Raising Ducks 06.11.2002
The ducks have been here three weeks today. They are now living outside in their grazing pen during the day and coming inside at night to stay warm and safe in the brooder. We are securing their nighttime pen this week so that they can move outside for good in a few days—they are getting large and stinky. In the meantime they are enjoying the fresh air during the day and their baby pool, to which they have free access.
When they were two weeks old we gave them leg bands, differently colored strips of velcro, so we could tell them apart. Yes, they have names: Eddy, Patsy, Bubble, Saffy, Polly, Sybil, and Francie, and if you recognize where the names came from you win a prize. They have noticeably different personalities, more so than I would have expected.
Growth and development
By the beginning of their third week we could feel the first real feathers peeking through; now (at twenty-three days old) the feathers are clearly visible on their tails and under their wings. They look a bit silly at the moment, actually, like gawky teenagers. (A friend noted when they were a week old that they no longer looked like babies but more like "kindergarten ducks.") They are developing at slightly different rates; Eddy and Patsy are a few days ahead of Saffy, and the others are somewhere in between.
They have also started quacking as much as peeping. We heard the first proto-quacks (sort of a cross between a cough and a fart) when they were not quite two weeks old; now they are starting to sound almost like real ducks.
By the end of their third week they were finally comfortable with us being near them and with being handled. They look up to see us when we come in the room or crawl into their pen, but they don’t run around peeping like they did a couple of weeks ago. They still don’t like being picked up, but they settle down quickly, and they know in the morning that when I pick them up to put them into the cardboard box, they are going outside, and they don’t complain or flail too much. They like having their chests rubbed lightly, although this varies from duck to duck; some prefer the backs of their necks.
We had read that Campbells don’t particularly need water for swimming, but I wouldn’t want to take it away from them now; it’s their favorite thing in the world. When they go out to their pen in the morning they immediately get into the water. They can’t dive as well now that they’re bigger, but they still duck under (so to speak) and hunt for bugs at the bottom of the pool.
During their second week we let them out in the pen for a couple of hours in the evenings, with access to the pool. They did well enough that we gave them free access to the pool during the day when they were two weeks old, although for the first few days we checked on them every ten to fifteen minutes. We set a cinder block outside the pool and a brick inside as steps so they could get in and out easily; it only took them a day or two to figure this out.
I should note that we have consciously ignored virtually all of the advice we have read when it comes to swimming. Our books warn against letting ducklings swim until they are 2 weeks old (some say as long as 4 to 6 weeks) because until their feathers come in, they can get waterlogged and drown or take too long to dry off and get cold and sick. The first few times we let them in the pool, we only let them in for 5 to 10 minutes at a time (until they seemed to be getting tired), then watched them until they dried in the sun or under the heat lamp. At 2 weeks old they were able to get in and out easily enough that we didn’t need to watch them for safety, and the weather has been warm enough (85–95 degrees in the afternoons) that they were not going to catch a chill, wet or dry.
When in doubt we want to raise them as close to naturally as possible, which meant letting them swim and forage for bugs and greens as early as they were able. But that means, of course, that we’ve had to take on the role of duck mother. If you want to let ducklings swim before they have their feathers, I would recommend watching them very carefully and restricting the swimming to warm weather. And before you leave them alone in the water, make sure that each of them can get out easily—banding them was the only way we could identify them clearly enough to do that.
They are still on the waterfowl starter feed and will be until it runs out, though we have been supplementing it with vegetables and kitchen leftovers. Their favorites are lettuce and turnip greens (from plants in the garden that bolted when it got hot) and grits, but they also like parsley, grated carrots, and finely chopped green beans. They particularly like it when we toss a handful of torn-up greens into the pool so they can eat and swim at the same time.
We are gradually cutting back their duck chow to two feedings a day, morning and evening. Next week, when they are outside all the time and we are moving them back and forth from the night pen to the grazing pen in the morning and evening, we hope to use "chowtime" as an incentive to go where we want them. (The baby pool should be enough incentive in the morning, actually.) I expect that their starter chow will run out about the time they move outside, when they are four weeks old, and we will switch them to the breeder formula then.
I am also delighted—no, ecstatic—to report that on being let outside they immediately began eating mosquitoes, ticks, ants, and even slugs. Patsy is the champ at catching mosquitoes on the fly (she ate one off my arm once) and Saffy, at barely two weeks old, ate a slug that was almost as big as her head. Given that the tiger mosquito could well be the North Carolina State Insect, we need the help!
Click any of the photos below for a larger image.
|Eating grated carrots from a dish of water (11 days old).|
|An unidentified duckling (11 days old).|
|The group outside (17 days old).|
|Attack of the killer ducklings (17 days old).|
|Saffy, 17 days old. Compare with the photo above; you can see how quickly they grew.|
|Three weeks old. If you look closely in the enlarged photo you can see the feathers coming in on their sides.|
|The group at three weeks. Clearly they are getting too big for the brooder!|