Ducklings 101

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Everything you need to know to care for your ducklings - including details on just how messy they are!

All I knew about ducklings before we got them was they are super messy.  That was enough to scare me away for years, but their cute little faces won me over eventually and I thought “how messy could they be?”.  The answer to that question is very.  Very, very messy.  Even though I like things to be clean in my house, I still think the ducks are worth it.  They are an awesome addition to our little farm!  Brooding ducklings requires a special kind of patience and love.  It will absolutely amaze you how quickly they will mess up their brooder, but they are just so unbelievably sweet and fun to watch it *almost* makes up for it.  If you have children, you are familiar with this feeling.  You get one room all nice and clean, then move to the next room.  When you return to the first room you find it completely destroyed, your cherubs staring up at you with angelic little faces like they did nothing wrong.  It is the same with ducklings, they aren’t doing anything wrong, both kids and the ducks just wanna have fun!  If you have a spare bathtub that is the way to go so a lot of the water can easily drain out, but you will still be cleaning up your fair share of gunk to avoid having it clog up your plumbing.  I don’t have a spare tub, so I have made a brooder out of a plastic storage bin (click here to see how I made it).  I clean the plastic bin THREE TIMES A DAY and there are only two ducklings in there!  Compare that with chicks, whom I brood 5-7 at a time and only have to clean the box a couple times a week.

Ducklings 101

Brooder set up

On the bottom of the box I put down rubber shelf liner.  This gives the ducklings a non stick surface to walk on and elevates the straw bedding a little so it’s not sitting in a pile of goo.  I have a small baking sheet that I put in the brooder box.  I put the feed and water dishes in the baking sheet to help catch most of the gunk & water they splash around, then I put a handful or two of straw in the rest of the box for bedding.  For a feed dish, you want to use something fairly shallow they can access easily.  I use a terracotta pot saucer.  For their water, I use a Mason jar water base for the first 5-6 days.  I don’t want to put a big dish of water in there with newborn ducklings to keep them safe from drowning.  Newborn ducklings are awkward and sometimes find themselves stuck on their back, you don’t want that to happen near the water! They grow so fast that by the end of that first week, they will be having a hard time fitting their heads and bills in the dish.  Ducks need to be able to dunk their whole head in water to keep their nostrils clean & moist and their eyes clean.  After the first week, I switch to a glass 1.5 quart baking dish.  It’s easy to clean and heavy enough the ducks can’t overturn it.

DIY Brooder Box

What do ducklings eat?

Ducklings can eat the same starter feed you would give chicks.  You want to find a non-medicated chick feed.  Ducklings eat a lot more than chicks and could overdose on medication making them sick if you get the medicated feed.  Chick feed is medicated to prevent coccidiosis, which isn’t an issue for ducks so the medication is completely unnecessary anyway.  To support duckling’s fast growth, you want to find a starter feed that is high in protein for the first few weeks (20-21%).  At around 3 weeks, the duckling’s growth will really kick into high gear and they will be going through feed like crazy.  Because of this, you want to switch to a slightly lower protein feed (16-18%) so they don’t go into protein overload.  If you can’t find a lower protein chick starter feed, you can “dilute” the feed by adding a low protein grain like oats to the feed.  Mix in raw, uncooked oats to replace about 25% of the feed.  Too much protein can lead to a wing deformity called angel wings where the wing joint sticks out instead of laying flat against the body.  Ducklings require 2-3 times the amount of niacin that chicks need, so commercial chick starter will not provide the necessary niacin that ducklings need.  Niacin deficiency can lead to bowed legs and joint issues so you should supplement your duckling’s diet.  Adding brewer’s yeast to their feed is an easy way to help them get extra niacin.  I like to mix the brewer’s yeast in as I change the feed.  If you add the yeast into your big bag of feed, the yeast will just sink to the bottom.  For every cup of feed I put in the dish, I mix in 1.5 tablespoons of brewers yeast.  For the first two weeks, I would avoid giving them additional treats, but after that, ducks like the same sorts of treats that chickens do – mealworms, bugs, fresh greens & herbs (try floating some herbs in the water, they will love it!), scrambled eggs and most fruits.  Once you start giving them treats beyond their feed, you need to provide the ducklings with grit (sand or commercial chick grit) to help them digest the food.

Ducklings 101

Heat

If you have brooded chicks before, you will notice that ducklings don’t need heat for nearly as long as chicks do.  This is because ducklings grow so much faster.  You will want to start out with a heat lamp warming the area to 90 degrees.  Use a heat bulb with a red filter to ease stress.  From there you go down about 1 degree a day.  You don’t need to go crazy about getting it precise.  Just raise your heat lamp up a little each day, and by the end of the first week aim to be around 83 degrees, and by the end of the second week around 76 degrees.  The ducklings will let you know if they are uncomfortable.  If you check on them and see them sitting with their mouths open panting it’s too hot and back the heat off a bit more.  If they are peeping loudly and huddled together bring the heat back some more.  By the end of the third week, you are aiming for a temperature of 69 degrees.  If you are brooding the ducks in your house, sometime during that second week you are going to be hitting the regular air temperature inside and can turn the heat lamp off.  I brood my ducks in my sunroom which during the day is fine, but can get a little chilly at night, so I turn the heat lamp off during the day and turn it on at night if they need it.  After the third week, it’s off pretty much all the time unless we get a super cold snap.

