by Jennifer Sartell
Photos by author
One of the bittersweet things about raising ducks, specifically pekins, is that they grow SO fast. Ducklings are so adorable, and while my heart melts when they’re little, I’m not sad to get the brooders out of the house after they’ve grown. Our brooding time was about a third of what we usually do for chicks. Our ducks started feathering out by the third week, and because we had such a warm spell, they were playing outside shortly after.
Many of you are probably familiar with brooding chicks. And while brooding ducks can be a very similar process, here are some “duck specific” tips that will help make your experience easier and successful!
Tip 1: Provide the basics
Like chicks, duckling have a few basic needs. They require a safe, draft-free area, usually indoors, in a box or container with high enough sides to keep them contained. They need quality food designed for growing birds. We feed Purina Start and Grow (non-medicated), and a sprinkling of chick grit to help them digest their food. They need a source of warmth, usually provided with a heat lamp. When they first come home, the temperature directly under the heat lamp should be around 95 to 98 degrees, with a cooler area for them to move to if they get warm. They need clean bedding, changed regularly, and lots of fresh, clean water.
Tip 2: Supply a large water vessel
Ducklings go through a lot of water. More so than chicks. Ducks mix their food with water so they can swallow it, and it’s not a pinkies up, dainty, neat and tidy sip. No, they splash and bubble and wiggle with a bill full of food through the waterer, shaking their heads and diving again. A traditional chick waterer designed to fit a Mason jar or a plastic container of the same size will be difficult to keep filled even if you only have a couple ducklings. The inverted vacuum design will quickly overcompensate as the ducks splash around, and you will soon find the floor of your brooder box soaked. Ducks also appreciate a deeper vessel, one that they can dunk their bills into and really swish around. I provide a glass pie plate, or something of similar height. It’s deep enough for them to sink their beaks, but shallow enough that they won’t drown if they decide to splash and play … which they most definitely will. If the splashing becomes too much, or the water gets soiled too quickly, the pie plate can be raised with a wooden block until it’s too tall for them to step into, but still reachable with their bills. It also seems that the width of the pie plate helps to contain some of the wayward splashing. (To see our water dish in action, check out the video in my post Raising Ducks…Again)
Tip 3: Waterproof the brooder box
Even with a better water dish, it can be a challenge to provide enough water for your growing ducks and, at the same time, keep your brooder box and the room you’re keeping them in clean and dry.
I’ve raised baby chicks in all sorts of containers. Fancy handmade wooden cages, dog crates, even large cardboard boxes that after brooding is done for the year, are completely compostable. But with ducks, these porous or open-wire containers will need to be waterproofed. Try laying a tarp or a wide sheet of heavy plastic inside your brooder box. One that’s large enough to fill the container floor and up and over the sides. I then clip it around the top with bag clips, clothespins or black pinch clips. When the bedding needs to be changed, simply un-clip the sides, gather the tarp and dump on the compost heap. You can hose it off and let it dry in the sun before replacing. Having a couple tarps makes life even easier, as you can remove the soiled tarp and set the second, clean one in straight away.
Tip 4: Choose an absorbent bedding
Pine chips make for a great bedding. They’re fairly absorbent and the pine oils help keep odors at bay. But this year for our ducklings, I switched to a corn cob bedding designed for horse stalls.
It’s called Best Cob and it’s “all natural, and will compost in as little as 6 months compared to wood shavings, which can take up to 2 years!” It’s super absorbent and expands to soak up a lot of liquid. It worked great! We purchased our bag at the local feed supply store and it was the same price as a cube of pine shavings. It lasted almost as long as the pine chips we were using for our chicks. Once soiled, it can be dumped or scooped out just like chips.
Tip 5: Terra-cotta food dish
A great alternative to a plastic or metal food dish is a shallow terra-cotta pot. The porous terra cotta wicks away moisture from the food, keeping it healthier and dryer. Ducks don’t scratch the way chicks do, so if you feed them in an open dish, most of their food will stay put until the ducks eat it. Ducks shovel their food in, so having it a bit deeper makes things easier for them. I also place their food near the heat lamp. The warmth helps keep the food dry as well.
Tip 6: No need to overfeed
Pekins are the “broiler” of the duck world. And they can eat a LOT! We aren’t raising our ducks for meat, we’re raising them as pets and pest control without all the scratching that chickens like to do. Because of this, it’s not our goal to “fatten” them up. In fact, overfeeding ducks that aren’t meant for table, can cause long-term health problems like wing deformities, leg strain and heart issues.
When they are tiny and fluffy we make a constant food supply available to them at all times. But as they near the end of their brooding period, I get them on a feeding schedule similar to what you might feed your cat or dog. Each duck gets a cup of feed in the morning and a cup of feed in the evening. This encourages them to supplement their ration with pest insects, and healthy greens that they find around the property. This feeding schedule can also help to train your ducks to be put in for the night. Ducks don’t have that same “homing” instinct that chickens have. They will not voluntarily put themselves to bed when the sun goes down. Our ducks now know that when we shake their scoop of food, that it’s dinner time, and they will easily follow us to the barn to enjoy their dinner and to be locked up safely for the evening.