Learning how to care for ducklings is a little different than learning how to care for chicks. Though they have similar overall needs for food, water, warmth, and safety, ducklings require some important modifications to their environment. Ducklings also generally start off bigger than chicks and grow faster; you’ll need to plan for quickly increasing space to accommodate them. If you have the right set-up, raising ducklings can be a fun and rewarding experience. Let’s look at what you need to know about how to care for ducklings.
How to Care for Ducklings in a Brooder
If you are going to raise your backyard ducks from babies, you’ll need a broody duck or a brooder. We have not had good luck with our Pekins brooding young. Of three ducklings hatched from our flock, only one made it to adulthood, and she was incubated and raised by a chicken.
If you’re raising your ducklings in a brooder you’ll need to provide what the duckling’s mother would provide for it: food, water, warmth, and safety. Our set-up for three Pekin ducklings started with a big plastic tub. In the bottom, we created a screen with PVC boards and hardware cloth so that most of the splashed water and wet feces could drop through. PVC board can withstand the moist environment and is easy to clean. Measure the inside dimensions of your tub and build a rectangle slightly smaller, then add a support through the middle. Staple hardware cloth to it and cut to exactly the size to fit down into your tub. It’s important that it’s a snug fit so the ducklings don’t fall down the sides. Also, use care not to leave any sharp edges that could cut tiny feet and legs. A zip tie looped through the screen will make it easier to pull out and clean.
Put an old rag or several layers of paper towel over part of the screen to give the ducklings a softer spot to lay down. Easily washable, soft plastic shelf liners could also be used.
Baby duck temperature needs to be regulated just like baby chicks. You’ll want to start off with a temperature around 90 degrees for their first few days then drop about five degrees for a few days. After that, drop by about five degrees each week until they are fully feathered. You can adjust your temperature by moving the heat lamp closer or further from the ducklings. A thermometer in the brooder is helpful for monitoring the temp, but also simply keep an eye on your babies. Huddling together under the lamp means they are too cold while panting or trying to avoid the light means they are too hot. Adjust accordingly.
By two weeks old, our ducklings needed more room so we expanded into a larger 3′ x 3′ square. The sides were 18″ tall plywood and the bottom was lined with heavy plastic. We put wood chip bedding down over the plastic floor, cut a hole in the side of our original brooder down to the top of the metal screen and added a ramp. The ducklings’ food and water remained in this space until we discovered how to make a mess-proof waterer (more on that below).
You might wonder why not just start off bigger? You’ll need to clean your brooder every couple of days so the main advantage of starting smaller is that it is less space to keep clean. It’s also easier to make sure they are warm enough.
How and What to Feed Baby Ducks
We started off with simple bowls for feed and water, which was fine for food but challenging with the water. Ducks need water deep enough to get their entire bill into including the nostrils on top. One of the greatest challenges for us in learning how to care for ducklings was figuring out how to keep a supply of ample clean water available to them while also keeping their home and them (they can chill quickly if wet) dry, since they play in the water if given the opportunity.
Then we discovered this trick on how to make a mess-free waterer. Start with a clean gallon milk or vinegar jug. Figure out the tallest height at which your ducklings can easily get their heads into a window. Use a knife to cut two to three small rectangles in the sides of the jug just large enough for the ducks’ heads. Fill the jug to below the windows. Keep an eye on the supply because ducks drink a lot of water — much more than chicks. You’ll need to be refilling several times a day or providing a lot of water sources. Make new waterers as your ducklings grow so the height of the window is right.
You may be wondering what to feed baby ducks. They are not as susceptible to coccidiosis so start with un-medicated chick crumble (generally 18%) for their first few weeks, switch to a 16% crumble until they are near egg-laying age (about 4-4.5 months old), then finally they can eat regular layer feed.
Ducklings need a source of Niacin (Vitamin B3). Your best option for this is sprinkling brewer’s yeast in the feed. Some other sources are peas and scrambled eggs. Our ducklings loved dog food and kale ground up in the food processor (our dog food contains Niacin).
Though feed should be the majority of their diet, ducklings love treats. Some options include grass or other greens — finely chopped, peas, small melon pieces, diced berries, cooked oatmeal, or mealworms. Our ducklings had fun with fresh kale chopped up and floated in a bowl of water. If feeding treats, mix in a bit of chick-sized grit to help them digest it.
Ducklings love to swim. If being raised by their mothers, they will be in the water from day one. We started ours off in a paint tray which allowed them to walk out of the water and up the “ramp” when they were tired.
Next, they swam in the kitchen sink.
Then came the bathtub.
Finally, they moved to a baby pool.
Be sure to monitor swim time closely as ducklings can easily drown when they are young and don’t yet have oiled feathers. Dry them off with a towel before putting them back in the brooder.
Safety, Sunshine, and Fresh Air
Finally, when your ducklings are several weeks old, they can begin to spend short periods of time outside, weather permitting. Take care to protect them from getting both chilled or overheated. Also, remember they are easy prey so their outside time should be in a protected area!
Now you know the basics of how to care for ducklings. What kind of ducklings will you be raising in your brooder?