Ducks are endearing creatures and they make friendly and lovable pets, even if they can be a bit messy! What's so good about them?
- Ducks are hardy birds that may live for up to 7 years.
- They lay eggs that you can eat, just like chicken eggs.
- They provide meat.
- They are easy to contain.
- They aren’t as prone to infectious diseases as chickens.
- They eat slugs, worms and any other wee beasties they can catch.
- And of course, it’s nice to have them waddling around making happy quacks
- Their basic requirements are simple. They need water, food and a safe place to spend the night.
Ducks need water to swallow and they need at least 4” of water to clear their nostrils and keep their beaks clean. A natural pond is ideal or they can be provided with a child’s wading pool, but water for swimming is not strictly necessary as long as they have tubs of water for drinking, and the water is clean. The drinking water should be changed daily if necessary.
It’s best to have the drinkers outside the duck house because ducks are very good at splashing it all over the place, and if it’s just outside the house and their food is inside, they won’t have to travel far to drink and clean their beaks.
Free-range ducks can be fed a grain-based diet just like chickens. Ideally, though, table ducks should be fed growers' meals, and laying ducks should be fed layers of the mix.
Generally, a diet of household scraps is not sufficient for good health, good growth and good egg production.
To prevent a digestive upset, any change of feed should be gradual over a period of weeks, with the new feed gradually being substituted for the old.
Note that moulting ducks in summer may lay fewer eggs, but during this phase, they need just as much feed as if they were laying.
Keep the feed in metal containers to prevent spoilage and for ease of cleaning.
Feed troughs can be inside or outside the house, but if outside feeders attract too many wild birds they can be put just inside. If they are fed inside the house and shut up overnight, you can offer a wet mix to compensate for the lack of water overnight.
One advantage of housing is that it can protect your ducks from predators at night. Hawks, weasels, stoats, dogs and cats will all pick off ducks especially little ducks if they can.
Ducks are pretty hardy, but generally, they should have some kind of covered shelter available to them at all times.
The duck house can be bedded with wood shavings or sawdust. Fresh litter can be added as necessary and the deep litter cleaned out in summer each year, or it can be cleaned out more frequently perhaps weekly.
Remember too that ducks need shade in summer. If there is no natural shade, it is important to rig up some sort of sunshade to prevent them from overheating.
Ducks don’t need any particular vaccinations to help keep them disease-free, but worming once or twice a year will help ensure they stay healthy.
If you buy ducklings make sure they are over 4 weeks old and preferably even older and fully feathered, or you will have to keep them inside until the weather is warm. They need heated premises or their mother’s protection for at least the first few weeks of life.
Ducklings can be offered starter feed formulated for ducklings or game birds, and this is preferable to a chick starter.
A female duck may be left to sit on her eggs to raise ducklings. Several ducks may lay eggs in one nest, but it is best to confine sitting ducks separately, otherwise, there may be squabbles about whose eggs and ducklings they are!
Ducks are not often good mothers. They may sit on 20 eggs but hatch only half, with only half of the hatched ducklings eventually surviving. To compensate, some people put the duck eggs under a broody hen who usually does a good job of it – even if she does get very anxious when her ‘chicks’ eventually take to the water, leaving her fretting on the bank!
Remember those very young ducklings with down are not waterproof and can drown easily.
Ducks are great egg layers - even better than chickens. The reason they are not more popular for egg production may be that their eggs don’t keep well. The shells are more porous that chickens’ egg shells, and more likely to become contaminated by bacteria. If they are collected soon after lay, kept clean and stored in a cool place they will keep for 7 to 10 days. Compare this with chicken eggs that may be stored chilled for 3 weeks.
Egg-laying breeds like the Khaki Campbell have the potential to clock up 300 eggs a year. The average yield of 230 eggs a year from well-fed ducks is on a par with the most intensively bred and reared chickens.
Duck eggs may have a slightly stronger flavour than chicken eggs but to most people, they taste every bit as good.
Egg-laying begins at about 16 to 18 weeks of age. Most eggs are laid at night, so it is best to collect the eggs at about 9.30 am if you can.
Egg-laying ducks unlike chickens don’t reduce their egg production when the days get shorter. They will have a check for 6 to 8 weeks when they moult in summer, but egg-laying only stops completely for only about 10 days during that time.
The table duck can be almost half-grown by about 4 weeks of age, and it can have reached its table weight of 7 lb by about 9 weeks of age, but generally outdoor ducks take a few weeks more to reach this weight.
Many types of ducks don’t fly well but if they have any mallard blood they may be quite good fliers. Clipping the flight feathers of one wing will successfully keep any duck grounded. There are only a few of these big feathers on each wing and it’s important to note that only one wing should be clipped. The feathers have a good blood supply at their base, and only 2”-3” need to be trimmed. This should not draw blood.
Join a Poultry Club
For the novice duck farmer, Poultry Clubs are an invaluable source of help and information. If there is a Poultry Club in your area, it would be wise to join. You will find plenty of duck enthusiasts who are ready and willing to help you.
I am grateful to Gary Cardno of the Taieri Poultry Club for his help with the preparation of this article. Gary is willing to answer any queries you may have about duck farming – phone him at 03 4811041.