Today, we’re going to talk about our experience over the past year raising ducks: brooding ducklings, building a duck run, how they’re different from our chickens, how many eggs they lay, and what we do with all those duck eggs!
We’ve already talked about our backyard chickens here on the blog, having had some previous experience with keeping chickens. However, keeping ducks was a brand new endeavor for us, and after a year, we feel ready to share our experience!
What We Learned About Raising Ducklings
If you’re thinking about raising ducks in your backyard, the first thing to know is that ducklings are MESSY.
While a brooder with 5-10 newborn chicks can stay pretty clean for several days or even a week (if you have fewer chicks), a brooder full of ducklings requires daily cleaning.
As said ducklings get larger, more rambunctious, and turn into splashing little poop machines, the brooder needed cleaning twice each day, once in the morning, and once in the evening.
This happens pretty quickly, as ducklings grow at lighting speed, being near fully grown by around 5 weeks of age. As I was writing this, I just asked Justin, “What do you think we learned about raising ducklings?”
His response: “They are absolutely filthy.”
That may sound a tad harsh, but out of the five of us, Justin was probably the one hosing duck poo off of rubber shelf liners the most during those 6 weeks last April, so I guess this reaction is warranted.
Their messiness aside, they do also happen to be INCREDIBLY cute. Like unbelievably cute. I would argue cuter than your average baby chick!
There’s something about their little beaks and those floppy feet that’s so darn endearing, making YOU much more willing to deal with their messiness and antics.
Here they are on an unseasonably hot spring day, outside in a makeshift pen we made with a large cardboard box. Their tiny little wings, peaceful black eyes, their fluffy bodies, general lack of coordination, and penchant for snuggling up against each other more than made up for how annoying it was to clean up after them day after day during the brooding phase.
So why are ducklings so much messier than chicks? Let us count the ways:
Why Ducklings Are So Messy
1. They LOVE water. They love splashing around in water, dunking their heads in it and flinging it all over the place. Ducks also need water to swallow their food, so they’ll take drinks of water between bites, flinging feed and water everywhere until you get this pasty stuff all over the inside of the brooder:
2. They grow fast: Ducklings grow much much faster than chicks, which also means that they poop a lot more and are wont to cause more mischief, climbing on top of feed bowls, into water dishes, etc. The good news is, they’re much hardier than chicks as well, which means they can go outside sooner! The sooner your ducklings are settled in their outdoor home, the better life will be, trust me.
3. They can be quite skittish: We found our ducklings to be much more skittish and fearful than our chicks, which might have been down to the breeds we got. Nevertheless, each time we came in to clean their brooder, they would freak out and run around the brooder, quacking like the end of the world was here, knocking food around, and getting covered in bits of feed and water. The white duck in particular was the alarmist of the group. She would panic first and get all the others riled up too. Wrangling them in and out of the brooder between cleanings was a spectacle to say the least.
So knowing all of this, how did we manage to raise 6 ducklings and keep their environment relatively clean for the 6 weeks they were living in the garage?
Well first, we took advice from the amazing blog, Fresh Eggs Daily, on how to create a duckling brooder that’s as mess-free as possible.
How to Keep a Duckling Brooder Clean for As Long As Possible
- We ditched any sort of bedding, which would’ve been soiled within minutes, and instead used rubber shelf liners. (I think they were actually those rubber liners that go under carpets to prevent them from slipping). We cut 2 pieces to size, and switched them out each day (or twice/day). Each time we needed to clean out the brooder, we hosed it out, switched in a clean liner, then hosed the caked on feed/poo off the other one and let it dry outside. In addition to the shelf liner, we had an absorbent tea towel that we kept in the brooder that stayed relatively dry so the ducklings could sleep in a dry area. This also got switched out, hosed off, and dried each time.
- We kept the sleeping area and food/water area at opposite ends of the brooder. Their sleeping area would inevitably get messy and wet, but it would stay dry for as long as possible by keeping the two spaces at a distance.
- Their water dishes were placed into secondary trays. When they were little, we had a relatively deep, rectangular tray that we kept several ramekins of water in. Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily uses a small dog bowl on a wide, shallow dish. This helped minimize the amount of water getting splashed onto the floor of the brooder itself, since the tray acted as a catch for the water they splashed while drinking.
- As they got bigger, we actually created two separate brooder areas: one for water, and one for food: connected by a small hole that they could climb through with little makeshift steps we made out of scrap plywood. We still kept the food relatively close to the water, so they could drink and eat as they liked, but the water was sort of apart from the food, which kept the main area of the brooder much cleaner. Had we not done this, we probably would’ve been cleaning the place out 4x/day when they were 3-5 weeks old. Six ducklings doesn’t sound like a lot, but they can create an incredible amount of mess.
