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Ducks in the Suburbs

Ducks are hilarious animals to keep.  They seem to have a personality all their own.  They don’t need pampering, find a good portion of their own food, eat insects and weed seeds from the garden and can be very beautiful wandering around the backyard.  

Although ducks make terrific backyard pets, it is important to consider a few factors before making a commitment to keeping them.  Many people find the quacking of ducks a pleasant, almost amusing noise but close neighbours may be of a different opinion, especially if ducks start their quacking at dawn.  However, there are some breeds that are calmer than others and won’t make too much noise unless frightened or disturbed.

Putting a few ducks in the backyard is a good method of controlling slugs, snails and insects however if not managed well, they can do more harm to the garden than good.  Don’t let ducks in to an area until the crops are well established and past the seedling stage and be sure to keep them well away from lettuce, spinach, cabbage, green beans, berries and fruit.  Also, since ducks love nothing better than drilling into wet soil and damaging roots with their beaks, keep them away from the garden when watering or if the soil is wet.

Check with your local Council for the duck keeping regulations within your area.

Pecking Order of Ducks
Nature’s bird law regulates the peaceful coexistence of the duck flock.  The number one bird in the flock can peck or dominate all others.  The number two bird can dominate all others except the “top bird” and the number three bird can dominate all others except two.  Sadly, the last bird can dominate no one.

When a new bird is introduced to the flock, the pecking order is threatened which may result in a bit of a power struggle.  Unless this is causing serious injury, it is best not to intervene so as to allow the ducks to establish their new pecking order.

Ducks need the company of friends so never keep one duck on its own.  Always keep at least two ducks who will become best friends and wander happily around the backyard together.

Food
The natural diet of ducks consists of about 90 percent vegetable matter and 10 percent animal matter such as larvae, snails and slugs.  Whilst foraging, ducks will also take up sand and gravel which serves as grinding stones in their gizzard in a similar way that teeth would in other animals.

In a suburban backyard, the simplest way to provide ducks with a balanced diet is to offer a regular supply of non-medicated layer pellets which are a complete feed for egg laying birds.  Ducks waste less food if fed pellets and not crumbles or mashes.  Supply the food in a flat, open container or a feeder with plenty of room for all ducks as they eat with a shoveling action and tend to need a lot of space for feeding.

Provide plenty of greens and vegie scraps.  When offering more solid vegies such as carrots and celery, crush the pieces first since unlike chickens, ducks are unable to break larger pieces apart with their bill.

Most manufactured laying pellets contain the correct amount of calcium, but offering calcium-rich products such as shell grit will allow ducks to supplement their diet as they require.

Water for Drinking and Bathing
Fresh drinking water must be available right next to their food as ducks tend to alternate their eating with their drinking.  They also use the water to flush out their nostrils on the side of their beak which can become blocked when feeding and digging.   To prevent ducks from swimming in and making a mess of their drinking water, use a large sized dispenser and sit it on a wire covered platform to allow the water to spill over the side without making the soil around it muddy.

It’s not necessary to provide swimming water for ducks but they absolutely love it!  There is almost nothing funnier than watching ducks flap around in water having the time of their life.  The difficulty with ducks is that they have an amazing ability to turn their clean water filthy in minutes as they jump in with muddy feet, clean out their beak and nostrils and even defecate in it.

Old baths make terrific duck pools as a pipe can be added to the plug hole and the nutrient rich water drained onto other areas of the garden.   Build a simple deck around the outside of the bath with ramps on either side to allow the ducks easy access to their pool.  One hint though, add a huge ring on to the bath plug and keep a long hook handy to pull it out so that there is no need to dig around in the dirty water with your arm.

Housing
Ducks require minimal housing and, unlike chickens, prefer to stay outside day and night in most weather.  A wind break and a shade cover will provide enough protection in most parts of WA although more substantial housing is needed in areas with extremely low temperatures.

Ducks should be penned up in a securely fenced yard every night to protect them from predators – even in the metropolitan area.

For ducks that are not allowed to free-range, a fenced and wire-covered duck yard with at least two square metres per duck would be suitable.  Provide a thick layer of dry straw as bedding and replace the straw regularly so that it stays clean and dry since eggs retain their freshness for eating longer when they have not been washed. Open-topped boxes can be offered for nesting but if not available, ducks will simply make their own out of the straw bedding.  Replace the straw regularly so that it stays clean and dry since eggs retain their freshness for eating longer when they have not been washed.

