Keeping Ducks as Pets

Article by Rach (70%cocoa)

Have you ever thought about keeping ducks?   A couple of ducks can be a wonderful addition to your garden, helping you to get rid of snails and slugs (without digging up your plants like chickens do). Unlike roosters, male ducks do not crow and are very quiet. Although females ducks do quack, happy, well kept ducks are usually quiet. Read on for a bit more information about keeping ducks as pets.

Housing

  • Ducks have very simple housing needs. They don’t need anything fancy. A simple three-sided shelter with a mesh base, front and door is suitable.
  • The key thing is to make sure your duck house is secure from predators. Shut up your ducks when you are not at home in a secure pen or house that will protect them. Foxes are the main predator and are common in cities. Night-time is the most risky for foxes.
  • To be secure, housing must have solid sheeting or welded mesh (with wire at least 1.2mm thick) on the roof, floor and walls. Chicken wire is not strong enough and can be torn by a fox.
  • Space requirements: Ducks need at least 1.5 sq metres per duck in their house or pen if they are to be confined in it during the day. For a night house 0.5 sq metres per duck is enough.
  • Duck housing should be out of the sun and should provide wind protection. Ducks don’t really like to be in direct sun. Metal housing in particular should be insulated or shaded to avoid it becoming hot inside. Housing must also be well ventilated. Face the open side away from the prevailing winds in your area.
  • Your duck house or pen should be easy to clean. Cleaning will be easiest if you can stand up in your duck pen. Ducks poop a lot. Rice hulls are an excellent pen surface for ducks as they are soft but last a long time and also drain very well. Just rake the rice hulls over each day.
  • Don’t use bare concrete or pavers over more than one third of the pen floor or your ducks will develop sores on their soft feet.
  • Inside the house, provide a ‘private’ spot for a nest (a sturdy cardboard box on its side, or an old lawnmower catcher will do). Keep the nest topped up with clean mulch, wood shavings or straw. Ducks often bury their eggs in the nest.
  • Ducks don’t need a perch – they will sleep on the floor.
  • Keep your ducks’ food container under cover so it doesn’t get wet (e.g. keep the food dish inside the duck house). Keep the water and food at least a metre apart to discourage them from dribbling water in their food.
  • Ideally, put their drinking and bathing water over an area that drains well. Sitting the water container over a drainage pit or platform wider than the water container and filled with smooth pebbles is ideal.

Water

  • Ducks love water. Adult ducks will go through about a litre of drinking water per duck per day.
  • Ducks need water to keep their eyes, bills, feet and feathers in good condition. Make sure your ducks, at any age, never run out of water. As a minimum, all day you must provide your ducks with water deep enough for them to stick their whole head into. They will also use this to wash the rest of their body. Without this they can get eye and respiratory infections and their feathers will become tatty.
  • Make sure that all water containers are low enough so that the ducks can scramble out again if they happen to climb into the waterer.
  • Ducks will love having access to water they can climb into and splash in. Ducks get very excited when they are given fresh, clear swimming water! They don’t need to have swimming water all day in their pen or house – something out in the backyard will be fine. A kiddie pool (clam shell) or a tub about 20cm deep is perfect. Supervise all access to swimming water until you are sure that the ducks can get in and out of the ‘swimming pool’ easily. Old baths are not ideal because they are slippery inside and ducks can find it hard to get out if the water is a bit low. Although ducks are great swimmers, they can still become waterlogged and drown.
  • Whenever ducks have access to feed they must also have access to water. Ducks need water to wash down their food. If you take away their water at night, take away their feed as well.

Food

  • Ducklings and ducks need to eat a commercially prepared food as their main diet.
  • Up to 3 weeks of age ducks need a high nutrient feed with a protein level of approximately 18-20%. Duck starter crumbles are ideal however chick starter can be used.
  • After 3 weeks and up to 20 weeks of age they can be fed a good quality grower food suitable for ducks or for pullets (young chickens). Aim for a food that has a protein level of about 15%. You can also use a ‘maintenance’ food that is designed for birds that are not currently laying
  • After 20 weeks of age they can be fed a good quality layer or breeder food suitable for adult ducks or chickens. Do not feed them mash (feed ground in the form of a powder) as they can choke on it. Pellets or mixed grain are best.
  • After 20 weeks of age ducks also need daily access to shell grit as a source of calcium to ensure strong shelled eggs. This can be given in a separate dish.
  • At all ages ducks will enjoy being fed thawed frozen peas, leafy greens, or zucchini (including zucchini leaves). Try them out and see what they like! Leafy greens are very good for them. Little ducklings enjoy their greens finely chopped in a shallow dish of water. Some ducks also love watermelon.
  • Ducks scoop up their food so feed them in a dish or container that allows them to scoop
  • You can make food available at all times so they don’t go hungry. They will eat what they need.
  • Bread is ok as a treat but it is ‘duck junk food’. Bread shouldn’t be a regular part of their main diet.