- We brought the ducklings outside (supervised) on warm days, as often as possible. Here’s a rough outline of what temperature they need to be kept at to be comfortable, by week:
- Week 1: 84-90°F
- Week 2: 77-83°F
- Week 3: 69-76°F
- Week 4: 63-69°F
- Week 5: 56-62°F
- Week 6: 55°F
As you can see, they stopped needing supplemental heat (from a 250-Watt red heat lamp) around week 4. Better yet, we were able to bring them outside on warm sunny days. The more time they spent outside with their feet in the grass, the longer the brooder stayed clean.
Plus, they got to waddle around, swim a little bit and preen, see the sun, and explore their surroundings! (You can see me in the picture below in the background hosing off their brooder while they munched on tender springtime clovers and dandelion greens without a care in the world.)
Just make sure they’re being watched, as they’re very vulnerable to predators, on the ground and in the sky (hawks).
For more info on what they eat and more, check out Fresh Eggs Daily’s comprehensive beginner’s guide to raising ducklings!
Building the Duck Run
Counting down the days to when our ducklings would finally be able to move outside, my dad got to work designing our duck run when the ducklings were about 3 1/2 weeks old. The run would be connected to an existing duck house that was already on the property.
We heard from our large animal veterinarian (more on our herd of large animals here) that the previous owners of our house had some ducks, which solved the mystery of the A-frame structure near the chicken coop.
It has a ventilation window at the top (necessary especially in winter to prevent condensation build-up in the house), and a door that swings open on the side for collecting eggs. But there was no protection around it.
We knew we wanted a predator-proof run to give them plenty of protected outdoor space to roam.
We started by studying the design of the (professionally built) chicken coop, which has cement blocks and thick wire at its base to prevent predators from digging a hole underneath the coop to get in. We mimicked this design for the duck run.
As you can see in the photos below, my dad put about 2 1/2 feet of steel welded wire fencing underneath the perimeter of the run. On top of that, he put down cement slabs for the foundation:
Perhaps the most exciting part of the build was my mom’s idea to use a $20 concrete mixing tub as a little kiddie pool or mini “pond” for the ducks to swim in during the warmer months.
My dad ran some PVC pipe from the tub underground, so that we’d be able to easily drain the water out and down the hill.
All told, building the duck run took about two weeks of work!
Why don’t we let our ducks go into the actual pond?
If you’ve been following along with our seasonal garden updates, you know we have a pond. So why not just let the ducks roam in there? Well, the obvious answer is predators.
Foxes, raccoons, or hawks could swoop down in broad daylight. There’s next to no tree cover around the border of the pond, so it would be tough for the ducks to hide. As you can see from the pictures of our flock enclosure, the trees give the chickens and ducks at least a little bit of protection so that birds of prey have a harder time scoping out their next meal.
We’re also dealing with a bad period of avian flu. It’s the reason why egg prices have been so high across the country. Sharing a body of water with wild ducks, Canada geese, and other birds that visit our garden is just too much of a risk.
That said, we will pull out big handfuls of pond weed, which the ducks love too much to resist! And this time of year, unfortunately we have loads…
Framing & Painting:
Once the foundation was in, my dad put up the frame, with a little help from Kaitlin:
Then it was time to paint it. We painted it white to match the chicken coop!
When the door went in, it started to feel like it was really taking shape:
Connecting the House & Run:
During this process, we were wondering how we would potentially connect the duck run to the duck house, while making sure that the whole thing stayed Fort-Knox-level predator-proof:
My dad eventually figured out a modification to the existing frame that would let us build a little ramp for the ducks to get in and out of the house easily, with no cracks for sneaky foxes or raccoons.
Then it was time to put the hardware cloth onto the run. Raccoons can actually chew right through chicken wire, so you definitely want something stronger!
The duck house door needed some adjustments, like adding a handle to the door (we just used some old cabinet hardware we had lying around), fixing some of the shingles, and adding a latch/lock, which we secure with a carabiner.
Then we added some wood chip to the bottom and surrounding areas of the run, to keep the area dry. We’ve found the wood chip to be an effective way to keep our large animal pen free of mud when it rains, so we did the same here, knowing that our ducks would splash tons of water everywhere.
And then the run was done!
When the ducks arrived at their new home, they immediately waddle-ran for it. (“Waddle-ran” is a technical term I have just devised to describe a duck’s goofy run.)
We later realized that it was easy for the ducks to fling wood chips and other debris into the pond, so we later added a border of bricks around it to prevent that.
See the pond draining? It’s not perfect, as it can get a little clogged by the end of the summer. We just snaked it to unclog it.
But all in all, it’s pretty easy to just take the cap off the pipe to let the water out and re-fill the tub with fresh, clean water.
We refill their pond every few days when the weather is nice out (during the winter, it was just a frozen block of ice), and we change their buckets of drinking water daily. While we always make sure they have access to fresh, clean water, when it comes to ducks, “clean” is a relative term. They always rinse their beaks of mud from foraging, muddying the water up pretty quickly. But I guess if they were wild, they would be in a muddy pond or lake!
I also love the way the duck house connects to the run. My dad did a great job—they look like they were built together all along, and the ducks have an easy time walking up and down their ramp.
