet space away from the flock, so she can calm down and resettle herself. It’s okay to pet her or give her treats if you usually do this, and she seems to enjoy it.
You can do another liquid draw in two days if needed, but most ducks will act normal again after one day.
Fluid draws may prolong the life of the duck for months or even a year, but it is not a complete cure. The root cause of the issue is still there, and your duck may need fluid draws more often to survive. After a certain point, it’s more humane to euthanize than to prolong the suffering.
For the sake of this article, though, many duck keepers will not recognize water belly, and therefore, the death of the duck will seem completely uncalled for and unexpected.
Choking, or Suffocation
One of the most common ways a duck chokes to death is due to a lack of water near their feed. Ducks absolutely have to have water near their food source, especially grains and pellets, or they risk choking to death.
They have to have access to clean, fresh water at all times, and the water has to be deep enough for them to fully submerge their beaks and heads into it. This keeps their nasal passages clean, free of debris, and at a healthy moisture level.
Ducks are vulnerable to a large number of parasites (sometimes called worms) that could be potentially fatal. Some of the most prevalent of these parasites are
- Gizzard worms
- Intestinal worms
- Feather mites
- Dust lice
Read how to ‘worm’ a duck to prevent parasites from potentially killing your ducks.
Internal Bleeding, Organ Damage, or Organ Failure
If you didn’t see your duck fall, get hit or attacked, then a death resulting from internal bleeding, organ damage, or organ failure will likely seem completely random and sudden.
An excited dog may pounce on the duck, or something heavy may fall on the duck, or a predator could be unsuccessful in their hunt. Regardless, your duck may have internal injuries that will ultimately lead to death.
How to protect free range ducks from predators.
If your ducks get to free range, they will be much more susceptible to these types of injuries. Do what you can to mitigate risk, but ultimately, this is part of free-ranging. Some of the most common injuries come from falling wood (such as a piece of wood falling off the pile), snow or ice sliding off a roof, kicks from other barnyard animals, or even accidentally stepping on your underfoot duck.
Botulism often takes out several birds in the flock, if not the entire flock, and leaves duck keepers feeling confused and devastated by the loss. It’s usually seen as a fast, unexpected death.
Botulism is a serious and nasty neurological disease affecting birds when they eat food or drink water contaminated with a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
These bacteria thrive in soil, rotting vegetation, and decaying carcasses, providing the perfect environment for the secretion of this powerful poison. The consumed toxins act on their nervous system, causing weakness and paralysis, typically more prevalent during wet seasons as access to decomposing feed increases.
Potential causes could include pecking at rotten scraps or consumption of dead animals, such as mice near ponds where drops in water levels cause the surrounding vegetation to die and then rot away.
Usually, ducks affected by botulism seem to be lying helplessly on the ground, totally unable to move or hold their heads up. Ducks will not have any nasal discharge or diarrhea either, which is what usually baffles their keepers when the dead ducks are discovered.
What’s usually most confusing for owners is that the largest, healthiest ducks are the ones to drop dead. This is because the bossiest, healthiest ducks have the highest pecking order, and get first access to the new food that they discovered.
Egg binding is, unfortunately, a common issue for female ducks that causes them discomfort and distress. It occurs when the egg gets stuck in its oviduct instead of passing through as it should. If it’s not quickly resolved, it will kill the duck. And if you don’t know the signs (or you don’t notice her symptoms), the death resulting from egg boundness will seem sudden and random.
Symptoms of egg boundness include a swollen abdomen, constant fatigue, failed defecation attempts due to constipation, an odd posture when standing (more upright than usual), and fluffed-up feathers.
If you can catch your duck with this issue in time, you can offer supportive care to help. Get her away from her stressful flockmates, and put her in a warm, calm, and safe place where she can focus on passing the egg. Some people may choose to place their duck in warm bath water to help assist with removing the egg, while others may attempt to manually extract the egg. This isn’t necessarily recommended, but it has been successful on a few occasions. You can also add olive oil to the vent for added comfort and lubrication as she attempts to push the egg out.
If you have access to professional help, a laparotomy can remove soft-shelled eggs, eggshell fragments, or eggs that are adhered to the duck’s oviduct.
