I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed owning ducks. My experience with ducks was extremely limited growing up. I had one neighbor who kept them, but they weren’t very friendly and he kept them locked in a horse stall their entire lives. They were not an animal I ever really desired to keep. Then, several of my local homesteading friends started getting ducks. If you don’t already know this, homesteading friends are enablers. They will not only convince you that another animal is a good idea, but that it’s easy. Having a young son who loves animals doesn’t help either.
So when we saw ducklings at the feed store, I caved and got two. Two is an easily managed number, right? Ever hear of chicken math? The same apparently applies to ducks. A friend was selling Saxony mix ducklings and Hubby thought they were pretty. We got four. Another friend decided ducks weren’t for her, so we bought her two. Another trip to the feed store, and we got two more. Within the course of a few short weeks, we suddenly had 10 ducks. And a few weeks after that, they were too big for the brooder. Turns out, Pekin ducks grow very rapidly.
We had to learn very quickly the best ways to house, feed and care for our ducks. Like most things, it was largely a matter of trial and error. It’s been almost 2 years since we got our ducklings, and I couldn’t imagine our little farm without them. They require certain allowances, but they have turned out to be extremely easy animals to keep. I’ve even met some farmers who have given up their chickens in favor of ducks. So, if you’re considering keeping ducks, here are some basic considerations I feel all new duck owners should know.
Why Keep Ducks?
Ducks are extremely personable. I never anticipated how much I would get attached to my ducks. Their deaths affect me much more than my chickens. Maybe it’s because they seem so much more intelligent. Ducks are known for being very trainable. I cannot get mine to put themselves up in their coop at night like the chickens, but they will all be around their house, waiting for us. We shine a flashlight into their house, and they walk right in.
Ducks are great foragers and help control mosquito populations. We don’t have a lot of standing water on the property, but we have a lot of foliage where mosquitoes like to breed. Because we live in the woods, the plants and ground under the tree canopy take a very long time to dry, which creates an ideal environment for mosquitoes. Our ducks free range all day and dig through the grass and mud, eating the mosquito larvae. They have not eradicated our mosquito population, but we have noticed a blessed decrease in the little blood suckers.
Ducks are more disease resistant than chickens. I love my chickens, but they get sick a lot. I feel like I am always doctoring sick chickens. If it rains too much, they get sick. If it’s too cold, they get sick. If you look at them funny, they get sick. You get the idea. Yet, in 2 years of keeping ducks, I’ve never had one get sick. I’ve had vitamin deficiencies and injuries, but never an illness that required medication. Which is amazing because they aren’t exactly the cleanest birds on the planet.
Part of my reason for raising Pekins was for meat. They are excellent meat birds and ready to butcher at 8-10 weeks. They are also very efficient to feed up to that age. They do become little pigs after that, but getting them to market weight is very economical. Butchering them is a little more emotional for me than when I do the chickens, but we’re getting better at it. They are a little different to process than a chicken, but the meat is excellent. If you’ve never had duck, it’s more like roast beef than chicken. I realize a lot of people complain about the meat being greasy, but I’ve really found it’s in how it’s cooked. My favorite way to eat duck is a nicely seared duck breast, but roast duck is also tasty and versatile. It’s all in how you cook it. My favorite method is this duck roasting tutorial from The Hungry Mouse. It’s a lengthy process, but it ensures the fat melts off of the duck, leaving succulent, flavorful meat. It’s also a great way to render duck fat, which is fabulous for roasting potatoes or sauteing vegetables.
