Building A Good Home For Ducks

A duck outside on a pond in front of a modern-style duck living space.
Duck living space at Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge. Photo: Daniel Turbert of The Sentient Project

Updated February 5, 2020

Like most animals, ducks are happiest when they have lots of space to roam and explore, in addition to an indoor space that protects them from the elements.  As waterfowl, they also need lots of access to open water sources for cleaning, splashing, and swimming. While predators can be a concern for mammalian residents, ducks and other bird species are especially vulnerable, so it is important to keep predator-proofing in mind when designing both indoor and outdoor spaces.

Keep It Safe!
If you are bringing new ducks into your life, you also need to ensure that you have an appropriate quarantine space to keep you and your existing residents safe!

Indoor Living Spaces For Ducks

A barn, shed, or garage can make a suitable indoor living space for ducks, so long as certain guidelines are followed.  Whether you are building something from scratch, or turning a prefab or pre-existing structure into a duck living space, you’ll need to take certain steps to ensure the space is appropriate for your residents. While there are many commonalities between living spaces that are appropriate for ducks and those that are appropriate for chickens or other birds, and it is possible to create spaces that are appropriate for multiple species of birds, it’s important to point out that ducks have specific and unique needs that must be met. In addition to the considerations below, keep in mind that it’s best if the entrance to a duck’s indoor living space is at ground level, or very close to it. Ducks are a bit less nimble than chickens, and can have trouble with big jumps and steep grades. If the entrance is above ground level, you should offer a wide ramp on a gentle incline. Sturdy wooden ramps work well, and the addition of thin, horizontal strips of wood spaced every six inches or so will help provide traction on the ramp. Make sure the ramp does not have any sharp or rough areas that could damage a duck’s delicate foot webbing, and opt for ramps that are at least as wide as the doorway. Even a ground level exit could be difficult for a duck to navigate if it has an elevated threshold. Whatever your setup, watch closely to ensure your duck residents are able to move between the indoors and outdoors easily. 

When creating living spaces, it is important to ensure that your residents have enough space. There are many factors to consider when determining how much space ducks need; there is no magic number we have to offer.  Not all residents are going to do well with the general recommendations offered online, or even those offered by established sanctuaries, so you’ll need to be prepared to expand their living space if that’s what they need.  

It seems that few sanctuaries offer concrete guidelines for the bare minimum amount of space ducks need.  Catskill Animal Sanctuary, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) offer recommendations, but keep in mind that these are minimums, so you should strive to provide more space to your residents.

Catskill Animal Sanctuary– Their Duck and Goose Fact Sheet states, “For their optimum comfort, choose a shelter that’s at least 8’ x 10’ and allow a minimum of 6 square feet of shelter per bird. It should be waterproof, predator-proof, and well-ventilated.”

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries– In their Standards For Aquatic/ Semi-Aquatic Bird Sanctuaries, which covers a wide range of bird species including ducks (who they classify as “medium” birds), it states, “Indoor barn/shelters are large enough for all birds to have adequate space to rest on the ground, perch and comfortably move around…. Minimum of 4 sq. ft. (.37 sq. m.) of open floor space per medium bird” with outdoor enclosures that are a “minimum of 16 sq. ft. (1.48 sq. m) of dry substrate per bird.”

RSPCA– In their resource How Should I Keep And Care For My Pet Ducks?, it states, “Provide as much space as possible for each duck. At a minimum provide at least 1.5 sq metres (16.15 square feet) area per duck in their house or pen if they are to be confined in it during the day. For a night house provide at a minimum, at least 0.5 sq metres (5.38 square feet) per duck.”

Use these as a starting point, but be aware that there are many factors to consider when determining the amount of space needed to keep your residents comfortable and happy. Age, breed, sex, health issues, activity level, flock dynamics, climate, and type of outdoor space should be considered when creating a space or determining a space’s capacity.

Predator-Proofing

Ducks are very vulnerable to predation, especially overnight.  Because of this, ducks must be closed into their indoor space before dusk and should not be let out again until the sun is coming up in the morning. The assumption that ducks will spend the night on their pond, and as a result will be protected from predators, is a dangerous one and has no place in a sanctuary setting.  Therefore, ducks require an indoor living space that will keep them protected from all predators while they are closed in overnight. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any openings that are the size of a quarter or larger.  Weasels, for example, can squeeze through spaces as small as a quarter and can kill an entire barn of ducks. Raccoons, while unable to fit their entire body through small spaces, can reach their arm through small openings and grab and kill a duck. This means you cannot have gaps around or under doors, and any openings in the roof, such as a vent in the peak or in the soffit, must be covered. We suggest all openings that are the size of a quarter or larger are covered with ¼ to ½ inch galvanized hardware cloth, as this should prevent predators from entering the ducks’ enclosure.  Raccoons have been known to open simple latches, so you should employ additional methods of protection such as bungee cords, a double bolt snap, or install a 3-step locking system, especially if raccoons or similar predators are a concern in your area. Open windows should also be covered in galvanized hardware cloth; a regular window screen is not enough to keep predators out. For a great infographic about predator-proofing, check out this resource from Poultry DVM.

