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The Beginners Guide to Raising Backyard Ducks

Congratulations! So you have decided to raise some ducklings! If you have brooded chicks before, you'll find that it's basically the same. But a little different....

My very first batch of chicks included two ducklings that we raised in the brooder box along with the chicks and all thrived and grew up to be happy and healthy.



But in addition to the fact that ducklings grow much faster than chicks, there are also a few other differences between brooding ducklings and chicks and after that first learning experience, I wouldn't brood them together again.


QUICK DUCKLING CHECKLIST

Here's what you will need to assemble before your ducklings arrive:
Brooder - either homemade or store bought (I've found a spare bathtub works best) but you can use a Puppy Playpen, Rabbit Cage, Plastic Tote, etc...)
Heat Lamp with Two Red Bulbs or Brinsea Eco-Glow
Starter Feed (Non-Medicated chick starter is fine)
Brewer's Yeast
Raw Oats
Small Shallow Dishes or Ramekins for Feed and Water
Sugar
Chick-sized Grit (or provide clumps of grass/dirt)
Rubber Shelf Liner

BROODING AREA

Ducklings make a mess. They will play in their water and splash it all over the brooder.They take great delight in emptying their feeders all over the ground, although they don't scratch the feed out of dishes like chicks do.  Basically, if they can play in something, they will.

I have found that brooding ducklings in a bathtub is the most practical and the easiest to keep clean. If you don't have a spare bathtub, an empty horse trough, puppy playpen or plastic storage tote also works, but ducklings grow fast so be prepared to provide them with larger accommodations in no time.

Ducklings can't fly so they won't get out of a bathtub, even once they grow larger, and a securely shut bathroom door will keep  them safe from curious kids, cats and dogs.

Not everyone has a spare bathtub, which is okay. A large plastic tote will also work. [Read HERE on how to make a storage tote brooder] A puppy playpen is another great duck brooder...


BEDDING/LITTER

Since the floor of the tub will get very slippery when it gets wet, I put down a sheet of rubber shelf liner so the ducklings don't slip.

If ducklings are brooded on a slippery surface such as plastic, newspaper or cardboard, they can end up with Spraddle Leg, so the shelf liner works as an important preventive. [Read more HERE on how to prevent and treat.]


The rubber bath mat makes a nice surface for them to grip for the first few days and with a few clumps of grass and dirt, they feel right at home.You can also put a small stuffed animal, rice-filled eye pillow or other bean bag-type item. The ducklings seem to like to snuggle up with it.

You can also make herb-filled sachets for the ducklings to sleep on which impart nice health benefits to the growing ducklings. [Read HERE for the tutorial on making herbal sachets.]

After the first week or so, you can add a layer of chopped straw or pine chips (never use cedar, they can be toxic and the oils can cause respiratory issues) on top of the shelf liner.

But over the years, I've gotten away from shavings or any bedding at all. It's dusty and the ducklings will just try and eat whatever you put in with them. I find the shelf liner or even old towels just works better and is far cleaner.

Note:  Don't ever use sand in your brooder. EVER. NEVER EVER.

The ducklings will eat it and not only risk impacted crops, but end up eating sand-covered poop at the same time, something you definitely don't want.

If you do use shavings, be sure they are larger 'chip-size' so the ducklings won't try to eat them or choke on them.  But I really do find that the rubber shelf liner with newspapers underneath to absorb moisture works just fine. The ducks can't eat it...and it doesn't make dust like shavings can create. So my advice is to skip the shavings.

I cut two pieces of shelf liner to fit so I can swap them out, hose down the dirty one and have a nice dry one to use while the dirty one is drying off.


HEAT

A well-secured heat lamp will be necessary to keep the ducklings warm, no matter where you decide to raise them. A red light stresses ducklings less than a white light will.