I did not expect my meat ducks to be such great layers. I’m sure some of the other breeds that have been bred specifically for egg production lay slightly more, but I have more than enough jumbo duck eggs from my Pekins and Saxonies to satisfy my needs. Both have proven themselves as excellent duel purpose breeds. In fact, my ducks are usually the only birds laying in the summer and winter when my chickens take a break. The only downside is that my ducks do not live in a coop and the local crow population has decided that they also enjoy duck eggs. When it comes to eating duck eggs, we have been pleasantly surprised. Hubby actually prefers the flavor of duck eggs over chicken eggs. They make a really nice over medium fried eggs and are great for baking. They have a higher moisture content than a chicken egg, which means fluffier baked goods. They also have a higher protein content than chicken eggs. They do have a higher cholesterol content, but I’ll let you decide if that’s a bad thing or not. Personally, it doesn’t bother me because the cholesterol in eggs is associate with HDL (good) cholesterol, which lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Domestic Ducks are NOT Good Swimmers
While wild ducks are known for their swimming abilities, their domestic cousins are not. Yes, they can swim; however, they are heavier and not as agile as wild ducks, which puts them at a disadvantage to predators in the water. Many domestic duck breeds are flightless, which also puts them at a disadvantage to predators. Care should be taken if you live near a body of water to protect your ducks from predators in and near the water. Here in Florida, our most common problems around water are alligators and raccoons. If you have alligators in your water, I recommend fencing the ducks off from the water since there really is no way to protect them. Raccoons typically only present a threat at night, so ensuring your ducks are locked up at night is crucial.
Ducklings can actually drown very easily when they are first hatched. Again, they are not wild ducklings and are not born with the same waterproofing and endurance as wild ducklings. Their down can become waterlogged and actually pull them under the water. They can also tire quickly and stop paddling, which will cause them to sink. Ducklings should not be allowed in water deeper than they can stand up in. Short, supervised swim time in the bathtub or sink is ok. I typically give my ducklings a dog bowl of water in their brooder so they can play.
Ducklings and Niacin
Niacin is a very important nutrient for all ducks, but especially ducklings. Niacin deficiency can result in lethargic behavior, trouble walking and even death. Adult ducks can usually fill their nutritional needs by foraging, but ducklings living in a brooder do not have those green leaves and bugs available to them. If you can find a food specifically designed for ducks, it should have the proper amount of niacin in it. I’ve found that many feed store employees are not even aware that ducklings have different nutritional needs than chicks and often recommend chick starter for both. If chick starter is all that is available to you, then you’ll need to add a niacin supplement to their diets. I add brewer’s yeast because it’s a great source of B vitamins (including niacin) and is cheap and easy to acquire. I just sprinkle a little bit over their food every day.
Ducks Cannot Climb
Ducks are not designed for climbing, this means housing, food, and water need to be kept low to the ground. If ramps are necessary, make sure it’s a very gradual slope with lots of traction so their webbed feet don’t slip. For housing, we’ve found that a coop just a few inches off the ground works best. They also need a pool with short sides. We’ve found that a plastic kiddie pool works very well. We tried using a low Rubbermaid water trough because it’s only a couple inches taller than the kiddie pool, but they wouldn’t use it. For food, we use dog dishes.
Ducks Need Water
You’d think that it would be a given that ducks need water, but I never realized just how much. First of all, your typical chicken waterers will not work. They need a water source deep enough to dip their whole heads in. Ducks use the water to clean their eyes, nostrils and bills. Ducks can develop eye infections without the ability to wash debris out of their eyes. It also helps them eat. You’ve never seen messy until you’ve watched a duck take a bite of food, dunk their bill full of food in water, then go back for another bite. As a result, they go through a lot of water. However, without it, ducks can become dehydrated and dehydration can look a lot like vitamin deficiency. Their water can get very dirty very quickly, so it will need dumped and replaced at least once a day.
Ducks are Messy
Ducks do not do well in small spaces. Besides needing plenty of space to properly forage, they can easily turn a small pen into a mud pit. They do a lot of splashing when swimming, so don’t be surprised if half of the water from the pool ends up on the ground around it. Their poop is also very watery, which adds to the ground saturation. Bedding may only be a short term solution. Mulch, straw and shavings will actually prevent the ground from drying out and can make for a very smelly mess. If used, bedding would need to be raked up and replaced regularly.
Of course, free ranging solves most of the issues with small spaces, but it isn’t completely problem free. Ducks have hard bumps on their bills that allow them to dig in the mud for bugs. If they find a wet or muddy spot that they like, a flock of ducks can create quite a mud hole. The only thing ducks like more than water is mud. Another reason why they need a pool, ducks can get very muddy.
Ducks can be a really enjoyable addition to the homestead. Their needs are fairly simple and the rewards are numerous. They are friendly pets, economical eaters and many breeds can be used for both eggs and meat. They are also beautiful and relatively free of disease. So, next time you see a few cute, fuzzy ducklings available for sale, consider adding a few to your backyard flock. You’ll be surprised how quickly you get attached.
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