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When ducklings come out of the incubator or when you bring your ducklings home they need to go into a brooder.
A brooder is an enclosed space with bedding, food, water and a heat source. A brooder can look very different depending on what you have on hand.
I made two brooders, one from a very large glass aquarium and one from a very large plastic tote. They both worked the same. I have also seen some made with large dog kennels or kiddy pools. I have seen people use cardboard boxes; however I would not recommend them for ducks as their poo is quite watery and could cause the box to get wet and go moldy. It doesn’t seem to be the same issue with chickens as they are much drier.
update – one year I incubated 16 eggs and 15 ended up hatching. My typical glass aquarium brooder was much too small. I had a giant cardboard box available so I lined it with plastic to protect the cardboard from moisture. Many people have said they use puppy pads in their brooders. I tried this and would not recommend it. Once they got wet the ducklings would poke their beaks through the shavings and started ripping the puppy pads apart. So I just stuck with the plastic and lots of shavings.
When constructing your brooder you will need:
- Enclosed area – it will differ depending on how many ducks you are putting in it. The bigger the area (per duck) the less often you will need to change the bedding.
- Heat source –
- Heat Light – red light only. Regular bright heat lamps (that you would use for reptiles) are too bright and can end up blinding your ducks
- Brooder Heat Plate – These are great as you don’t need something to hang it from (like you would for the light). They are adjustable to easily raise or lower depending on size of chicks/ ducklings.
- Bedding – Sawdust – try to go for a soft wood. Some people say cedar is okay to use for ducks but since it is not recommended for so many animals I prefer to stay away. Our local farm store sells big bags of cleaned, dust free shavings safe for all animals for fairly cheap.
- Food dish – I found it best to use something that the ducks put their head/ beak into rather than using a dish. I find they tend to climb over and spill the food as well as poop in the food dish.
- Water dish – When the ducklings were very small I used a chicken feeder filled with water. It allowed them to put their beaks in and drink the water and it was deep enough for them to dip their entire beak to clean their nostrils
- When they got bigger I moved to a 4L milk jug with two large holes cut for them to be able to dunk their heads.
- A tray to catch the water they spill
- More notes on this below
Ducklings need approx. ½ square foot per duckling for the first week. Every week increase the size by ½ square foot per duck. Ducks grow very quickly (much faster than chickens) and they need the space to move around. To make it easier I just started with a very large enclosure. As they got bigger and the weather stayed nice they spent more and more time outside, leaving less mess in the brooder.
If you are bringing them outside be sure to put them in an enclosed area safe from predators. They need unlimited access to water, feed, and some shade.
Some enclosures I have seen people use include a large wooden box, large tote, puppy playpen, kiddy pool (with extra siding), and a stall in a barn. You can use almost anything as long as they are contained and safe.
Day old ducklings need to start off with a temperature of 90F-92F (32C-33C) for the first 3 days. Temperature should be measured directly under the lamp.
After 3 days drop the temperature by about 5F. You can simply do this by raising the light or brooder plate. Continue dropping 5 degrees per week until they are fully feathered or until it matches the outside air, whatever comes first. We took our lamp out when the thermometer read 70 degrees and our nights did not drop below 68 (20C) inside.
There should also be a cooler area that the ducklings can get away from heat when needed. It’s best to place the food and water in the cooler area so you can avoid ducklings trying to huddle together while others are climbing over them trying to get food and water.
If they are panting and drooping their wings they are too hot and you need to lower the temperature. When they are huddling together directly under the heat source for majority of the time you may want to increase the temperature slightly.
If the temperatures outside are below 68F (20C) you need to wait until the ducklings are fully feathered before putting them outside in the coop. Although it may be tempting, do not put a heat lamp in the coop. So many people have lost their coop and their flock due to heat lamps starting a fire.
Bedding needs to be kept clean and dry to keep the ducklings from getting too wet and cold. I use the deep litter method with saw dust for our brooder.
Each day when they were allowed to run around the kitchen or in the yard I scoop off the top layer of soiled sawdust, and any bedding that was visibly wet. Mix up/ stir the remaining bedding and add a new layer of sawdust on top. As they got older and were pooping more the bedding was completely changed out more often. Sometimes Daily on colder days when they weren’t outside for as long.
