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Caring for ducks in the winter can be decently easy as long as their basic needs are met. They tolerate the cold much better than chickens do so they are a great alternative if your climate gets very cold winters.
What do ducks do when it’s cold?
What a duck does in the winter depends on one thing, whether they are domestic or wild ducks. In the wild, ducks will fly south and migrate to a warmer location. Most domestic ducks cannot fly and thus are stuck with relying on their human counterpart to keep them warm and fed. They just keep doing duck things – searching for bugs, grazing, resting, preening, and if they have a body of water they will bathe.
Where do ducks go in the winter?
When wild ducks fly south for winter they go all over the place depending on what species they are and how cold they can handle. Some will stay in southern Canada and some will go down to the US. Some breeds will go all the way down to Central and South America.
For those that stay in Canada they tend to stay near an open body of water and a good food source. Some areas experience heavy rainfall and can end up with large green areas becoming flooded. This provides a perfect habitat for ducks to go in the winter as it provides food and water.
Do ducks get cold in the winter?
Yes, you could end up with cold ducks in extreme conditions however their bodies are built different than ours. With just a couple basic needs met they will survive the cold winter without any issues. However, if you do nothing at all and leave them in cold and harsh conditions the ducks can freeze to death. Or they can end up with severe frostbite and lead to amputation.
How do ducks stay warm?
There are 3 specific factors that keep ducks from getting cold. The first is how their blood is pumped around their body, the second is the type of feathers they have. And thirdly, they carry a higher body temperature.
Countercurrent Exchange System
Ask a Naturalist explains how the countercurrent exchange system works in ducks.
Their “warm arterial blood flowing to the feet passes close to cold venous blood returning from the feet. The arterial blood warms up the venous blood, dropping in temperature as it does so. This means that the blood that flows through the feet is relatively cool. This keeps the feet supplied with just enough blood to provide tissues with food and oxygen, and just warm enough to avoid frostbite.”
When the ducks feet are similar in temperature to the ground there is reduced heat loss. Some scientists found that at 0o C (32o F) mallards only lost 5% of their body heat through their feet.
In addition to the duck’s counter-current heat exchange they also have a multiple layers of feathers. The outer feathers are waterproof keeping the moisture, and cold, out where as the inner layer, the down, acts as insulation. Under all their feathers, ducks have a thicker layer of fat compared to other poultry. The higher amount of fat helps them to retain their body heat and act as energy when the winter is cold and they are not foraging as much.
Higher Body Heat
Ducks, like most poultry, have a higher core temperature than humans do. Ducks tend to be around 41°-42°C (106-108F). This higher core temperature allows them to stay warm even in the below freezing temperatures of winter.
How to keep ducks warm in winter
Domestic or livestock ducks need some help from their humans to keep them warm. One of those things is shelter from the wind and snow.
Shelter for ducks
Ducks can withstand temperatures down to about -5C (20F) before they start getting frostbite. One thing about ducks like the least about winter is the wind. Providing ducks with some shelter from the wind is important. If your ducks stay in a fenced-in duck pen, put a tarp around 2 sides facing the way the wind typically blows. When ducks are free range they will naturally find spots to hide from the wind.
If there aren’t many hiding places offer a 3 sided shelter giving them a space outside away from the wind. If you add a roof then it doubles as relief from the snow. I try to provide a shelter in addition to their coop to lessen the amount that they are in their coop. The more they are in the coop the more poop and thus the more I need to clean/ add more bedding.
Ground protection from snow/ ice
Everyone knows ducks don’t mind the rain but they definitely don’t enjoy the snow as much. If you get a lot of snow it’s a good idea to throw down some straw on top of the snow so they can get some relief from the cold ground. If you don’t have straw or hay you can use almost anything for them to stand on that is not the snow. You can use things like logs or stumps that are close to the ground, planks of wood or pallets also work well.
Shovelling out a path from their coop to their food/ water will offer their feet a break. When snow is soft and high it can be difficult for the ducks to walk through it.
Alter their diet
Ducks burn a lot more energy in the winter trying to keep their bodies warm. To help them keep the extra fat on their bodies you can offer them a higher protein feed or offer them some extra treats including oatmeal, corn, grains, peanuts, scrambled eggs, and peas. Offering these types of treats shortly before the sun goes down will help keep them warmer throughout the night. For a detailed list of what foods ducks can eat click here.
Water for ducks in winter
Water is extremely important for ducks at all times. They require water to help them swallow their food. They also use water to clear their nostrils and eyes. If your temperatures are going below freezing you will need to make sure your ducks have constant access to water.
Some people use heated water bowls. Our temperatures don’t often stay below freezing for long periods so I bring their water buckets inside and fill with warm water in the morning. Keeping your water buckets in an area protected from the wind will help prevent freezing.
Do ducks need a pond in winter?
Ducks do not need a pool or pond all winter but would benefit from a small tub of water once a week if your pond is frozen over.
I keep our pond full through most the winter except the couple weeks we get each year where we get snow and steady below freezing temperatures. If temperatures are only below freezing for a day or two, or just overnight then I go out and break all the ice in the morning. If I need to break the ice more than once a day I take that as a hint to drain it until it warms up a little.