Commercially made chicken coops are perfect for ducks that are also able to free-range throughout the day.  Traditionally called Duck Arks, these triangular shaped coops can be easily moved around the backyard whilst still allowing ample shelter and protection for ducks at night.  Although some keepers raise these off the ground a little to prevent a sloppy floor, the disadvantages of this are that it can result in increased food wastage through the wire floor as well as potential damage to duck feet.

To prevent muddy spots and stagnant waterholes throughout the enclosure, cover the floor with sand, straw, leaves or wood shavings and top it up regularly.  Duck manure is very high in nitrogen and can be too strong to put directly on to the garden so after raking out the pen, add it to the compost heap to break down a little first.

Getting Eggs
For most of the year, ducks will produce one egg per day and if left to free range, will often make hidden nests under bushes or in covered corners which are almost impossible to find.  Most duck hens lay before 8am so to prevent the eggs from being lost in the garden, it is wise to keep them contained until that time.  Unless eggs are going to be used for hatching, there is no need to keep drakes as well.  Hens lay better without frequent mating activity and non-fertile eggs store longer than fertile eggs.

Duck eggs are larger and have a harder shell than chicken eggs and the flavour is quite strong.  Although some people will enjoy them fried, when used for baking they are fantastic and add a noticeable richness to cakes and biscuits.  When using duck eggs for baking, add 1 tablespoon of water for every egg as the white is thicker than that of chicken eggs.

Rearing Ducklings
Ducklings up to the age of 20 weeks should be fed poultry grower pellets and given the opportunity to forage in a safe, protected area.

Ducklings that are cold lose their appetites and, when wet, chill rapidly and will die if not dried and warmed properly.  Fresh drinking water should always be available but in containers that ducklings are not able to get in to.  Ducklings need plenty of space to move around in and should be kept on dry bedding with a non-slip floor.  Smooth, slippery floors are the main cause of spraddled legs in adult ducks which results in them being almost lame.

Where a hen is caring for her own brood, the best management practice is to bother them as little as possible.  The main concern is to keep them protected from predators and rodents and to prevent the ducklings from getting soaked for the first few weeks.  The mother hen will take care of the rest.

Catching and Holding Ducks
Ducks must be handled with care as their legs and wings are quite thin and easily injured but those that are handled often when very young are much calmer when being caught and held.  When catching, avoid running them on rough road or where they will trip and damage their legs.  The easiest method is to calmly walk them in to a small catching pen or V-shaped corner rather than chase them madly around the backyard.  Never grab ducks by their legs or wings.  Instead, grasp them securely but gently by the neck and then place one hand over each wing to calm them down.  Then, lift the bird from the ground resting its weight on your forearm with its head facing backwards and its wings pinned against your body.  The legs should hang loosely underneath or can be held gently.

Some breeds of duck, such as Indian Runner ducks, do not fly more than a few centimetres off the ground but to keep ducks from flying it may be necessary to clip their wings.  This is easily done but it is a two-person job.  Whilst one holds the duck firmly, the other uses heavy-duty scissors to cut the main flight-feathers of just one wing.  So that the duck does not look unbalanced, the two outermost flight feathers can be left intact.  Ducks molt their wing feathers once each year and replace them with a new set so, to keep them grounded, their wings should be trimmed annually.

Choosing a Breed
Campbell’s and Indian Runners are very good layers and excellent forages and, as mentioned before, the latter are not able to fly so don’t even need to have their wings clipped.  Muscovy ducks are excellent layers but are very large and normally bred for their meat so probably not suitable to the average back yard.  Bantam Mallards and Calls are great layers and forages and their small size makes them easier to fit into a smaller garden.  Always purchase ducks from reputable breeders that can advise on the best breed for your backyard.

Veterinary Care
Like most water fowl, ducks are incredibly resistant to disease and when kept in small flocks are rarely bothered by poor health.  They consume such large volumes of water that worms are usually flushed from their system faster than they can reproduce and lice and mite are deterred by the ducks bathing.

Ducks live a surprisingly long time when protected from accidental death or feral animal attack.  It’s not unusual for ducks to live for anywhere up to 20 years and for them to lay for the first six to eight years.

When problems do arise in ducks, they can often be traced to diet deficiencies although stagnant drinking water or dirty bedding can also be a source of illness.  If a problem does appear, isolate the duck with clean water in a dry pen and seek veterinarian advice.

On rare occasions, ducks may accidentally swallow nails or bits of wire around the garden, get infected eyes or damage a wing or a leg as they forage and where injuries like this occurs or infection sets in, it is best to seek veterinarian advice.  Transporting a duck doesn’t seem easy at first but once a duck is settled in to a dark box with a non-slip base they tend to calm down.  Avoid using boxes which the ducks feet or wings might get caught in.