With their double coat of waterproof feathers over thick, warm fluffy down and a layer of body fat, ducks (regardless of duck breeds) are exceedingly cold-hardy. They love being outdoors year-round in most climates, perfectly happy playing in the rain and even the snow. Duck shelters don’t need to be elaborate or expensive. But providing your ducks a place to occasionally get out of the elements, especially the wind, is important.
Older ducks, any suffering from one of the (fairly uncommon) duck diseases, those molting, or young ducks just growing in their adult feathers do run the risk of becoming chilled or suffering hypothermia in extreme cold temperatures. Here is some information about ducks and duck shelters to help you get your flock through the winter as comfortably as possible.
Your night duck shelter should be draft-free, but well-ventilated, since ducks emit a lot of moisture when they sleep, and that moisture can lead to frostbitten feet. Unlike chickens, who come equipped with vulnerable extremities in the form of combs and wattles that often suffer frostbite, ducks only have to worry about their feet, so be sure to line the bottom of the duck shelter with a nice thick layer of straw. Although you can use shavings or hay for bedding, straw is a superior insulator because of its hollow shafts that trap warm air inside and provide a nice soft bed.
Stacking straw bales along the inner walls of your duck shelter (if there is extra room), is helpful because they not only take up some of the cold, dead air space, your ducks often like to squeeze behind them to sleep, which also helps them to keep warm.
Duck shelters should never be heated. For one thing, the ducks don’t need it, being perfectly capable of pulling their feet up against their warm bodies and tucking their head under a wing to sleep, but more importantly, heat can cause fires so easily, and the heat also creates moisture – which can lead to frostbite.
Ducks are extremely vulnerable to predators, especially at night, so for their safety, they should be locked inside a secure duck shelter. A chicken coop, shed, doghouse or even child’s playhouse all can be converted into a great duck shelter with the addition of a solid door with a predator-proof latch on it and some ventilation spaces cut high up on the sides and covered in 1/2″ welded wire. Ducks don’t roost to sleep like chickens, they are perfectly happy making a bed in the straw on the floor, and they will lay their eggs in a corner of their shelter, usually in the pre-dawn hours, so neither roosting bars nor nesting boxes are required. I have had some luck filling wooden boxes with straw and having our ducks lay in them, but more often than not, they prefer to make their own nests on the floor.
Adult ducks don’t need feed and water overnight – and in fact, will just make a mess if you do provide them a nighttime meal. One caution though: If you remove the water from your duck house, be sure to take out the feed as well, because ducks can easily choke if they eat without having water to help wash the feed down.
When snow covers the ground, your ducks will still love being outside, as long as you create a wind block in a corner of their pen using tarps, sheets of plastic, landscaping (low shrubs, bushes, and trees), bales of straw or plywood. They don’t seem to mind the cold but don’t like the wind. Even banks of snow pushed up against the run fencing provide a great wind block for them.
It’s easy to build a few simple A-frame structures out of plywood and some scrap boards for your ducks to sit in during the day in the winter. They don’t have to be very large, just enough to fit a duck or two. These protect them from the wind as well as aerial predators (if you free range your ducks) and will encourage your ducks to spend more time outdoors getting fresh air.
Ducks love to sit in the snow too though. To protect their feet from frostbite, they will tuck them up under their feathers against their warm bellies, same as when they sleep in the winter, or stand on alternate feet, pulling the other foot up against their body to rewarm the blood. However, shoveling and then putting down some straw paths outside over the snow will help your ducks navigate outside more easily and give them a place to curl up more comfortably.
For the most part, these few tips should help prevent frostbite since ducks do have very elaborate, efficient circulation systems in their legs and feet, but if you notice a duck sitting and not moving around much, if she has ice forming on her feathers or her feet start to turn black, get her inside and warmed up. Smearing some coconut oil on a duck’s legs can help protect them from frostbite if you have concerns.
For more information on how to raise ducks in your backyard, please stay awhile and browse other articles on this site or check out my new book Duck Eggs Daily: Raising Happy, Healthy Ducks…Naturally (St. Lynn’s Press, 2015). Keeping domestic ducks in your backyard is an incredibly rewarding, entertaining and practical pastime – one which I highly recommend.