Just how messy are they? Keeping them clean

What makes ducklings so messy?  Well there is the obvious, they poop a lot and it is pretty runny because of all the water they drink.  But in addition, and I think the bigger offender, is the way they eat and drink.  Ducks like to mix their food & water for digestion, so they will take a bill full of feed, eat it, then chase it with water.  But often there is still food in their bill, which gets into the water.  Then when they go back for more feed, there is still water in their bill which gets into the feed turning it into a gunky mess, and of course they are dropping both feed & water in between the two dishes.  When they are done eating, they like to dip their whole heads in the water about a dozen or so times to get clean and possibly get in the water to splash around a bit.  When they come up they are shaking their heads and bodies splattering water on all the walls, which isn’t too bad in the first 10 minutes or so when the water is clean.  After they have been eating and food starts dissolving in the water it turns brown and mucky and they shake that water onto all the walls of the brooder making every surface gross.   This is my schedule for keeping the brooder box MODERATELY clean.  The ducklings get cleaned the first time around 9 AM, I change out the straw bedding, wipe out all the gunk from of the baking sheet and clean & refill their water & food dishes.  Mid day, I do the same, usually around 2 PM.  Then before I go to bed around 11:30 PM, I do a bigger cleaning.  I take everything out of the box, including the shelf liner which by this point is caked with poo and mushed up food. I rinse the shelf liner in the sink, clean the baking sheet and the water & feed bowls.  Then I take a vinegar spray and wipe down all the walls & floor of the brooder box (click here to see how I make this natural cleaner).  I put everything back and add clean straw.

All nice and clean!

All nice and clean!

 

About 24 hours after totally emptying and cleaning everything. Keep in mind since the first picture, TWICE I changed out all the straw and cleaned the baking pan, water & food dishes

About 24 hours after totally emptying and cleaning everything. Keep in mind since the first picture, I changed out all the straw and cleaned the baking pan, water & food dishes TWICE – these ducklings are two weeks old

Swimming Lessons

Ducklings can technically swim when they are about a week old but they lack the oil in their feathers that help adult ducks be so buoyant.  Swim time should always be short & supervised during the first month of life.  A tub or sink filled with a little water for them to splash around in will be fine and they will have a blast in there.  10-15 minutes should be enough at first before they start to get tired.  A tired duckling can easily drown so always be there to supervise.  Make sure you dry them off before you return them to the brooder so they don’t get too chilled.  After about 5 weeks, they should be preening to distribute the oil in their feathers and good to swim on their own for longer times.

Ducklings 101

Going outside

By the third week, you can start introducing your ducklings to the great outdoors on warm, sunny days (at least 65 degrees).  Make sure they are in a secure run or playpen and monitor their excursions to keep them safe from predators.  Keep the first few trips outside short, gradually lengthening their time outside to get them used to outdoor temperatures.  Somewhere around their 6th-8th week they should have lost their baby fluff and be feathered out.  But they can move outside permanently anytime after week 4 as long as nighttime temperatures are not too low (at least 50 degrees).  And by this point, you will be more than ready for these messy house guests to move to their new home!

Ducklings 101



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17 comments

  1. Karla says:

    Thank you so much for all the info,we are hoping to move where we can get ducks and this is very helpful. The pics really give a better idea of what to expect, thank you again.

  2. Shaina says:

    Today was day two with our new 5, 14day old ducklings. I agree they are MESSY!!! And the SMELL of the duck poo is ugh, a smell in its own!!!
    My daughter had ALOT of pine shavings left over from horse camp so We have a 50gal rubber tub with the pine shavings and it seems to do well All day! I will turn the shavings half way tbrough the day and Before bed, I will add a thin layer over the other so they have dry for bedtime and change everything in the morning. It seems to work very well!! I also put their food in a metal pie tin, very shallow! I bought a gallon self waterer for them that works well, great $6 investment!! It has deep enough edges they can stick their bills in.

    • Liz says:

      That is great! I can’t even imagine doing 5 at once lol! We have done two ducklings at a time twice now and that smell was enough! They are awfully cute though 🙂

  3. lyn hegarty says:

    day one here mums -indian runner – on the lake with the other 12, l got two from eggs left in nest. now in box with fine mulch in ensuite under heat lights very warm in there, rest of house is air con nearly 100′ here today made up some moist chick feed for when ready tomorrow should be ok for dry and water ? got a cage in henhouse set with light for tonight 7 muscovy ducklings now in their own yard this set up worked for them but today too hot and needed to keep closer eye on them for first 12 hours

    • Liz says:

      I would definitely keep an eye on them for the first couple days in that heat – but if they are with their mom she will take good care of them!

