Earlier in 2016 (yes, I am late again writing this post!) I decided to take the plunge and hatch some duck eggs. The previous year I had hatched some chicks so now I was bitten by the bug!
My husband Steve wasn’t so keen. He was visualising a gradual invasion of birds…and their poo.
“We’d be incredibly lucky if they all hatch,” I said, carefully putting the pale blue eggs into the incubator. “Look what happened last year.” Out of 7 eggs the previous spring, just one was fertile (Molly) so I was given some more, of which two hatched (Siegfried and Bunty) and one died before hatching. Nature just isn’t that straightforward.
This time I have 7 Indian Runner duck eggs to gamble with. Runner ducks are my favourite breed and if I get 2 out of them, I’ll be happy. In fact, just 2 would be perfect. The incubator is a Brinsea Mini Advanced hired again from Ken at Pear Tree Poultry, Preston, who also supplied the eggs. This time it will take 28 days before we see any babies, but second time around I feel more sensible. This time I will only open the incubator to top up water and candle once after the first week and again before lockdown!
For those not familiar with hatching eggs, candling is shining a torch onto the egg to see if it is fertile. There are candling torches available made specifically for this purpose. Last year I did it a lot as it was my first time and also, I couldn’t believe how unlucky I was with my unfertile eggs. But that wasn’t going to happen this year, fingers crossed! Days went by with the incubator reliably doing its job keeping a steady temperature and humidity level, and ever now and again turning the eggs. When I went in to candle each egg, there were 5 fertile ones!
The fertile egg is on the right – you can see the developing blood vessels.
Well, that was an improvement on last year, although part of me was wondering if I could cope with 5 ducks. And it would be just my luck if they were all drakes! Steve gave me a look as if I had told him I was expecting quintuplets. “We will manage!” I said positively. Having had a strong background in sales I was very good at being convincing, but come what may we have to take responsibility for whatever we hatch. Hatching chicks and ducklings is a wonderful experience but sadly there seems to be a lot of people wanting to do this but not wanting to take responsibility for the hatchlings. I remember an older chicken expert telling me, “If you are prepared to hatch them, you should be prepared to kill them,” meaning that any unwanted cockerels are your responsibility to dispose of. This usually means euthanasia unless you are raising them for the table. For me, as I see my birds as pets and my meat eating days are long gone, I prefer to say if you are prepared to hatch them, you should be prepared to keep them. Last year I ended up with 3 cockerels who lived happily within the flock until Siegfried and Oscar passed away. They were harder to manage than the hens but it all added to my chicken keeping experience. Although I’ve no regrets keeping boys, the work involved means I have to think carefully about when I can hatch eggs again.
Drakes are different from roosters in that they are generally quieter than ducks, but there is also the issue of how many will I end up with. The ideal scenario would be 1 drake to around 5 ducks to avoid competition and overmating. However, my 3 boys lived happily with 6 hens without much issue. I think I was lucky in that respect as the Silkies were not particularly sex driven and seemed to spend most of the time hanging out with each other!
So, the days went by where I would just check the incubator to see that all is working and top up the water well. My spare room where the eggs were residing was starting to resemble a child’s eye view of Easter, with five blue eggs at one end (I disposed of the 2 infertile ones) and Sage and Onion, two baby hand reared rabbits playing in their indoor cage. Lockdown is the last three days of incubation, where the water is topped up for the last time and the turning function of the incubator ceases. The lid of the incubator should stay on with no disturbance to maintain humidity levels and hopefully we should see some action!
Preparation for lockdown, watched by Sage and Onion!
The next day I noticed a tiny fragment of shell had broken off one of the eggs. This is a process known as ‘pipping.’ It wasn’t long before another egg followed suit – hopefully we should see ducklings within 24 hours!
Just my luck that nothing is that straightforward with me! 24 hours came and there was little progress from the initial pip. Furthermore, there was no sign of pipping from the other three eggs. Much as hatching should be left to nature, sometimes you have to intervene. With the two pipped eggs I helped break away some of the shell. I could tell why the ducklings were finding it difficult to break out as the shell felt hard and brittle. Despite the well being topped up, the humidity wasn’t as ideal as it could be. I found out later that this can be improved by spraying the inside of the incubator and the eggs – I’ll remember that next time! Meanwhile, I needed to get the ducklings out of their shell without causing injury. This meant peeling away the shell slowly, and if blood appears STOP and leave alone. This happened a few times with both ducklings which meant the incubator wasn’t a pretty sight. This is why I line the inside of the incubator with kitchen roll, as it makes clearing up a little easier. Eventually, over several hours they were out, with one of them still with a small piece of shell stuck to the back of the neck.
