Keeping Pet Ducks, Part I: Imprinting, Ethical Duck Keeping and Ducklings
The goal of this article, the first in a series, is to provide you with crucial information about keeping pet ducks healthy from the time when they are ducklings through adulthood. Calling on personal expertise and dependable sources, you will be given detailed information and provided with links and quizzes that prepare you to be the best waterfowl keeper according to a species-oriented approach.
Species-oriented: Nurturing, housing and interacting with non-human species in order to benefit that species in the best way possible.
In this article you will find the following information covered:
- What is it like having pet ducks?
- Ethical duck keeping
- What is imprinting?
- The duckling
My Ducks Playing Three Years Ago
*Please note that the singer/songwriter played in the video above is not Zee Avi, but a YouTube licensed artist that I've substituted.*
What is it like having pet ducks?
Ducks are both adorable and messy. Don't let their fluffy duckling exteriors fool you: there's a reason why lyrics to the old Sesame Street song "Rubber Ducky" say "Rubber ducky, you're the one!" Like rubber duckies, real ducklings come in a multitude of colors. Unlike rubber duckies, real ducks poop...everywhere, all the time. That's only the tip of the iceberg.
Although it can be an intense learning experience, keeping pet ducks is enjoyable and rewarding. Ducks, like other pets, can be companions who bring joy to our everyday lives. They lighten our moods and bring a calm to the landscape. A duck, under the right circumstances, can be a person's best friend. A waddling angel in disguise who can be taught to play fetch and *ride around in a car with us as we deliver papers. Not only are ducks entertaining to watch, but they provide fertilizer for your garden and will even help you clear out insects. As a duck keeper you will soon learn that Bob Tarte wasn't joking when he titled his non-fiction book about life with pet ducks, and other animals, Enslaved By Ducks.
My experience with both imprinted and non-imprinted pet ducks has taught me firsthand that raising ducks cannot be taken lightly and requires a lot of conscientiousness. In the past few years I've spent several thousands of dollars on veterinary bills and driven an injured Indian runner duck named Mary hundreds of miles to an animal hospital that treats exotic pets. I held little Mary in my arms as she took her last breath. I cried like a baby when I lost one of my girls, Dali, to a predator and I've laughed with so much joy at my flock's antics that I swear they're good medicine. I've learned through trial and error, in many cases, what works and doesn't work. I've spent many hours of hard labor in the hot sun, my eyes stinging from salty sweat, emptying and filling water buckets, replacing straw and digging worms for their enjoyment.
Beware the distinction between pet duck information and information that's published for the purpose of farming ducks for slaughter. There is a difference. As a duck person I've had to set aside what I thought I knew, even the old lessons learned on the farm where I grew up, as I'd taken on several myths about domestic ducks and accepted them as facts. These past five years have been a crash-course in learning about waterfowl. Keeping pet ducks is not the same as raising ducks for slaughter. Of course, I think all ducks should be pets. Books about raising animals for slaughter do not go into detail about animal personalities or other common sense observations that narrow the gap between humans and other species. Fortunately, books are written with the intimate care of pet ducks in mind, like by Kimberly Link, the president of The Ultimate Pet Duck Guidebook: All the things you need to know before and after bringing home your feathered friendMajestic Waterfowl Sanctuary, which I highly recommend.
A typical day with pet ducks can range from going out first thing in the morning to release the flock from their predator-proof house into their predator-proof pen, feeding and providing them with fresh water and treats, to waking up to change a duck diaper and/or running a bath for an indoor duck.
An imprinted duck--a duck that was raised from the moment of hatching by a human and so views the human caretaker as a parent or equal--may become accustomed to riding in the car as my Louise enjoys. Imprinted ducks might go camping with you (although you must keep them beside you at all times or in a crate) or go on play dates to a friend's house (you will not want to take them to a farm or a public pond where they may contract diseases). If your duck is in a diaper, you will need to change the diaper every hour or so.
Some imprinted ducks, like a muscovy hen from Louisiana that I had the privilege of "duck-sitting" during the summer of 2012, are completely acclimated to a human-centered routine and want nothing to do with other waterfowl. Other imprinted ducks, like my buff duck Louise, my Cayuga drake Augie or my muscovy drake Sao-Ree, acclimate to a larger flock and decide they'd rather remain outside, even during winter months. (It's not advised that ducks be subjected to severe fluctuations in temperature if avoidable as it can cause pneumonia.)