It’s difficult to treat an egg-bound duck, which is why prevention is so important. Give your ducks adequate dark time (at least twelve hours at night, if possible). Limit their treats, and don’t overload them with treats. Too much calcium, vitamin D, or phosphorus may lead to more ducks becoming egg-bound.
Toxic Feed / Poison
Bad feed could kill some (or all) of your ducks rather quickly. Botulism (covered above), moldy feeds, contaminated feeds, or ingredients that were unintentionally contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, or other harmful chemicals could cause sudden death.
Your ducks could also come in contact with toxic items in your backyard or landscaping.
Here are some common plants that are toxic to ducks:
- Bleeding heart
- Castor bean
- Lily of the valley
- Mountain laurel
- Oak trees
- Sweet peas
Seizures in ducks are more common than you may think, but that doesn’t make them any less harmful or deadly.
Ducks that were incubated as eggs at an incorrect temperature, humidity level, or consistency, or weren’t turned enough are susceptible to several lifelong health issues, including seizures.
Toxins, like the ones listed above, could also cause seizures.
Head trauma, lead poisoning, and old age could also cause seizures. The duck may recover from the seizure and never have one again, or they could repeat more frequently with higher intensity until the duck passes away.
There have not been enough tests or studies to effectively say how or why seizures happen in ducks, but we hope to learn more about it as more credible literature is published.
There are several deadly diseases ducks can contract, according to Cornell University’s Tirathj S. Sandhu DVM, Ph.D.
- Duck Virus Hepatitis
- Duck Plague (Duck Virus Enteritis)
- Riemerella anatipestifer Infection
- Avian Cholera
- Toxin poisoning
- Aflatoxin poisoning
- Castor bean poisoning
- Rapeseed meal
- Insecticides, rodenticides
These are the eight diseases that humans can get from ducks. Beware of those! We also have a comprehensive article on common duck diseases plus how to prevent them.
Sneaky Signs a Duck May Suddenly Die
Even though a duck may be on the verge of a quick death, there are usually a few signs you can identify if you pay close enough attention. Whether you can act fast enough to save the bird is another story, but memorizing these signs and symptoms will give you a fighting chance to save your feathered friend.
- Overly tired
- Disoriented, confused
- Panting / abdominal heaving
- Collapsed vent
- Collapsed penis
- Excessive coughing or sneezing
- Weezing or labored breathing
- Sleeping on the ground instead of a perch
- Holding their wings out
- Drooping wings
- Sitting or standing with eyes shut (more than usual)
- Laying on side
- Pale comb, waddles, eyes (if your duck has them)
- Watering eyes
- Diarrhea or bloody stool
- Unnatural behavior
- Feet that are swollen, hot, or with an abscess
- Nasal discharge with thick viscous mucus or colored mucus
- Loss of appetite
- Not drinking water
- Not utilizing swimming area
How to Prevent Ducks from Dying Suddenly
If you catch the above signs and feel that your duck is in danger, the best thing you can do is identify the underlying issue, and then follow the exact instructions for alleviating or curing the issue.
If you are confident in your knowledge and skillset, immediately get to work on what you believe needs to be done. If not, read up on cures, watch online videos from seasoned duck keepers, get in touch with a veterinarian, call a trusted friend with ducks, or even join a helpful online community of fellow duck keepers.
Remember that the best thing you can for your ducks is to think and act proactively. Before any issues arise, work to prevent them. Feed high-quality feeds, give ample space, safe shelters, clean fresh water, constant access to a swimming area, vaccinate when possible/necessary, and make sure their coop, run, and free-range areas are as clean and predator free as possible.
What to Do If You Find a Dead Duck on Your Property?
Despite our best efforts, poultry deaths are an unfortunate part of raising ducks.
To ensure biosecurity in your flock and protect it from other losses, make sure you know the disposal regulations for backyard birds where you live – they vary by state!
For any suspicious signs or symptoms that may indicate a disease outbreak on your property, don’t hesitate to contact the right experts like vets or cooperative extension offices as soon as possible because early action can help contain it quickly.