Wow, that was a loooong traumatic hatch. No wonder they look exhausted!
By now, I knew the other three eggs were not going to happen. Generally, once one egg pips, all viable eggs in that hatch will pip within hours. The not so nice bit is breaking them open, and it looked like they had stopped developing a good while ago. Nature can be very unpredictable at times.
Resting and drying off in the incubator…
Still, I had 2 beautiful ducklings which I had now transferred to the brooder. This is just a heated box that they can live in until they are bigger. The brooder featured here came with the hire package from Pear Tree Poultry along with the feeder and drinker and non slip mat, although I recommend getting a couple of spare mats as baby birds poo a lot. The heating is via a red infra red lamp hence the lighting.
Newborn ducklings are incredibly unsteady on their feet compared to chicks. There was a lot of drunk impressions and falling over…
Like chicks, ducklings do not need food and water for the first 24 hours as they have absorbed the nutrients they need to get by initially. As they took so long to hatch, my two didn’t take long helping themselves to chick crumb and water once they had rested and fluffed up. The chick crumb should be unmedicated – different to the feed I gave my chicks. Ducklings are notoriously greedy and can overmedicate on the coccidiostat in medicated chick crumb which can be fatal. I fed my two Dodson and Horrell chick crumb. The protein levels in chick crumb are a little high for ducklings so they can be moved onto growers pellets around 3 to 4 weeks of age.
Ducklings can become very tame if they ‘imprint’ on a human, but mine imprinted on each other and were not keen on me at all, despite having handled them at birth. From a practical point of view, this is better for them as strong attachments to humans can present problems but I was a little disappointed that they were so skittish. The first duckling to fully hatch out was a little bigger and bolder – the second one followed him around everywhere, and for a couple of days still had a fragment of shell stuck to the back of his neck. I managed to remove it after dampening the area down although it left his neck fluff a little spikey! We decided to handle them regularly, and when their walking had stabilised, we let them wander supervised indoors. We didn’t have them out for too long though as they pooped loads!
The brooder had to be cleaned several times a day as the amount of poo produced was unbelievable. I was glad I only got two ducklings in the end! Baby birds are incredibly clumsy and they walk over their food or trip over it so clearing up spillages and replenishing water and crumbs was the main job. Ducklings are messy by the way they eat and drink so I found using kitchen roll over their non slip mats very helpful. Kitchen roll is not as slippy as newspaper which is often the cause of ‘spraddle leg’ (excessively wide leg stance) when chicks and ducklings can’t get a foothold.
Despite my best efforts the floor of the brooder was always wet from them flinging water around and needed changing at least 3 times a day, as did the water. Whilst ducklings still have their fluffy down, they are at risk of getting chilled if wet so the presence of the heat lamp is important. This is also the reason why its not advisable to let young ducklings swim, tempting as it is to put them in the bath! If they were raised by their own mother, that would be a different matter as they would receive some waterproofing from the mother’s natural oil. Hatching from an incubator is convenient for many reasons but the lack of a mother has its disadvantages, especially if you only get one single bird hatching from a clutch (see my earlier post on my chicks last year).
They seemed to grow a quicker rate than the chicks did, so much that Steve was convinced we had goslings! As a bonus I felt that they were not as prone to getting poo stuck to their feet and did not get ‘pasty butt’ which is when poo accummulates around the vent. These two lived in the brooder for a week and then I needed to return the equipment back to Pear Tree Poultry. As they were growing considerably fast, I decided to use a large dog crate as a brooder with a hanging infra red lamp above it. Depending on the room temperature, the lamp was kept low enough to keep the ducklings comfortably warm. Like chicks, they will cheep loudly and huddle together if too cold and move away from the heat source if too warm. Over the next few weeks as they develop feathers and are able to regulate their body temperature, the lamp is gradually raised in height until it is removed.
Ducks, being waterfowl, need water with their food and managing their water was tricky. The chick waterer was OK at first but soon they wanted to dip their beaks into something deeper. This is how they keep their eyes and nostrils clean. We went through a couple of makeshift containers…
We upgraded to the plastic milk bottle design but as they were getting bigger still, it wasn’t long before they were able to go out and use a bigger outdoor drinker.
Almost 3 weeks old and white feathers are appearing among the yellow fluff.
At 4 weeks I introduced growers pellets and grit to the ducklings. They were growing at an alarming rate so I was keen to get them outside to a larger enclosure. The weather was fine so I was able to introduce them to their Eglu and run during the day and brought them indoors back to the dog crate in the evening.