Pet ducks must be cared for when their people go on vacation. If you plan on leaving town, even for a weekend, the ducks must be checked on frequently because they muddy their water and tend toward any number of mischievous activities throughout the day and night. Ducks must also be let out of their predator proof pens in the morning and put back inside at night. At first I thought finding a duck-sitter would be easy, but I found many people do not understand the importance of changing water throughout the day or do not wish to deal with emptying large kiddie pools. Some people, believe it or not, are afraid of ducks and geese and I would be leery of anyone who expresses even a slight fear of waterfowl as they may neglect care taking once alone with the tasks at hand. Reliable duck-sitters are rare, but they do exist.
In a nutshell, if you have pet ducks be prepared for:
- Vet bills
- Veterinary care (locate an avian vet who treats ducks prior to bringing a duck home)
- Feed bills
- Researching best practices, both ongoing and prior to getting ducks
- Researching waterfowl breeds to find out which ducks are right for you
- Giving time and physical energy to care for your ducks
- Washing diapers and blankets (indoor ducks)
- Buying diaper harnesses (indoor ducks)
- Water changes several times per day
- Buying de-icing units for water buckets during winter
- **Keeping a clean house and yard (free from all metal, plastic, etc.)
- Composting and/or properly disposing of poop and used bedding
- Extra grocery budget for organic, local produce treats
- Noisy quacking (if female)
- Biting and chasing
- A lot of questions from both strangers and friends who are curious or wonder "why pet ducks?"
- Cleaning out pens and providing fresh bedding
- Investing in predator proof materials and building suitable pens for winter and summer housing
- Emergencies: Extreme weather conditions, illnesses and accidents
- Finding a dependable duck sitter
- Weather conditions: Hail, heat, cold, wind, tornadoes, etc.
*Never leave pets unattended in vehicles.
**It is a must that ducks be kept in thoroughly swept and/or vacuumed areas that are free of even the tiniest pieces of plastic, metal, string or anything a duck can ingest. Ducks are notorious for ingesting shiny objects that cause heavy metal toxicity which leads to paralysis and horrible deaths due to organ failure. Even a single penny, a tiny metal jewelry finding or a Bobby pin can kill your duck! Ingestion of foreign objects can occur in unkempt yards and foraging areas as well.
Ethical duck keeping
Ethical duck keeping occurs when someone decides to raise or care for pet ducks for the right reasons. It's all-too-common for people to make knee-jerk decisions when it comes to pet ownership. Who can resist the adorable cheeping, the fluffy adorableness of a duckling? That soft, tiny winged baby you want to pick up and shelter from everything grows up in a matter of weeks. A "how much is that ducky in the window" syndrome can lead to any number of harmful scenarios, one of them being abandonment.
Abandonment of domestic animals is cruel. Although legislation does not currently cover much, if anything, regarding the release of domestic ducks and geese into city parks or the wild, it is considered cruelty according to waterfowl pet enthusiasts, and anyone else who gives the matter enough thought.
- Why is releasing a duckling or adult duck into a city park with a pond, or into the wild, considered cruel?
1. The point to remember is that there are domestic ducks and there are wild, migratory ducks. Most breeds of domestic duck--except muscovies and call ducks--have bodies too large and wings too short to fly. Flying is the way wild ducks avoid predators. Domestic ducks are also tame, not wild, even though they may flee, seem wild or even fly away, in some cases.
2. Ducklings (and full grown ducks) have no way of protecting themselves in the wild. Many people purchase ducklings as Easter gifts, or for classroom projects, without thinking about a long-term plan for the care of the ducklings after they've reached adolescence and beyond. Since ducklings grow rapidly--sometimes a difference in growth can be seen within a single day--and double, even triple in size within a week from the time acquired, they often end up released at local ponds with so-called "duck friends" where it is assumed they will swim and fly and otherwise live long, happy lives. This is not the case. Ducklings released into parks, or the wild, even where there are established flocks, in most cases end up dead, and only in rare cases (compared to those that perish) are domestic ducks rescued by waterfowl sanctuaries.
3. Ducks are social beings who live in social groups commonly called flocks--they are called rafts or paddlings when swimming in groups on water--in which there is an established hierarchy. It is common for drakes (males) to injure or kill ducklings. Drakes can be territorial and aggressive, particularly during the mating season. Even if a duckling seems big enough to defend itself, it's not. If a drake doesn't attack the duckling, any number of other creatures will, including, to name just a few: ravens, crows, dogs, geese, pelicans, snapping turtles, hawks, alligators and even people.
Again, please consider an alternative to purchasing live animals as holiday gifts. For more information about ethical waterfowl keeping, please visit Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary's article database titled Articles About Waterfowl: Responsible Waterfowl Ownership.
What is imprinting?