They mostly like to stay outside, but they do go inside when it’s windy, very rainy, or very cold out, and of course, to lay their eggs! We keep a nice layer of warm straw in the house that they can bed down in.
During the winter, we also put plastic sheeting on one side of the run to shelter it from the wind.
Introducing the Ducks to the Chickens
Some folks say that you can actually keep ducks and chickens together in a chicken coop, but Lisa from Fresh Eggs Daily told us that if we had enough space, we should just keep them separate.
The ducks have different needs than the chickens—preferring to spend most of their time outside—even in cool/cold weather (they’re much hardier), and also different feed.
Looking back, we’re glad that we built the ducks a home of their own. That said, we did want them to be able to free range alongside the chickens when we let them out.
We started gradually, using temporary fencing to allow the chickens and ducks to see and hear each other without actually being able to go near each other.
We actually thought that the chickens might bully or peck at the ducks, as they were a couple months older.
However, when we did finally expand the fence to let them wander together, we found that the ducks more than held their own. Because they grew so fast, they were just as if not bigger than the chickens. They also tended to stick together as a team, chasing off the chickens when they came close.
Today, the two groups are somewhat tolerant of each other, with the “alpha” females of each one defending their own when necessary!
Luckily, they mostly keep to themselves. While the chickens like their treats chopped up small and spread around the ground for easy pecking, the ducks love their veggie treats in a bucket of water.
We used this galvanized bucket for a while, but eventually found a large enamel basin, which is easier to clean and doesn’t rust, for their water. In the winter time, we used electric heated buckets for both the ducks and the chickens!
Our Ducks Today
As you may have read in our backyard chicken post, we had one very unlucky day when we lost 3 chickens and 3 ducks. Our white duck, one of our Rouen ducks, and a Welsh Harlequin (who turned out to be a male/drake) were lost to a fox.
This was pretty devastating, and these days, we don’t let the birds out of their protected coop/run without supervision. They get less time outside, but are ultimately safer. Lesson learned!
Our remaining ducks finally got names as we got to know their personalities better:
- Our gray Blue Swedish duck is the sweetest, gentlest, and most docile of the three. We named her Feather. She’s a plump duck and sometimes it looks like her belly is touching the ground. She’s also the most friendly and sometimes will eat out of my dad’s hand!
- We have a Golden 300 Hybrid duck who’s definitely our alpha female. She’s suspicious and can be a bit of a bully, so we gave her kind of a cool girl name: Sloane. She’s the plainer brown one without any markings on her head.
- Finally, we have our Rouen duck, who has really elegant plumage with a shot of bright blue on her wings. We named her Esmerelda.
They still are prone to panicking and don’t like it when we get close, so we avoid picking them up too much. Plus, the little talons on their webbed feet are actually pretty sharp! If they flail their little webbed feet, it can definitely scratch you!
All About Duck Eggs
Okay, let’s talk about the goal of this whole endeavor: collecting duck eggs! Our ducks started laying really early. We got our first eggs when the ducks were about 18 weeks old. I think that’s considered somewhat early!
The ducks actually gave us a steady supply of eggs throughout the winter, while the chickens slowed down quite a bit during their molt and due to the shorter daytime hours. We were collecting maybe 1-2 chicken eggs every couple days, while our three ducks laid almost daily throughout the winter.
Duck eggs have larger yolks, and more fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals than chicken eggs. We find the white itself to be a bit firmer, with a greater ratio of yolk to white in the egg.
The size difference between chicken eggs and duck eggs can be comical at times. We put them into egg cartons that we re-use from store-bought chicken eggs, and the lid won’t close properly on them! (We keep it secure with a rubber band.)
Duck eggs are great for baking, making pasta dough, and adding to scrambles for a little extra richness.
As you can see, duck eggs are a lot dirtier than chicken eggs (see this mixed bowl below). We wash our eggs right before using them! (More on that here from Fresh Eggs Daily!)
We also use duck eggs to make traditional Chinese Salted Duck Eggs. From there, we can make dishes like Three Color Steamed Eggs, Steamed Pork with Salted Duck Egg, and egg drop soups. Check out our other egg recipes here!
So far, raising ducks has been a really fun learning experience. It’s also great to have a steady supply of eggs in the fridge when egg prices are still so high.
That said, with all the work and feed, we’re still paying a premium for those eggs. We buy organic duck and chicken feed, and the duck feed is more expensive than chicken feed! (No surprise that the chickens are always muscling their way into the duck house to eat the good stuff out of the duck feeders.)
It is worth it, though, knowing that our birds are happy, munching on veggie scraps and mealworms and foraging outside! Just the other day, I realized that I had a breakfast of eggs from chickens and ducks we had raised ourselves and bread baked from our own home sourdough starter!
It really makes me feel lucky, and like all the extra effort and time spent learning about this duck-raising knowhow is all worth it.
Any questions about our ducks? Leave them in the comments below!