Beware of Hardware Disease
When using galvanized hardware cloth, it’s safest to cut pieces in an area away from ducks because ingesting pieces of galvanized metal can lead to heavy metal toxicity in birds.

Wooden structures can develop breeches overtime through warping, rotting, or from predators chewing their way into the space. Rotting wood is especially an issue in duck living spaces because ducks tend to make a mess with their water. In addition to checking for breeches regularly, we highly recommend that all wooden structures have additional layers of protection.  A wooden floor can be reinforced with sheet metal, and walls can be reinforced with galvanized hardware cloth.

In addition to the typical predators that may come to mind like hawks or foxes, you also need to protect the ducks in your care from rats. Rats can kill ducks (especially ducklings) or cause mortal injury by chewing on them as they sleep. Rats will likely be one of the biggest risks to your bird residents, so be sure to take necessary precautions to deter them, such as keeping food in tightly sealed covered metal bins and cleaning up any spilled food. If the structure is insulated, it must be done in a way that prevents rodents from gaining access to the insulation, because rodents will make themselves a cozy home inside your insulated walls if they can! One way to do this is to sandwich sheet insulation with a layer of ¼-½” galvanized hardware cloth on either side to keep rodents from chewing it.  This means an insulated wall will consist of the following layers- plywood (or whatever material you want as the visible interior wall), galvanized hardware cloth, sheet insulation, another layer of galvanized hardware cloth, and then the exterior wall. If you opt against using this method or something similar, you will need to watch for breeches in the wall that allow rodents to get to the insulation. Never simply place exposed insulation against your wall or roof.

A graphic showing how to layer insulated walls. It suggests layering the inner wall, then hardware cloth, then insulation, then hardware cloth, then the outer layer.
We recommend this layer sandwich for your duck living space walls!

Flooring

When choosing the type of flooring that is best for your residents, keep in mind that bigger breeds of ducks and birds with mobility issues will need more traction than a healthy, smaller breed of duck. 

Concrete, wood, and dirt are common types of flooring used in duck living spaces. Concrete provides good protection from predators without the need for additional layers of protection, and will not be damaged by the mess ducks are notorious for making. However, it must be slightly textured in order to provide adequate traction.  Concrete that is too rough may cause damage to foot pads and webbing, but smooth concrete will be too slippery. A concrete floor, even with a thick layer of bedding, may be too hard on a duck’s joints, especially bigger ducks such as Pekins and male Muscovies, but the addition of rubber stall mats can help provide additional cushion. Anecdotally, it seems that ducks who regularly spend time on concrete (without the addition of stall mats) are more likely to develop arthritis and bumblefoot. Be aware that stall mats must provide good traction, even when wet. It’s also important to keep in mind that stall mats can be cumbersome to move and can make living space cleaning more arduous. Wooden flooring, which comes with many prefabricated sheds, does not provide good traction, especially when wet, so bigger ducks and those with mobility issues will likely need the addition of stall mats. Wooden floors will warp and rot, leading to more maintenance over time. Dirt flooring, while the easiest on feet and joints, will not protect against predators, especially those who dig, and therefore must be used in conjunction with other predator-proofing methods. A thick layer of dirt can be packed on top of a concrete floor or over galvanized hardware cloth, or it can be combined with concrete trenching, which should prevent digging predators from entering the structure. Dirt flooring is difficult to clean and disinfect, and must be added to as it erodes. You may also find that ducks turn dirt flooring into a muddy mess around water sources.

Regardless of the type of flooring used, ducks will also need ample amounts of dry bedding. This is especially important because many ducks sleep on the ground, and prolonged periods of time spent laying on a hard surface can lead to hock and keel sores, especially in bigger ducks. Straw and wood shavings are common types of bedding. Long-fibered straw can be difficult for ducks to walk through, and can get wrapped around their legs. The use of straw carries an increased risk of aspergillosis, so it may not be appropriate depending on other environmental factors and your residents’ overall health.  If you opt for wood shavings, look for “low dust” or “dust extracted” types. Aspen and pine wood shavings are popular options, and while we’ve talked to many sanctuaries that use pine shavings with no issues, be aware that there is conflicting research regarding whether or not pine shavings are entirely safe to use around birds. Cedar wood shavings should never be used because they can cause severe respiratory issues.