Imprinting describes the way in which young birds identify the first being they encounter after hatching as their mother.
Before imprinting waterfowl, it is important to research and have background knowledge of duck psychology, especially if you intend to raise an indoor duck. Ducks have different needs than humans do. For example, duck hen's egg-laying cycles will be interrupted if they are exposed to light for long periods of time during winter months when the daylight hours are shorter outside. Curious in nature, ducks are also drawn to numerous objects found casually lying about human living spaces, like Bobby pins, pennies and other change, jewelry findings, tinsel or even tiny pieces of tinfoil from the edges of condiment bottles or medicine holders. Duck caregivers have so much to account for there should be a duck mother university!
Konrad Lorenz, known as the father of greylag geese imprinting, was an expert ornithologist who meticulously studied the imprinting of wild goslings on human caregivers. Lorenz wrote the book Here I Am – Where Are You? – A Lifetime's Study of the Uncannily Human Behaviour of the Greylag Goose (1988) Translated by Robert D. Martin from Hier bin ich – wo bist du?. While I do not support the political notions of Lorenz, I highly recommend reading his studies, and the studies of others, about imprinting, including the PBS original documentary My Life as a Turkey, available to watch for free at the PBS website, which shares the journey of nature artist Joe Hutto who imprinted a flock of wild turkeys that were left as eggs in a basket on his doorstep.
Ducklings will likely imprint (the attachment of a duckling to its mother) on a human, especially if they are obtained anywhere in age from the time of hatching up to five days old, especially if there are no other ducks around (though there may be cases of imprinting that have occurred even after five days). Imprinted ducklings need constant care. It's one thing to dream about walking down the lane with a duckling at one's heals, and quite another to wake up at 2 a.m. with a turd on one's pillow because one has attempted the feat of imprinting a single duckling and has no idea what to expect. Not only might the duckling scream for comfort, but if you don't know how to calm the duckling back to sleep as a mother duck does, the duckling may, sadly, end up alone--shut up in another room while you go back to sleep.
Before thinking about imprinting, several questions should be considered:
- Do I have time (imprinted or non-imprinted ducks alike)? Imprinting and being a mother duck is a constant job that will last several months. During this time the duties of being a mother duck will require that you sleep next to your duckling, eat next to your duckling, play outside for hours beside your duckling, keep your duckling warm, prevent your duckling from crying, learn as much mother duckling speak as you possibly can and only leave your duckling with an experienced duck-sitter for short periods of time.
- Do I have patience? Ducklings poop a lot. They cannot control it. They cannot be litter box trained. While some advertise and sell "duckling" diapers, it is my experience that ducklings are extremely uncomfortable in diapers prior to about four to six weeks of age and that putting diapers on tiny ducklings may cause harm to their wings, or other body parts. Plus it is often not worth the expense and struggle as ducklings grow so rapidly by the time they fit one diaper harness, they've outgrown it. I've tried making duckling diapers out of socks and pieces of stretchy material, but the ducklings squirm out of them or they just don't fit right. Ducklings cannot be "disciplined". Under no circumstances should a duckling be smacked, slapped or flicked. They are sensitive babies with fragile bones and tender bills.
- Do I have the resources? Imprinting a duckling requires forethought because the duckling who sees a human as his mother will grow up to be a full grown duck with full grown duck needs. These needs include predator-proof space, companionship (ducks cannot be kept alone), veterinary care (often as expensive as treatment for cats and dogs, and more difficult to find in some cases), diaper harnesses and diapers (if the duck is kept indoors) and did I say attention? Most of all, an imprinted duck needs you.
- Do I have permission? If you have parents, landlords or a significant other, then it's best to have every detail worked out before getting a pet duck. What are your town's zoning laws for keeping fowl?
- Am I committed? Again, I cannot reiterate this enough: Do you intend to keep your duck safe until the end of its life? As with any other living beings, ducks deserve forever homes. In extreme cases it may happen that you cannot keep your pet. Be aware that there are waterfowl rescues and duck lovers' groups with contacts located all over the U.S. (and the world) who are sometimes available to help in emergency cases. Never expect, however, that you will be able to find new parents for your duck, particularly if the duck has special needs.
- Will my other pets be safe around my pet duck(s)? Do you have dogs or other pets who pose danger to small animals?
