Mad About Science: Ducklings

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

That’s right, everyone: It’s officially the most wonderful time of the year! Eat your heart out, Mr. Claus. Baby bird season is upon us.

Aside from the obvious cute factor, what would make you buy ducklings? Once grown, ducks are fantastic additions to virtually any backyard flock. Certain breeds of domestic ducks have been bred to produce eggs nearly as frequently as chickens. Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs, and they are very fatty, meaning they are unparalleled in their contribution to virtually any baked good. Pastry dough made with duck eggs is very voluminous and flaky while things like cupcakes end up being moist and fluffy. Ducks also produce meat with a very unique flavor closer to red meat than other poultry, with fatty skin that holds a legendary status for its crispiness when cooked properly.

If you fancy yourself the possessor of a green thumb, ducks also provide a not-so-hidden third benefit in the form of manure. Ducks produce very wet waste with a fairly even NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) ratio. Due to the relatively high level of nitrogen in their waste, it’s not recommended to apply their leavings directly to plants, but when gathered and mixed with other compostable organics, the high water content allows for composting bacteria to flourish — just make sure you allow it to compost fully, or this quality could end up biting you in the gut down the road.

Ducklings doin’ what they do. Courtesy photo.

This excessively wet waste is also the primary reason that first-time duck owners swear off raising ducklings after about two weeks into their fuzzy little lives. Ducklings are easily some of the messiest livestock on the planet.

As a seasoned duck wrangler and self-appointed bird nerd, I can tell you from experience that a little bit of preparation goes a long way when raising ducklings. Ducklings can be a lot more work to rear than baby chicks if you don’t have an efficient setup.

Ducklings, much like chicks, can’t regulate their body temperature until they begin growing feathers. They need to be raised in a brooder similar to chicks — essentially a box large enough to house them that is lined with softwood shavings or straw that is warmed by a heating lamp — all of which is easily purchasable from any farm and feed store in our area this time of year. Unlike chicks, ducklings are waterfowl, and they need large amounts of water, which they will splash everywhere.

To prevent daily brooder cleanings, there are a number of solutions you can employ to keep the mess minimal and potentially only need to clean their brooder once, maybe twice a week as opposed to the daily chore most duckling owners face. Firstly, remember that water will always seek a neutral position — if you place water in a container on a slant, it will always travel downwards until it is obstructed.

It’s possible to create a brooder with small holes drilled into one end, while you shim the opposite end of the structure just half an inch or so. This will prevent the ducklings from losing their footing in a tilted environment, but will also persuade the water to travel toward the drain holes you’ve created.

Another solution is to take a clean and sterilized milk jug and cut a section out of the side large enough for the ducklings to reach into and drink from. Any excess splashing will be contained within the milk jug and keep surrounding bedding from becoming soiled. This effect is doubly effective if you place the milk jug on top of a cookie sheet covered with a metal baking rack (preferably by adhering or screwing the metal pieces together to avoid slippage), allowing any water that may escape the jug to land safely in an area that is free of absorbent bedding. Once it’s time to empty the water, you can lift the cookie sheet up and out, or if you’ve drilled holes into your brooder, simply tilt the sheet into the holes and let the water drain — just be sure you have something under the drain to catch the water, such as a bucket.

Also, never use that particular cookie sheet and baking rack for anything other than bird-rearing ever again.

Once your ducklings outgrow their humble brooder and the air grows a bit warmer, it will be time for them to move into your backyard. Ducks are gentle birds and natural prey animals, so they will need some form of shelter once they are grown. Prefabricated chicken coops will work for a time, but they are difficult to clean and the wood used in these is extremely absorbent and prone to rotting. Plastic housing, though not very comfortable during winter seasons, is certainly the easiest to clean. 

I constructed a small house from wooden pallets and plywood, while using refurbished kitchen tile as a flooring in their house with a layer of softwood shavings overtop to absorb all of the valuable manure and keep the ducks from slipping and sliding all over.

If you happened to also buy some goslings this year, all of the information in this article applies to them as well — they are just larger (and come with a few little quirks of their own).

Looking for some more information? Worry not, the library has your back. Check out some of the books in the Storey’s Guide series in their nonfiction collection — they are extremely thorough, easy to follow and a joy to read.

Enjoy your new fuzzy friends, and stay curious, 7B.

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