Roosting And Nesting Opportunities

Unlike chickens, most domestic ducks tend to sleep on the ground, but Muscovies typically choose to sleep up off the ground when given the opportunity (which makes sense since Muscovies in the wild typically nest and roost up in trees). In addition to ample bedding, straw bales or other sturdy structures, such as shelves or ledges, can provide safe opportunities for ducks who prefer to roost up off the ground. Keeping these elevated roosts covered in a generous layer of fresh bedding will help with cleaning and also provide additional cushion.  Some Muscovies (as well as some individuals of other breeds) may even use a flat board-style chicken perch as long as the board is at least as wide as their feet. Because mature male Muscovies are so large, it’s best to provide either tiered designs, or lower roosting areas to prevent a bigger duck from having to fly or jump down from a great height. You must also be sure the flooring and bedding combination in the surrounding area provides ample cushion and traction.  

While some female ducks, especially Muscovies, have been known to use nest boxes designed for chickens, these are typically too small for them, and elevated designs are difficult for them to get into. Female Muscovy ducks may opt to build a nest on an elevated structure, if available, but in general, you should plan to provide ground-level nesting areas to actively laying ducks. Hard plastic dog or cat carriers (appropriately sized based on the sizes of your residents) or even dog houses can be appealing nesting areas, so long as they have ample amounts of bedding.  Alternatively, you can use 3 straw bales to create a private nook. Place two bales against the wall with about a two foot gap between them. Then put the remaining bale on top so that it creates a roof over the opening and overlaps with each bale. Ensure there is enough overlap that the bale is secure. Fill the nesting nook with plenty of fresh bedding, and cover the tops with a layer of bedding as well.  These nesting areas are multifunctional- your residents may choose to use them as roosts as well!

A graphic demonstrating how to make a straw perch and nesting area for ducks. It shows two hay bales set against a wall, with a third one placed on top of them, against the wall, allowing for a place to perch as well as a spot between the two bottom bales to nest in.
Straw bale structures can make great nesting and perching areas!

Even when provided with nesting nooks, some of your duck residents may choose other areas to build their nests. Corners tend to be popular spots. Consider going a bit heavier on the bedding along walls and in corners, especially if you have a resident who seems to prefer a certain spot.

Summer Considerations

Duck living spaces need ample ventilation to prevent health issues. When temperatures are hot, indoor living spaces need to be maintained at a comfortable temperature. Industrial circulating fans and built-in exhaust fans can do a good job keeping the space well ventilated and cool, and keeping windows open (as long as they are covered with galvanized hardware cloth) can also help. If you use an exhaust fan, make sure it does not create openings that could allow a predator to enter when the fan is not in use. In areas where nighttime temperatures remain warm, the use of a predator-proof screen door (rather than a solid door) can help keep a space comfortable overnight while also providing protection.

As waterfowl, it should be no surprise that ducks need access to more than just drinking water. In addition to water to swim in, which we discuss in more detail below, ducks often enjoy other water sources and may use them to help cool off. Mister fans and open containers of cool water to splash in can help keep ducks cool. Depending on your area’s water availability, occasionally offering a sprinkler for your ducks to play in can give them a fun way to cool off.

Winter Considerations

Many online sources talk about ducks being “cold hardy,” and while in general they may be less sensitive to the cold than chickens, this should not be misinterpreted to mean they are immune to the effects of cold temperatures. Some ducks will be more sensitive to the cold than others, and Muscovy ducks tend to be more sensitive than other breeds, but keep in mind that underlying health issues can also impact a duck’s ability to remain comfortable in colder temperatures. In addition to ensuring their comfort, it’s important to protect them from dangerous temperatures and weather conditions. There is a common misconception that ducks can withstand extreme cold without developing frostbite, but this simply is not true. All ducks can develop frostbite on their feet, and Muscovy ducks can also develop frostbite on their caruncles (the fleshy bulbous parts of their face mask). While some ducks may choose to stay in during cold weather, others may choose to venture out, often lying in the snow with their feet and bills tucked into their feathers for warmth. Keeping outdoor living spaces shoveled and covering the cold ground with straw can help protect their feet, but during periods of extreme cold, freezing rain, or dangerous windchill, plan to keep your residents inside. In colder seasons, it’s important to keep living spaces draft-free while still allowing for ample ventilation- spaces that become too humid can cause significant respiratory illnesses, and duck living spaces tend to need more ventilation than chicken living spaces.