The chickens showed some mild interest around them but otherwise left them alone. Being outside, the ducklings could drill into the earth and nibble grass and generally learn to be a duck! They enjoyed making muddy holes by their waterer and as their bills were getting bigger, I exchanged their chick feeder for the bigger Omlet grub container. Ducks shovel their food unlike chickens who peck. This makes ducks quite messy and wasteful, so chickens are great at clearing up after them. When I bring the ducklings in at night, the chickens make a beeline for their run for any dropped food!
Within their run, the ducklings can exercise more efficiently while being sheltered from the rain. Once the fluffy yellow down is replaced by feathers (white, in my case), they become more resilient to wet conditions. This is around 5-6 weeks old. Fortunately, during a spell of fine weather, they were able to stay out overnight. It is around this time when you can make an accurate guess at the sex. Females are more vocal and quack, quite loudly sometimes! Drakes, unlike roosters, are quieter making a rasping sound so generally there is more chance of keeping a drake without upsetting neighbours. As it turned out, both my ducklings turned out to be girls so I named them Pandora and Jemima 😀
Growers pellets are still a little high in protein for ducks. Duck/waterfowl feed is not always easy to come by, so a compromise can be made by supplementing young ducks’ diets with wheat (normally available at a corn merchant/horse feed supplier). Ideally, this should be fed soaked in water – this also encourages the ducks to clean their eyes and nostrils. By 16 weeks the ducklings can go onto layers pellets, again with wheat provided. Whereas chickens pretty much need to stay on pellets and limited treats, ducks diets can be supplemented with greens. They will also need poultry grit in a separate container. Pandora and Jemima are not the most adventurous eaters – at time of writing they still ignore peas and sweetcorn, but they are having a good go at round lettuce and cress. Their favourite is watermelon and there is nearly always one taking up space in my shopping basket!
Now the girls were a similar size to the chickens, I allowed them to free range round the garden (at first keeping the chickens in the run). Runner ducks are flightless so there was no problem of them disappearing over the fence, but other breeds can have a wing clipped in the same way as chickens, to prevent them them taking off. Runner ducks, being land ducks don’t need a pond to swim in either. However all ducks need a water source to dunk their heads in and this can be provided with buckets or a kids’ plastic paddling pool. These can be changed and refilled easily making them more hygienic than a pond. Introducing the chickens turned out to be a very calm event. Pandora and Jemima were quietly dominant over most of the flock apart from Oscar (now departed), Bunty and Molly. Oddly enough, the latter two were the youngest and smallest hens in the flock. Tarquin, the rooster wasn’t keen on them, and kept a distance from them, although I sometimes see them following him trying to wind him up!
By the end of summer, I had a new walk-in run put up for Pandora and Jemima. It is possible to keep ducks and chickens together but separate sleeping accommodation and feeding arrangements would have to be provided. As the ducks were still on growers pellets and dirtied their water constantly, I preferred to keep them separate. Like our chicken run, the base consisted of flags with shavings as litter and the Classic Eglu was their house (roosting bars taken out as they have no need for them). Their house is bedded with straw but throughout the summer they showed no interest in using it, preferring to stay out all night. This is the downfall of ducks – they don’t put themselves to bed like chickens but that was not a huge concern to me as they are safe in their run. When the dark winter nights arrived, I herded them into the house every evening (yes, they waited outside for me to do this!) and shut them in till morning. This is more for my peace of mind to keep them sheltered from cold but ducks are very hardy so I have found that most owners shut them in at night for their own safety rather than warmth. They are more sociable now they are older, quacking loudly when they see me and Pandora will often have a nibble at me but Jemima is slightly more aloof. They seem to interact more than chickens, who choose to be your friends only if there is food around!
I have found that ducks are a delightful addition to the garden, a little noisier than I expected but very comical to watch! Although they don’t scratch up the land like chickens, they do drill holes, particularly where there is water, so muddy areas can develop. I provide them with a long planter of soil in their run, so they can do this if they need to be kept in. The huge advantage is that before these two came along, I was plagued by slugs in the garden. Huge ones, that would end up in the chickens’ feeders and poo in them. So much that I took to bringing the feeders in at night. For some reason my chickens don’t eat slugs (they’re supposed to!) but Pandora and Jemima relish these. I witheld any big ones till they were large enough to manage them and I am pretty much slug free now. My next advantage with the ducks will hopefully be soon when eggs come along!
Thanks again to Pear Tree Poultry for their fantastic incubator hire service. Sadly due to space, I don’t think I will be hatching anything this year but feel free to share your experiences by sending in your comments! 🙂