Another option, and one that I prefer, is to use a Brinsea EcoGlow. It provides radiant heat and is far less of a fire hazard than a heat lamp. Also there's no risk of the bulb burning out. They're fairly pricey, but if you plan on brooding multiple batches over multiple years, it's well worth the investment.

Your ducklings should be brooded, staring at 90 degrees the first day, and then you can lower the temperature 7 degrees per week (one degree/day) until they are feathered out and ready to go outside.This is a far faster drop in temperature than for baby chicks, which is one big reason I don't like to brood them together.

Rule of Thumb Temperature Chart


1st week 90 - 84 F
2nd week 83 - 77 F
3rd week 76 - 70 F
4th week 69 - 63 F
5th week 62 - 56 F
6th week 55 F

(At six weeks old, they should be fully feathered and ready to move outside unless it's extremely cold where you live.)

NOTE: The same as with chicks, be sure to watch your ducklings to be sure they are comfortable. If they are huddled under the lamp, they are cold, if they are panting or at the far side of their brooder area, then they are too warm.

**Position your heat lamp at one end so the ducklings can choose where in the brooder they are most comfortable

The Brinsea EcoGlow really works great for ducklings. They can go underneath when they get cold and then pop back out to play and eat. It is adjustable so you can raise the height as the ducklings grow.

If your house is very cold, or you are using an unheated garage, using both the heat lamp and EcoGlow is also an option to be sure your ducklings are warm enough the first week or two.



WATER


Ducks need to keep the membranes in their nostrils moist at all times, so as they grow they will need successively deeper water bowls so they can submerge their entire bill.

A traditional mason jar, nipple or gravity chick waterers won't work well for ducklings. The mason jar design is too unstable and tips over too easily when you have rambunctious, clumsy ducklings and they quickly learn to empty the gravity and nipple waterers. Instead I simply use shallow flat bottom bowls or dishes and switch them out for larger ones as the ducklings grow.

I put their water dish at the drain end of the bathtub, so all the water they splash out just goes right down the drain.

Ducklings can drown or get chilled if they sit in the water, so be sure to add some marbles or small stones to the water dish for the first few days or stick with a fairly shallow pan at first.

Room temperature water should always be available to them (sugar water at a ratio of 1/3 cup of sugar per gallon of water can be given for the first few days ).

At one week old, a duckling will drink about half a gallon of water a week. By the time they are 7 weeks old, they will need almost a half gallon of water a DAY.

Ducklings drink (and waste!) more than three times as much water as chicks, so be sure and check several times a day that they have clean fresh water.  I add a splash of apple cider vinegar to the ducklings water after the first couple of days as a health booster.


Clumps of grass give the ducklings something do try eating and the dirt doubles as grit to help them digest their food. If they are eating anything other than chick feed, they need the grit

FEED


Ducklings should only be fed UN-MEDICATED feed. They eat more feed per ounce of body weight than chicks, aren't as susceptible to coccidiosis anyway and can easily over-medicate themselves, so only UN-medicated feed should be fed. Plus why give them medication for something they generally don't get?


You can feed ducklings regular chick starter feed but since they require more niacin than chicks do, to help with bone growth especially in their legs, you will need to add brewers yeast to the feed (for my ducklings I mix in roughly 1/2 cup of brewers yeast per 10 pounds of feed).

 I use this Brewer's Yeast & Garlic Powder You can just sprinkle a bit over the top of their feed a few times a day.

This mix gives them the niacin they need plus garlic which has immune system and other benefits to growing ducklings. Since niacin (Vitamin B3) is a water soluble nutrient, they need a steady daily diet of it to get the nutrients they need.


The ducklings should start on chick feed (20-22% protein) for the first 2 weeks only, then can switch to a waterfowl starter or starter/grower (15-16% protein) until they are 18 weeks old or so and then switch right over to a regular (16% protein) layer feed - or waterfowl layer feed if you can find it in your area.