  4. Lauren Craig says:

    I wasn’t planning on ducklings this year, but went to my local farm supply store where they were poorly treated and “on clearance.” There were about 60 in a space much too small so I took the 5 largest ones. They had sores on their feet and were incredibly grungy. All that to say, it isn’t ideal to get ducks in Ohio at this time of year as we are still expecting about a week of winter weather. They are likely 5ish weeks (don’t know for sure) and their feathers are beginning to come in. We have them in a crib but they have already outgrown it. We have an outdoor pen we put them on cold days, however, I don’t know that they will be alright in the crib for another week. Thus, I was wondering if you thought it might be possible to move them to our fenced in chicken area with another duck of ours with a heat lamp on during the day so that they could warm up as needed. Then, at night, we could move them in the coop with the adult duck and 20 chickens. It stays quite warm in there as we use the “deep litter” method with straw. Is this a possibility or should we all just stick with the sub-par living situation for them until the next week’s weather is up?

    • Liz says:

      I think putting them outside on warm days until the temps come up and keeping them inside (even if they are cramped) on cold days would be perfect. Just make sure you keep an eye on your other duck & chickens to be sure they aren’t picking on the babies. Good luck with them, I’m so glad you rescued them, sounds like even a cramped crib be a big improvement over living in the store

  5. Miranda says:

    Thank you so much for the info! I have a question, so my husband brought home 6 ducklings because the local feed store had them on sale for 25 cents they are older 2 weeks, is it normal that the peck themselves often? It even looks like they have irritated their skin? I’m concerned maybe they were in a big flock for to long and something spread. I may be paranoid but I donhave want our son playing with them if there is something wrong?

    • Liz says:

      Ducks definitely spend a lot of time preening and at 2 weeks they are starting to grow into their gangley “teenage” phase and are probably starting to lose their fluff and grow feathers so that might be itchy. But their skin shouldn’t seem red and irritated. Do you see any mites or lice on them (they are really really tiny, but if you hold the duckling and part the feathers you should see them running about on the skin). My guess is though that they were stressed from being at the feed store for so long, probably in a cramped box and maybe not given the proper care. I would give them some electrolytes in their water and loving care and I bet they will soon be looking good!

  6. Jessica says:

    We have 3 6 week old ducklings, and they have been handled since day 1. Now they don’t like to be handled and run when you try to pick them up… is this normal? They are well taken care of and we spend time with them several times a day every day but they just don’t seem to enjoy it…

    • Liz says:

      My ducks don’t love being picked up either, they are friendly and will come right up to you but prefer to keep their feet on the ground. I think it is just a personality thing. I would keep spending time with them, but if they don’t want to be picked up don’t force it or they will start to fear you. Try tempting them to come closer to you by sitting on the ground and hand feeding them treats and showing them you can be trusted and aren’t something to be scared of

  7. Kim says:

    My duckling crys when we put him back in his tub house. He is alone what can I do? We found him when he was in the egg

    • Liz says:

      Ducks are really social animals – especially when they are young. If you can’t add another duckling for him as a friend, I have seen some people have some luck with adding a stuffed animal or feather duster for them to cuddle against. But if at all possible, I would recommend getting him a real duckling for a friend

  8. Robin E Jackson says:

    I have 8 ducklings (mallard) that hatched in a nest. They are with their mother (Lola) most of the time and they were swimming on day 2 in a baby pool in the backyard. Never been in the house and Lola won’t let me get too close even though they trust me somewhat now at 3 weeks. There is no brewers yeast in this town, really. I wish I could find some and can’t order online. I like your article but feel overwhelmed as the ducklings are fed with 4 adult ducks and eat and poop in the adult pans and ignore their chick starter mixed with a green pea puree..for the niacin. I’ve also opened tons of niacin capsules to add to the starter but I still don’t think they are getting enough. They have learned to forage and drill holes with the best of them. Am I doing enough? They eat like piranhas!

    • Liz says:

      They really do eat an insane amount! They grow super fast so they need all that food! When I have chicks or ducklings in the flock, I switch everyone over to a starter mix. The added calcium in an adult layer mix is not good for babies of either species. Maybe switch everyone over to the starter with the added pea puree (the peas are a great idea!). I haven’t had much luck finding brewer’s yeast locally either and had to order online. I know nursing mothers use it often to build up milk supply, so maybe in the infant section of a health store? It’s great they are free ranging, their mom will definitely help them find what they need. Wild ducks don’t have humans helping them get all they need. I think you are doing a great job, keep it up!

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