Where do ducks sleep in the winter
They can sleep in the same coop as the rest of the year. Add some extra bedding and be sure to keep the bedding clean and dry. Ducks have very wet poos and when temperatures are well below freezing their wet bedding can end up freezing. Ducks can end up with frost bite if they don’t have any reprieve from the cold ground.
Preparing the duck coop for winter
When the cold weather is heading your way it’s a good idea to get your ducks coop all cleaned out and ready for the colder temperatures. Put in extra bedding to act as an additional barrier between the ground and their feet. Straw is a great insulator if you have some.
Original design of the coop
In areas that get cold winters it’s important to have lots of ventilation and keep it up high on the duck coop. Ducks expel a lot of moisture when they breathe. When there is not enough ventilation the excess moisture can lead to frost bite. Having the vents up high also allows the wind to flow through the coop, over top of the ducks.
Should you put in a heat lamp when it’s cold?
No, heat lamps can be a big fire hazard. Peoples chicken and duck coops are constantly catching fire and some losing their whole flock due to heat lamps. If they have enough bedding and its dry they should be fine. Some people whose coops are much bigger than the amount of ducks they have place a bale of straw or hay inside the coop. It provides insulation and blocks off some of the dead space, allowing the coop to warm up slightly.
Some people take the risk and put in a heat lamp, however since ducks are naturally cold hardy and as long as you have met their basic housing needs, they do not need the additional heat. It’s just not worth the risk
Using deep litter method in the winter
The deep litter method is a great way to keep your ducks warm in the winter and also allows you to clean out the coop less often. You start off with a thick layer of bedding and as they soil the top layer you mix up the bedding and then place a thin layer of fresh bedding on top. The bottom layers will begin to break down creating heat.
If there is not enough dry bedding added the ammonia from the duck poo with build-up and cause health problems for your ducks. General rule, if you can smell ammonia you should add more dry bedding. If it is really bad take out the soiled bedding and start again.
Check out this post The Deep Litter Method for Ducks for all the details.
What do ducks eat in winter
Ducks could benefit from feed with a higher percentage of protein during the cold months of winter. Or you can just add extra stuff to their regular diet. If your winters leave you in snowy conditions for long periods of time, your ducks would appreciate some greens – kale, lettuce, cabbage, chard, and other leafy greens. If your climate allows them to continue free ranging and eating bugs, grass, and weeds you don’t need to worry too much as ducks will eat what their body is needing.
You can offer peanuts, peas, scrambled eggs, or any other high protein duck safe foods. Mealworms are high in protein and a top favourite snack for ducks and chickens. They will help provide nutrients and the extra calories needed to keep them warm through the cold weather.
How to tell if you have cold ducks?
If you are trying to figure out if you’ve got cold ducks you can look for a couple different things. You may notice your ducks hobbling or constantly dropping their bodies to the ground and tucking their feet in. Some will stand on one leg with the other tucked up and they will alternate which foot is on the ground. If your ducks have frost bite you will notice black spots appearing on their feet and they will require immediate medical attention.
When are ducks are cold they may start shivering. Shivering can also be a sign of an illness or disease so be sure to rule those out. Many times when you notice your ducks shivering from cold you may notice them wet. Occasionally when there is an issue with the preen gland they lose their waterproofing and get wet when it rains or bathing. To help resolve this issue you can wash them in a bath with mild dish soap (dawn works great). After the bath keep them dry for a week. If its cold rainy weather it may be best to keep the duck inside until it has its waterproofing back.
Being motionless can be a sign of hypothermia. If a duck is staying motionless on land or floating on the water you need to check on them. If they have hypothermia you need to bring them indoors to warm up. Be sure to do it slowly to not shock their systems. Using a hair drier on a low setting is a useful tool, as well as warm towels.
Best duck breeds for cold weather
Some ducks are naturally more cold hardy than other breeds. Pretty much any domestic duck will be fine and survive the winter with help from you. However genetics do tend to play a part. Imagine you own ducks that were born and raised in Vancouver, BC, Canada and their parents were also raised in the same climate. Then you take those ducks and move to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where the winters are way colder than Vancouver’s winter. They will not tolerate the winter as much because they are genetically not prepared for that cold. However, if you took the same breed of duck that was born and raised in Edmonton, and the ducks family history was from the same climate then they will tolerate those colder conditions because of evolution.
If you are worried about having cold ducks it can be beneficial to find ducks from a local farm rather than ordering them from a hatchery on the other side of the country where their winter could be completely different than yours.
Some of the most common duck breeds happily kept in cold weather are:
- Welsh Harlequin
- Indian Runner
- Blue Swedish
- Khaki Campbell
Do ducks lay eggs in winter?
Yes, ducks do lay eggs in the winter, however, they will lay less frequently and if temperatures are low enough they may stop laying all together to use their energy on keeping warm rather than laying eggs.
Ducks will stay happy all winter, as long as you meet their basic needs and add extra protection from the cold as needed.