When we moved to our new house, I knew that I wanted to bring home some baby ducklings as soon as we were set up for them. I have always loved ducks. As an avid baker who prizes their eggs, I’ve dreamed of having my own small flock of layers for years. Because I am lucky enough to work for McMurray Hatchery, I’ve spent many hours reading everything duck. From learning about different breeds and health considerations to reading about housing needs and feeding requirements, I did my due diligence before dipping my toes into the wonderful world of raising backyard ducks for the first time.
Which Breed is Best?
When researching which duck breeds would best suit our family, I had a few requirements. First and foremost, I wanted breeds that are known to be calm, friendly, and good in a backyard setting. My kids love interacting with our poultry, so that’s always in the forefront of my mind when we bring new animals home. I also wanted hens that would lay decently well so that I can eventually use their eggs in my cakes, cookies, pies, and other tasty treats. Finally, I knew I wouldn’t mind a bit of extra help in the garden from my new feathered friends, especially when it comes to slug duty.
I settled on Cayugas first, as I have read that they make excellent pets when they are raised with care and attention. They are also known to be hardy, which is important to me while living in a climate with such extreme temperatures. And…let’s be honest. Their beautiful coloring doesn’t hurt one bit! These hens will be decent layers, and I look forward to adding their grey-black eggs to my rainbow basket.
Next, I decided on Silver Appleyards because of their friendly demeanor, prowess as pest exterminators in the garden, and excellent rate of lay. Admittedly, this breed is a bit bigger than I imagined myself wanting originally, but Ann Accetta-Scott sings their praises, so I just had to give them a try.
Welsh Harlequins were the breed that started it all for me. With their stately good looks, calm personalities, and fantastic laying abilities, they seemed to be everything I wanted in a duck breed.
Because I am a new duck keeper, I wanted to start with a small number of hens to begin with. However, if I were to ever get more ducks, Khaki Campbells are at the top of my list!
Setup and Arrival
I followed the same basic brooder setup that I always use when raising backyard chicks. Because I had recently raised a group of chicks and transitioned them into our main coop, I had all of the supplies on hand that I needed for raising ducklings.
First, I made sure to sanitize everything well before my ducklings arrived, which is an important biosecurity step to take in between brooding groups of baby poultry. I set our plastic tote brooder up in the mudroom the night before our ducklings arrived, complete with my Brinsea EcoGlow plate and a basic feeder and waterer.
When the ducklings arrived, I dipped their beaks in their water and made sure everyone was eating and drinking on their own before giving them a little space to rest.
Ducklings need their brooder to be around 90 degrees for the first week of life. After that, you can begin decreasing the temperature by about 5 degrees a day until they are fully feathered and ready to go outside full time.
Everyone says that ducklings are very messy, and I quickly learned how true that is! Their brooders get wet and dirty quickly. My plastic tote was perfect because it was easy to dump out and wipe dry. It’s important to keep the brooder as clean and dry as possible to support your ducklings’ health.
Ducklings grow very quickly, so you have to make sure that their brooder can accommodate their growth long-term. The plastic tote that I used definitely wouldn’t have lasted for much longer than two weeks on its own. However, we raised our backyard ducklings in the late summer last year. The weather was beautiful, so our ducklings were able to spend a lot of time outside right away. This also helped cut down on the mess in their brooder, which I appreciated!
An important part of raising ducklings is understanding their specific dietary needs. They grow so, so quickly and need a high protein feed to start out. However, after about 2-3 weeks of age, ducklings need to be switched to a lower protein feed to support good bone growth. Waterfowl feed is the best option, but I used local feed with appropriate protein levels for each phase of life.
Ducklings are avid foragers, and ours had lots of opportunities to nibble on grass, clover, and weeds from very early on. I made sure that they had access to chick grit any time they were foraging outside so that they were able to digest their forage properly.
Transitioning Ducklings Outside
For the first week, we brought our ducklings outside for supervised play time. By the second week, i was able to transition them to living in an outdoor brooder during the day, and I brought them back in to their smaller brooder at night. Following Ann Accetta-Scott’s advice on raising ducklings, I stopped keeping their feed and water in the brooder overnight around week five. This helped keep their indoor brooder cleaner for longer, too!
Because of this system, once our ducklings were fully feathered around two months of age, they transitioned to living outside very easily! However, one thing I made sure to do was to turn their heat plate on at night for their first two weeks outside. By that time, we were heading into fall, and nighttime temperatures were beginning to dip a bit. They weaned off of their nighttime heat plate very quickly, though!
My Top Tips for Raising Ducklings
Niacin: Ducks have a higher niacin/B3 requirement than chickens. Because of this, you should always check the niacin/B3 percentages in the feed you give your ducklings. Since I didn’t use a waterfowl specific feed, I supplemented my ducklings’ niacin naturally by sprinkling Brewer’s Yeast over their feed each day.
Clean Water: If you think your chicks’ water gets dirty quickly, just wait until you raise ducklings! I liked placing their waterer inside a pie tin when it was in the brooder, but it was much easier to manage the mess outside. Because ducklings have to dip their beaks in water when they eat, the water gets dirty quickly, and must be changed often!
My Favorite Waterers: For the first several weeks, I used a basic waterer. It worked really well for dipping their tiny beaks into when they were small. As my ducklings grew, that waterer became a bit too shallow for their needs. By about three weeks, I switched them over to a small dog bowl in their outside brooder only. This allowed them to clean their beaks as needed, but wasn’t so large that it was a safety hazard.
Timing: While brooding ducklings indoors is certainly possible, it was much cleaner to have the option to keep our ducklings outside as much as possible from a young age. If you live in a warm climate, I definitely recommend taking advantage of the weather and timing your ducklings’ arrival based on the seasons.
In the wild, a mother duck transfers her waterproofing oils to her little ducklings, which allows them to swim safely from a very young age. In domestic situations, it’s really important to ensure that your ducklings aren’t fully submerged or swimming for long periods unsupervised before their oil glands are developed, which is typically around the time when they are fully feathered. As our ducklings grew, we allowed them to play in water, but I was careful to monitor their access to swimming before ten weeks of age. A great alternative? Mud puddles! My children love nothing more than creating massive mud puddles in the garden, and our ducklings loved tagging along, too. Trust me when I say there’s nothing cuter than a mud puddle full of toddlers and ducklings!
Raising Backyard Ducklings
Overall, I loved raising backyard ducklings…and happily look forward to it again this summer. Our ducks are excellent foragers with wonderful personalities. I’m already using their bedding and manure to enrich our garden, and I look forward to their help with slug duty this spring and summer. Best of all, I love waking up to their eggs each morning. My grandparents can attest that my baking has certainly leveled up since our ducks began to lay!
Cassidy Cornell is a mama, homemaker, and backyard poultry enthusiast living in Eastern Washington. She loves gardening, baking, and taking pictures of eggs.
All photos in this article are courtesy of Cassidy Cornell.
Notes from an Expert
Gail Damerow on her newest publication, An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Raising Backyard Ducks:
“The opportunity to share my many years of experience raising ducks has been an exciting adventure. It has given me the chance to dispel some of the common myths floating around, especially in comparing ducks to chickens, and also to present all the major breeds of North America, including bantam ducks and Muscovies. Even though this book is titled as an absolute beginner’s guide, I included enough essential information to make it useful beyond the newbie stage. As the class clowns among poultry, ducks are a ton of fun to have. I hope this new book helps spread the joy.”