You can also add raw uncooked oats to their feed working up to about a 25% oat/75% feed ratio. This can help avoid a condition called 'Angel Wing' which is caused by too much protein in a growing duckling's diet.  [Read more about Angel Wing HERE.]

Treats such as lettuce, grass, herbs, weeds, and dandelion greens are all excellent sources of nutrients but ducklings will only eat greens if they are fresh. Wilted and trampled greens will be ignored. I find that a handful of greens put into a small dish of water becomes a great way to amuse the ducklings and they gobble the greens up. You can also toss some peas into a tub of water. Anything green will be a huge hit with ducklings (and ducks!)


Peas are also a good source of some added niacin, as are peanuts, peaches and sweet potatoes.


Ducklings in general are very hardy but on occasion you may have one with problems.  Read HERE on how to treat wry neck (also called 'stargazing' or head tilting), a potentially fatal problem that can be caused by a thiamine deficiency.

Vitamin treatment combined with massage is often successfully used to 'cure' an afflicted duckling.

Warm oatmeal and scrambled eggs are also a favorite treat, as is cracked corn. Coarse sand or chick-sized grit needs to be available to the ducklings at all times to help them grind their food.


Offering chopped herbs and edible flowers help ducks get a well-balanced diet.

I have found ducklings to be more picky about treats than chicks, but anything green, worms, cooked spaghetti, watermelon, corn and halved grapes all seem to be favorites. I slowly introduce them to new foods, a little at a time, being sure that the starter feed makes up the majority of their diet.

I chop up all kinds of herbs and edible flowers for my ducklings as well. Herbs and flowers are incredibly nutritious and if the ducklings develop a 'taste' for them early on, they are more likely to continue to eat them as they grow and get older.


SWIMMING PRIVILEGES


Ducklings can swim at hatch, but they haven't yet developed the oil on their feathers unless they hatched under a mother duck, so until they are about a month old, swims should be short and supervised or the ducklings can actually get waterlogged and drown.

Drowning is the number one cause of fatalities in backyard ducklings, believe it or not. I let my ducklings swim around in a rubber dish tub for a few minutes at a time and then dry them off carefully with a towel before returning them to the brooder.

Swims need to be short and supervised until the ducklings are about 5 weeks old.

By the time they are a few weeks, old, ducklings can have access to a cake pan or clean paint tray in their brooder for water and will begin to take short bath in it, and by 5-6 weeks they will be able to swim on their own.

Swim time is important because it helps to develop their leg muscles, and encourages preening which starts to distribute their oil glands.

Your ducklings will love exploring outside on nice warm, sunny days.

TIME OUTDOORS


By the time the ducklings are 3-5 weeks old, weather dependent, they can be outside for short periods of time on nice sunny days with adequate protection from predators, the sun and rain.

Proper precautions should be taken at all times the ducklings are outdoors as they are clumsy and not able to move very quickly, so they are easy prey for a variety of predators.


TIME TO MOVE OUTDOORS


By 7-9 weeks, the ducklings should be fully feathered and able to be outdoors permanently as long as the temperatures don't drop below 50 degrees at night.

Straw makes a nice choice for bedding.  Ducks don't perch on roosts like chicks, they just settle on the floor in the straw.


If you are introducing the ducklings into a run where there are chickens or other ducks, you should keep them in a small pen inside the run for a week or two so the two groups can get used to each other, just as you would do with pullets and not integrate them until the ducklings are almost full-sized.

While I find ducks to be FAR more welcoming to new flock members than chickens are, it's still a good idea to keep the young ones separate to avoid accidental trampling injuries or drowning.

Ducks, once they are fully feathered, can withstand much cooler temperatures than chickens and actually prefer to sleep outside in the elements year round in most locations.

My ducks have a predator-proof small run attached to their house so they can access it at night. They like to sleep under the stars.



Great sources for more information on raising ducks include:


My book Duck Eggs Daily is a great place to start if you're thinking about raising ducks. Available from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and at bookstores nationwide.



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