Tips on caring for ducklings
Altricial birds are born naked and blind, therefore remain dependent on their parents for food and protection. Ducklings are what is known as precocial: able to leave the nest within two days of hatching to chase after insects, dabble in water and run around; however, ducklings are still dependent on their mother duck, from when they are first laid as eggs, for warmth and guidance. Throughout the incubation period (28 days for mallard-derived breeds/35 days for muscovies) until hatching, duck hens sit on their brood to keep them warm so that they will develop inside the egg much as mammals develop inside the womb. Duck hens even communicate using vocalizations, various croons and clucks, with their ducklings through the eggshell long before the ducklings hatch. Ducklings hear their mother's voice and begin answering as soon as they've formed the vocal structures in order to do so. In this way the ducklings form a bond called imprinting--the recognition that this is mother--which can also occur after the duckling has hatched.
Some animals are social, while others are independent. Ducks are highly social just like humans, dolphins, crows and wolves, among other species. Social animals have an inherent need to be with others of their species from the time they are born until they die. Most social animals spend their days and nights foraging, playing, bathing, eating and napping together. This means a duckling cannot hatch and survive alone. A single duckling cannot be left in a cage or pen, even with a heat lamp, adequate food and water, alone for any length of time beyond what it would take for a human to use the restroom. In fact, when I've imprinted ducklings they have accompanied me around the house while I've completed various tasks.
When duck mothers wander out of sight, ducklings emit a high-pitched call that sounds like, "Ee-Ee-Ee-Ee!" On the Internet you may find many instances of ducklings, either single or broods, their necks stretched high, their little mouths opening and closing as they utter this "lost" call. They do this because they are frightened. The "lost" call is a sign of stress, a cry for comfort, and so the ducklings need to be returned to safety. This is why human-imprinted ducklings cannot be left alone. If ducklings have imprinted on each other, they may be comfortable once returned to their brooding pen together.
What is needed to care for ducklings?
- Water - A water bowl heavy enough to prevent tipping, deep enough to allow nostril-clearing, yet shallow enough so the ducklings cannot drown. Constantly refreshed water available at all times, because ducklings can easily asphyxiate on their feed mash or choke on vegetation that's caught in their throats due to being chopped into too-large pieces and so they need water in order to wash their food down.
- Awareness - contrary to popular belief, imprinted ducklings and ducklings without duck hen mothers are at risk of drowning because they have not been properly oiled. Ducks have an oil gland at the base of their tails. Duck hens oil their ducklings using their own oil glands, which ducklings have not fully developed the use of on their own bodies; therefore, ducklings who do not have mother ducks caring for them are prone to becoming wet and weighed down which leads to drowning. If you must bath ducklings, supervise and give them access to a shallow bath with "islands" to stand on. If their bathing pool is not a bathtub inside your home, then the tub they are bathing in will need additional safe entrance and exits, like ramps, so they can get in and out whenever they choose.
- Proper feed - Feed specific to ducks is hard to come by and not readily available on the commercial market. One alternative is to conduct research (on your own) and mix a nutritionally proper feed. A place to start would be North Carolina College of Agriculture and Life Science's "Feeding Ducks" page. There are a number of commercial feed brands that are widely accepted for pet ducks. Even high-end, expensive brands often come from the same manufacturers that make low-end versions of feed marketed under different labels. After several years experiencing egg-laying, molting and other complications after feeding "feed store" brands, I've found the best to be a Certified USDA Organic chicken feed that has to be ordered from a different state from where I live here in the U.S. A local organic farmer places bulk orders of this feed that he resells to the public. It's important that ducklings up-to 3 weeks of age receive a diet that's 20% protein, which can be found in grower feeds. After 3 weeks of age, ducklings may be switched to layer mash that contains 16% protein. My ducks appear healthier when fed a diet without corn. In another article I will go into detail about alternative feeds--do-it-yourself recipes--for ducks. Many people have committed to a non-medicated, non-GMO diet both for themselves and for their pets, and so have sought alternatives to all commercial feeds. It can be difficult switching to homemade mixes, or making any feed changes, but with time and effort, it's possible. Once the separate ingredients are collected and combined, offering the new feed may seem like any other routine and the positives, in the end, will far outweigh the negatives.
- AVOID FEEDING DUCKLINGS MEDICATED CHICK STARTER - Ducklings are more sensitive to some of the chemicals contained in medicated chick starter and ducklings have different eating habits than chicks. Chicks take small pecks, while ducks gorge themselves. The problem may not be the medicated feed in moderation, but the amount of medication the ducklings consume due to the way they gorge themselves, which can cause an overdose in the medications and lead to complications. The University of Minnesota reports on their agricultural page about raising ducks, that "Incorrect use of certain medicated feeds formulated for chickens and turkeys could harm ducklings". Studies such as "Anticoccidial drugs and duckling performance to four weeks of age" are available on the Internet in summary. It is reported by several sources, including The Poultry Site and the Government of Western Australia's Department of Agriculture and Food, that coccidiosis (a parasitic disease spread through feces) is rare in ducks. These studies can be confusing, but looking into the matter will be worthwhile. In some cases gamebird starter feed may be ordered through feed stores, particularly in the U.S.