Health care

  • Ducks kept in a clean environment and fed good food are generally very robust and hardy animals.
  • Ducks rarely suffer from intestinal worms or mites (especially if they have regular swimming sessions) but it is a good idea to worm them every 6 months to a year with a poultry wormer. Use something that covers tapeworm.
  • Large breed ducks or Indian Runner ducks can’t fly so you do not need to clip their wings. Bantam ducks or Mallards can fly so consider how you will manage this.
  • Ducks are clumsy and are prone to tripping over things. Sometimes they can strain a leg muscle/tendon. Usually this improves over a week or so, but keep a close eye on it and see the vet if necessary.
  • If ducks are kept on a rough or hard surface they can develop foot ‘ulcers’. If you notice any unusual swellings on their feet or limping that doesn’t seem to be improving then this may need attention from a vet.
  • Don’t ever give mouldy food to ducks – mould spores can cause respiratory diseases or sudden toxic reactions in ducks
  • Keep their water clean – change drinking water every day. But don’t worry that they turn their new, clean water brown within minutes – that’s normal!

Ducks and your garden

  • Ducks love to forage around a garden. They love to find a protected, shady spot to sit. They search in mulch and under plants for tasty grubs and worms. They should do a great job of removing snails and slugs from your garden.
  • Ducks like to eat grass, so they will also enjoy grazing on lawn. They will keep weeds down too.
  • You will need to fence them out of your vegetable garden – they will eat just about any leafy vegetable.
  • Ducks do not dig (unlike chickens) but they will make little holes in soft or wet earth with their bills, ‘drilling’ for worms.
  • When you are digging over your garden bed, let the ducks in – they will have a wonderful time finding earthworms and other treats.

Other duck facts

  • Ducks (most breeds) are almost fully grown at about 12 weeks of age.
  • Females will start laying around 6 or 7 months of age.
  • Ducks usually live till around 8-10 years of age, but they can live longer
  • Ducks (females) quack but drakes (males) only make a soft raspy sound and are very quiet
  • Ducks are easy to herd. To catch a duck, slowly herd them into a corner. To move them from one place to another walk slowly behind them. Raise your right arm to make them move left. Raise your left arm to make them move right.
  • Don’t ever chase ducks – you risk causing leg injuries. Always move slowly around ducks. They are shy animals and don’t like sudden, fast movements.
  • Most ducks usually don’t like being picked up and cuddled. Only pick them up if you need to. To tame them, sit quietly and use tasty treats (like peas and lettuce) to get them eating out of your hand.
  • Never pick a duck up by the neck or feet and never pick up a large duck by the wings – you may damage them. To pick up a duck, hold the wings closed and pick it up by the body. Tuck the duck under your arm, supporting them under the tummy and keeping their wings shut. Keep their bottom pointed away – you don’t want to be pooped on!
  • Ducks like to be stroked on the chest or on the bill (beak). They do not like to be touched on any other part of their head or neck.
  • Ducks will moult every year in late summer/early autumn. They will gradually lose all their feathers (including the big wing feathers) and will grow brand new ones. Drakes also go through a partial moult in early summer.
  • Ducks usually lay eggs in late winter, spring and early summer. Duck eggs can be used for anything that chicken eggs are used for. Ducks usually lay their eggs before 7am. If you keep them in their pen till 7.30am most will have laid by then,
  • Ducks are curious animals and like to come to watch whatever is going on.
  • Ducks can be awake or asleep any time of day or night (unlike chickens which sleep through the night).

Muscovy ducks versus other ducks

  • All duck breeds were originally derived from wild Mallards with the exception of the Muscovy duck, which is a separate species all its own
  • Muscovies can perch. In their natural environment they like to sleep high in the trees. In a domestic situation they either sleep on the ground like other ducks or they choose an elevated spot to roost
  • Muscovies and mallard-derived ducks can interbreed but the offspring will be sterile (unable to produce their own offspring)
  • They, particularly the females, are excellent flyers. It is a good idea to clip the wings of newly acquired birds until they feel at home
  • Muscovies don’t quack and therefore are a very quiet breed – both males and females
  • Muscovy ducks eat a lot and grow fast. They are a meat breed but some strains are pretty good layers as well
  • Muscovies have a lot of personality and some will follow you like dogs. They generally are very placid but they can be quite bossy around other breeds or species of poultry
  • They generally are calmer and more confident around people than mallard derived breeds but you still need to be careful around their very sharp, long claws and powerful wings (long welding gloves can be useful if you need to handle Muscovies)
  • When Muscovy drakes fight they use their powerful wings to hit the opponent. They also bite and have large claws (wild Muscovies perch in trees and use their claws for this purpose)
  • Muscovies do swim but some are not as keen on swimming as mallard-derived breeds. Their feathers are less waterproof than mallard-derived ducks.
  • Muscovy eggs take 7 days longer to hatch than eggs of mallard-derived breeds (so, 35 days in total)
  • A broody Muscovy will virtually hatch and raise anything: duck eggs, chook eggs or goose eggs. Broody Muscovies can be quite nasty if you come too close to their nest. They are dedicated mums and will defend their nest vigorously.
  • It’s nearly impossible to shift a broody Muscovy with her nest. She will usually abandon the nest if you attempt to shift it. This is helpful if you want to debrood a Muscovy: you just have to put her in a different pen and she’ll usually stop being broody after a short time.
  • Muscovy ducks don’t like to be herded as a group like mallard-derived ducks do
  • Muscovy pens should be fully enclosed with a roof as Muscovy ducks are excellent climbers and can climb over a 6 foot fence if they want to. Once they settled they stay, though.
  • Most Muscovy males and females moult only once a year (unlike mallard-derived ducks where all males moult twice a year)

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