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Preventing and Treating Angel Wing in Ducklings

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Angel wing is a cosmetic condition that can occur in domestic ducks if you don't take steps to prevent it.

After almost a decade of raising ducks, I had my first encounter with a condition called "angel wing" this past spring. 

Fortunately, I had read about it years ago when we first started raising ducks and knew exactly what to do.

It then occurred to me that I should write an article about it for all my readers who raise ducks. This is a good one to bookmark or save on Pinterest, by the way, just in case....

Sorry it's taken me almost a year to actually get it written, though!

What is Angel Wing? 

Angel wing (sometimes referred to airplane, twisted or crooked wing) is a cosmetic condition that ducks can be afflicted with that causes the flight feathers on the tip of a duck's wing to twist or rotate as they grow and the feathers to point away from the body, instead of laying flat.

When the feathers grow faster than the duck's wing structure, the heavy feathers cause the last joint of the wing to twist out away from the duck's body. 

Once the bird matures, the affected wing permanently sticks out at an awkward angle instead of gracefully folding against the body.

Ducklings between 8 to 12 weeks of age are most at risk, with ducks over 16 weeks having matured enough  - and their wing bones fully formed - that it won't occur in them. 

Inexplicably, it usually occurs just on the left wing or both wings (leading to the appearance of angel wings, hence the name), rarely occurring in the right wing alone.

And sure enough, it showed up in our Black Swedish duckling, Olive, on just her left wing when she was just a few weeks old. It also showed up in our Blue Swedish duckling, Fig.

Preventing and Treating Angel Wing in Ducklings

Apparently angel wing more common in male ducks than female, but Olive and Fig are both most definitely egg-laying girls, so it can occur in either sex.

Now, I say it's a "cosmetic" condition because ducks with Angel Wing can still walk (or I should say waddle!), eat, drink, forage and swim just fine. 

The only thing they can't do is fly. But since domestic ducks can't fly anyway, a wing deformity won't limit their activities in any way.

In wild ducks, the condition would be more serious since they rely on their wings to migrate and also to escape predators. But wild ducks aren't plagued by Angel Wing. It's basically a man made condition.

(And one reason why wild ducks in parks or ponds should never be fed things like white bread and crackers. )

Feeding these high protein/energy, high carb foods can lead to Angel Wing which will then leave the wild ducks literally "sitting ducks" and vulnerable to predators and the elements.

What Causes Angel Wing?

Although several studies have pointed to Angel Wing as being genetic or resulting from incorrect incubator temperature, most researchers and duck experts feel that it is the result of excess protein in the ducklings' diet.

Feeding ducklings a diet too high in protein/energy causes them to grow too fast, and the weight of their wings ends up being greater than the strength of the wing to support itself. This is what causes the twisting at the very tip of the wing.

How to Prevent Angel Wing

Lower Protein Feed

I always recommend feeding ducklings an 18% protein starter feed for only the first two weeks, then switching to a 15-16% protein feed until they're almost laying age.

Multi-flock feeds for broilers and meat birds should NOT be used for ducklings because many are extremely high protein and really only meant for meat birds - which you want to grow fast.

But for the average backyard egg-laying duck, the multi-flock feeds aren't appropriate.  So you need to read your feed bag labels so you know exactly what's in the feed your feeding to your ducklings.

In addition to possibly causing angel wing due to the higher protein levels, these feeds can also lead to foot and leg injuries due to too-fast growth rates in ducklings.

Lots of Exercise

Getting your ducklings outside to exercise and run around is beneficial for lots of reasons, but is also thought to help prevent Angel Wing. Allowing your ducklings short supervised swim time can also help to prevent the condition and lead to more normal growth rates.

Add Greens to their Diet

Another benefit of lots of outdoor time is that encourages the ducklings to fill up on grass and other greens - more like the diet of a wild duck.

If you can't get your ducklings outside, providing them chopped herbs and weeds, and leafy greens such as kale, chards and lettuce is beneficial. Ducklings allowed to forage and free range will rarely suffer from Angel Wing.

How to Treat Angel Wing

Despite knowing all of this, despite feeding my ducklings the proper feed, despite giving them outdoor play time and lots of leafy greens, despite also adding raw oats to my ducklings' feed to cut the protein levels even more, poor Olive and Fig started to show signs of Angel Wing within several weeks of hatching.

Fortunately, I knew what to look for and recognized the signs immediately.

I knew from my research that if caught and treated quickly, Angel Wing could be reversed because ducklings' bones are still soft when they are that young.

I knew that adding alfalfa pellets to their diet could possibly help reverse the Angel Wing, so I immediately started adding them to all my ducklings' daily feed and also offering a small dish free-choice.

I knew that using a long strip of Vetrap and basically wrapping the wing and binding it to the body, holding it in place for a week or two was likely to help the condition repair itself.

The wrap would work to hold the feathers in the correct position, allowing them to grow in the right direction until the last joint became strong enough to support her feather growth.

There are several ways to accomplish this. Wrapping just the wing and then binding that to the body, wrapping the wing and then the body in a sort of figure 8 pattern, or wrapping the wing and body together.

My plan was to wrap the ducks each morning and then take the binding off when I locked up the coop each night to allow them to

What followed was two weeks of catching - or rather trying to catch - Olive and Fig each morning (after the first morning or two they were totally on to me and did their best to evade capture).

Then holding with one hand while I attempted to bind each duck tightly enough that they couldn't get the Vetrap off, but loose enough that they could still walk and wouldn't loose all circulation in their body!

And of course because I do what I do for a living, I also snapped photos at every chance I could, knowing I would eventually want to write about my experience with this.

But I digress.

Anyway, the result was that every single day Olive succeeded in wiggling out of every binding I could come up with within hours - if not minutes. Every. Single. Day.

I tried wrapping just her wing...

I tried the figure 8 method...

I tried the tube method...

If you have ever attempted to wrap a duck in Vetrap, you'll understand. I tried every configuration using the Vetrap and even medical tape on top of the Vetrap. Nothing worked on Olive (side note I really should rename her Houdini!)

Meanwhile, Fig behaved and left hers on. She was just fine with a sort of wide tube of Vetrap that I slid over her head and down her body.  It held her wing firmly in place and after about a week, her wing was no longer bowing out.

Living with Angel Wing

But after about two weeks, finally I gave up on Olive. I hoped that the alfalfa pellets alone would work their magic and fix her Angel Wing.

Unfortunately, while I do believe they curtailed the progression, they didn't completely reverse it.

But Olive is now almost a year old, and just as happy and healthy as her sisters. The Angel Wing hasn't bothered her at all.

Note: As a last resort, clipping the flight feathers to reduce the appearance of the condition is an option, but since the Angel Wing isn't likely to interfere with Olive's quality of life in the least, I will just leave her be. 

Meanwhile, Fig's wing is still completely normal, laying flat against her body and looking beautiful.

I don't understand why only Fig and Olive, and not their two sisters, were afflicted. They all ate the same thing, got the same exercise and swim time, I'm baffled.

Regardless, in the future I will still follow the guidelines outlined here to try and prevent future episodes of Angel Wing in ducklings. 

Who knows, maybe what I was already doing was what prevented it in the other two? And the treatment I did definitely reversed the Angel Wing in Fig.

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