I do not recommend the use of newspaper. It gets soggy quickly and is slick which can cause the ducks to slip and have foot and leg issues.
What to do when there is only one duckling hatched
Sometimes when they are hatching one duckling will hatch early and be by itself for a day or so waiting for the others to hatch. To keep the duckling comfortable and safe you can put a small teddy, feather duster, and or a mirror. My son wanted the duckling to have one of his little teddies. It worked great. Even when there were two ducklings they both would always curl up and snuggle with it. I left it in there until they got bigger and were no longer cuddling with it.
Food & water dishes
I used this type of feeder with a mason jar for food. I found they were not able to poop in it (until they got older and it went everywhere). There was also minimal food spillage compared to when I would offer them an open bowl of food. These are very easy to get online or at any farm store.
I used this (plus the jar/ container) as a waterer while they were quite little. When they were a couple weeks old I switched to a milk jug with holes cut it in. As they got bigger I would switch it out with another milk jug but with holes higher up. With both of these methods there was no way for them to climb through the water.
I have found a deeper version of the waterer at a local farm store and was able to use it until they went into their coop. This made a lot less mess but I would need to offer them bath time each day to fully submerge their heads.
Some people say a small heavy dish works well. I find they tend to play in their water and cause the rest of the brooder to become wet very quickly. I offer them a large dish of water when they run about in the kitchen with towels underneath and by the end majority of the water from the bowl is on the towel.
Tray for catching water
To help prevent the whole brooder from getting soaking wet in a matter of minutes, its best to use a tray under the water. You can use many different things depending on what you have on hand.
I’ve tried different methods for the water tray like a paint tray, an aluminum roasting pan, and a cookie sheet.
I found a small holed cookie cooling rack and placed that on top of a cookie sheet. I had left over puppy pads so I put those on the bottom of the cookie sheet to absorb the excess water. When I used up puppy pads I used old kitchen towels. This method has worked the best for me so far. It’s super easy to clean, the ducklings can walk around on it quite nicely without slipping, and most of the poop and water goes through the rack.
Try to keep enough space between the food and water so any water drips off their beak before going back for more food. Be sure to place the food and water
Alternatives to using a brooder
When you have a lot of ducklings at once it is best to either split them up into multiple brooders. You can also build something outdoors, or in a barn, for them. In cases where there are too many ducklings, and the food and water dishes are not big enough for all of them to get to it at the same time, some of the ducklings can get trampled and hurt, possibly leading to death.
In warmer weather about 20C (68F) the ducklings will be fine to be outdoors with a secondary heat source. I have seen people use tractors (moveable duck/ chicken coops) and add a brooder plate. As long as they have shelter from the elements along with their food and water they are fine to be outside.
Another way to avoid a brooder is to allow a mama duck (or hen) to hatch the ducklings. She will protect them and keep them warm.
Ducklings love to bathe and swim, however they are not waterproof yet.. They won’t be waterproof until their feathers come in around 6 weeks. I find it best to keep the bathing and swimming aspects outside of the brooder. Swimming in the bathtub or sink is a good easy place to fill and empty a bath for them. Be sure to keep their swimming time to 5-10 min a session. If they stay in the water for too long they can become too tired, wet, and heavy and end up drowning. Once they get out they need to get dry and warm.
I have seen people use towels to rub them down or a hair drier on the lowest setting. I found that if I just made sure that the ducklings didn’t get too wet while swimming, they dried really quickly once they were put back into the brooder and I didn’t have to do anything. By the time they were done preening their feathers they were all dry.
I’ve also given them a large casserole dish full of warm water while they run around outside, or in the kitchen. They have the choice to be in the water or to be out. They can play in it for a bit longer as they are continuously getting out, running around, and preening in between splashing in the dish.
Ducks also love to eat while they swim. Be your ducks best friend and toss them some chopped (or ripped) up greens (lettuce, kale, dandelions etc.). They can have unlimited amounts of greens. Just remember to offer grit when giving foods beside their specialized feed. You do not need to worry about grit if they have access to outside each day. For more information on what ducks can and cannot eat, check out What Should I Feed my Ducks?
Duck brooders don’t need to be a big, fancy, expensive thing. They are only temporary and can easily be created with what you have around home, whether that be a box, a kiddy pool, or something else.