Fill out this form from the USDA to store important contacts near your area so they’re easily accessible if needed.
If you find sick or dead wildlife (like dead ducks, geese, swans, herons, turkeys, etc) then contact the appropriate authorities. Here is a complete list of the Members of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. Find your local agency from it and get in touch with them right away.
Does One Dead Duck Mean the Rest of My Flock May Die?
The rest of your flock’s risk all depends on if the death was caused by a contagious illness, a lingering toxic or contaminated item, or if the threat was a still-lurking predator.
It’s wise to figure out what caused the animal’s death, if possible, to rule out if the rest of your birds are safe.
Can Ducks Make Chickens Sick?
Ducks and chickens can absolutely share sicknesses and infect one another. If you have sick chickens, you can quickly wind up with a flock of sick ducks too. Always separate and appropriately quarantine when you suspect an outbreak is coming on.
Salmonella, e.coli, and campylobacter are some of the most common transferable bacteria. Avian flu (bird flu) and histoplasmosis are other sicknesses they can share amongst each other, and with people too.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What To Do If It Looks Like a Duck is Dying?
- Determine what is harming your duck, whether it was an attack, a disease, illness, stress, or contaminated food. If possible, remove this hazard so other birds aren’t afflicted. Remove the dying bird to a quiet area so he or she doesn’t possibly infect others, and so he or she is in a safe, calm environment.
- Treat the affliction, if possible. You may be able to administer medication or care to save the animal.
- If the duck doesn’t seem able to recover, dispatch the animal in a humane way so it does not suffer, or put it in a safe environment where it can pass peacefully and as comfortably as possible.
- If you don’t know what caused this death, contact authorities to get to the root problem. This can answer your questions and help you prevent this from happening again with another duck of yours. See the “What to Do If You Find a Dead Duck on Your Property?” section above to locate people and organizations who can help you.
What Causes Ducklings to Die Suddenly?
Ducklings are at tremendous risk on their journey to adulthood.
In fact, it’s estimated that mortality rates can range anywhere from 10-70%, often due to predators such as fish, amphibians (including bullfrogs), reptiles like turtles and snakes, and mammals like foxes or cats. Other birds—like hawks, owls, gulls and crows— will even take advantage of an unsuspecting duckling family.
If you can avoid free-ranging ducklings during this vulnerable time, they are more likely to survive.
Still, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites are other deadly factors to consider too.
Be sure to read our guide to raising ducklings for the information and tools you need to get them through this fragile period of life.
Why Does My Duck Act Weak, Tired, or Lethargic?
A duck who doesn’t act like its usual self, being tired and weak especially, could be caused by one of several afflictions:
- Food deficiencies (look into niacin deficiency)
- Poisons or toxins ingested
- Heat stroke
- Disease or illness (almost all will eventually cause lethargy in ducks)
Do Ducks Try to Hide if They Are Dying?
Ducks will try to hide if they are dying. They do this to avoid being harassed or further injured by other fowl in their vicinity. Some believe that birds also do this as a way to self-quarantine and prevent the spread of infection to the other members of their flock.
If your duck is trying to hide, it’s a sign that they could be in pain or in danger of dying.
Can My Dead Duck Give Me a Disease?
Some duck diseases are transferable to humans, so be cautious when you go to collect your expired friend. Diseases that are capable of infecting humans include psittacosis, avian influenza, salmonella, campylobacter, colibacillosis, eastern equine encephalitis, Newcastle disease, and cryptosporidiosis.
You can read more about those diseases here.
What Causes Sudden Death in Ducks: Final Thoughts
While there are many different potential causes of sudden death in ducks, some of the more common ones include Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS) / Duck Viral Enteritis (DVE), stress, drowning, heat stroke, ascites, water belly, heart failure, blood clot, choking or suffocation.
If you believe your duck may be suffering from any of these conditions, it is important to seek veterinary care immediately. You can also help prevent ducks from dying suddenly by providing them with a safe and comfortable environment free from stressors such as loud noises or excessive handling.
If you do find a dead duck on your property, contact your local animal control agency for proper disposal. You may also have an autopsy performed to determine the cause of death, and figure out how to prevent this from happening again.