- Heat source - Ducklings must be kept warm. Think of the mother hen with her down and feathers and an average body temperature between 104-106 degrees Fahrenheit, her wings opened so that her brood can huddle up next to her for warmth. When using a heat lamp, remember that there are bulbs for daylight and bulbs for nighttime. Heat lamps are dangerous and require secure mounting and frequent monitoring to ensure there are not fluctuations in temperature. If ducklings are huddled close to the heat lamp, they may be too cold. If they are huddled in a far corner of the brooder, the lamp may need to be raised higher, away from the ducklings, because it may be too hot. It's important that ducklings are kept on a daytime/nighttime schedule in keeping with what's happening outdoors. I have kept single, imprinted ducklings next to me at night on a heating pad covered with a towel and then overlain with a fitted sheet, the duckling free to find a perfect spot in folds and layers of fabric where the temperature was just right--as a duckling would be able to do if nestled beneath a duck mother.
- Freedom - In my experience, ducklings do not like to be restrained a lot, if ever, though they do enjoy cuddling inside clothing or on a human mother's lap. Duck hens are a "canopy of protection" for their brood, allowing their ducklings to come and go beneath the safety of their hen feathers whenever the ducklings please. Duck hens use various calls to round up their brood. You can experiment with which calls the ducklings respond to and you might find if you make a long, drawn out "Quuuuuuaaaaaaaaaaaaack!" that's repeated several times, your duckling(s) may run to your side. This is a warning call that signals danger.
- Treats - DO NOT FEED DUCKLINGS BREAD. Appropriate treats for ducklings include diced tomatoes, watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, organic dandelion greens and peas mixed with water. Ducklings also enjoy insects, of course, like crickets. Bread is not a good treat for ducklings, because it not nutritious. Most parks departments these days have installed signs prohibiting the feeding of migratory waterfowl for this reason as well as that feeding wild migratory birds prevents them from migrating during the winter, which leaves them destitute. Please note that spinach, while considered nutritious, is bad for ducks because of oxalic acid that binds to calcium and other trace minerals in the duck's blood, causing calcium deficiency. For more information, please visit Exotic Pet Vet.
- Bedding - If you're raising ducklings (and adult ducks) you will need appropriate bedding like pine shavings, though I've raised most of mine on towels that I've rinsed with the hose and washed in the washing machine with bleach.
- Housing - A safe playpen or housing area. The duckling brooder must be free of sharp corners and wire and CANNOT HAVE A WIRE BOTTOM. Wire bottoms cause bumble foot sores in ducks of any age. Bumble foot is the development of pus lumps in the sensitive feet of waterfowl, and some other species, that causes pain, limping and the possible loss of toes or even death. Depending on the severity of the infection, ducks may need immediate veterinary care. In other cases, where the bumble foot is not crippling, a neoprene shoe can be created or purchased and the area kept clean until the foot has a chance to heal. Surgery to remove bumble foot is expensive and painful. Prevention is best. (There are duck shoes available online for ducks who have sores that may lead to infection, or for those ducks who are recovering from bumble foot removal surgery.) If ducklings are kept outside with appropriate heat sources, etc., then the pen must be predator-proof, including a secure top with mesh (all around) small enough to prevent all predators and even small birds from entering. The bottom of the pen must be predator-proof as well--the most common way is to dig around the pen at least 18 inches pour concrete or embed part of the fencing deep enough that predators cannot burrow into the pen. Please search online for predator-proofing ideas. Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary shares how they build predator proof pens on their pen building page. My adult flocks are inside a concrete foundation garage at night with a baby monitor and smoke alarm. During particularly cold nights they have a 360 degree fan heater set at 70 degrees F. The heater is in the center of the room, about three or four feet off the ground, and is tied securely to a stand as well as tethered to a rope that connects to overhead beams, and kept clean of feathers and dust.
Keeping ducks as pets is both rewarding and challenging, but most of all it's a commitment one must be ready to make for the lifetime of the duck(s). Unlike our domesticated cats and dogs, domestic ducks are not as cuddly or dependent, but they become attached to and are dependent upon us in the same ways as our cats and dogs are, requiring protection from the elements and predators, including cars on busy streets. They need attention, proper nutrition and lifelong interaction with us, their duck mothers or caregivers.
In the next installment of this article series, the following will be covered:
- Buying a pet duck, including the importance of rescues