Condensation Concerns
If you feel condensation on the walls or ceiling of a barn in the wintertime, it must be immediately ventilated as it is far too moist for safe duck habitation!

Having windows that are above duck height or using exhaust fans can help allow airflow while still keeping the ducks out of a direct draft. If temperatures are safe enough to allow your residents to have outdoor access during the day, the use of smaller doors rather than larger doors will also help cut down on a draft. Be aware that ducks often travel in groups, and a small door that is appropriate for a chicken may cause a traffic jam with ducks. Opt for a wider door to allow more than one duck to move through the space at once.

You never want to overcrowd a space, but keeping the space on the fuller side can help keep the space warm. If you have a few birds in a very large space, you may find it is difficult to keep the space at a suitable temperature.  Providing extra bedding can help keep a space warm, but if your temperatures dip below freezing for extended periods of time you may need to provide a safe heat source. If you need to add a heat source, do so thoughtfully and keep fire safety in mind. Radiant heat flooring is the safest, but also the most expensive option. If you look into installing radiant floor heating, be aware that this system could cause an environment that is too humid depending on the type of enclosure you have. Typically, wood structures will “breathe” better than concrete block or metal sided buildings, which are more likely to sweat and contribute to high humidity levels. Additional ventilation may be necessary when using radiant floor heating. Heat lamps, especially those with glass bulbs, pose a serious fire risk; ceramic heat panels are a much safer option. 

In colder climates where temperatures dip below freezing, you may need to use a heated base or heated bowl to prevent water from freezing. Because of the risk of fire, you may opt to dump the water overnight and provide the ducks with a non-heated bowl of water at bed time, rather than keeping the heated base or heated bowl plugged in overnight when birds are locked in their enclosure and are unable to escape in the event of a fire. The water will eventually freeze, but will give them access to water for at least a portion of the night.  

Ducks need open water containers to clean their faces, so if their drinking water is offered in a water unit that does not allow for this, it’s important to offer open bowls or buckets of water regularly. Because of the mess ducks make splashing and cleaning, it can be helpful to set up indoor water sources on a shallow tray or in a container that can catch the spilled water without impeding a duck’s ability to access it. This will make cleanup easier and will protect the rest of the bedding from being cold, wet, and icy. 

If your duck residents have a large swimming pond, you’ll need to watch for ice. We’ve heard of at least one instance of a goose becoming trapped under a thick patch of ice and drowning, and while not all ducks will dive, it is important to keep this risk in mind when evaluating if their pond is safe given the current conditions.

Outdoor Living Spaces For Ducks

Most ducks like to swim, forage, explore in tall grasses, sift through muddy puddles, and lay in the sun, so be sure to provide ducks with a safe outdoor space during the day. It is important to keep predator-proofing in mind when creating an outdoor space and to consider the types of predators in your area. A fully enclosed aviary will protect against a wide variety of predators including aerial predators and those who climb or jump. If you opt to simply fence in the space, keep in mind that coyotes and foxes can jump or climb over 5 foot fencing, so it may be best to use fencing that is at least 8 feet high. In areas with digging predators, a portion of the fencing can be buried to protect against digging threats.

The more interesting and varied the outdoor space, the better. Ideally, ducks will have access to a swimming pond, marshy areas with tall grasses or reeds, shady areas, and areas where they can nap in the sun.  Familiarize yourself with plants that are toxic to ducks, and be sure to remove them from your pasture. Read more about plants that are toxic to ducks here. Get creative with the space and add duck-friendly plants; they’ll love the addition of edible plants, and will also enjoy exploring or building nests in tall grasses. Working with a native plant nursery can be a good way to identify plants that will both grow well in your area and that are a part of local wild duck habitats.

While most ducks will enjoy a swimming pond, there are other ways to provide your duck residents with opportunities to enjoy the water if a pond just isn’t possible. Hard plastic kiddie pools (inflatable and thin plastic pools will be damaged by duck nails) or large water troughs can be added to the space to give ducks the opportunity to splash in the water. Ducks will need a safe way to get in and out of the water source. Depending on the height of the pool or tub and the unique needs of your residents, a gently sloped ramp with proper traction can be a good option (follow the guidelines described above regarding safe ramps). If the pool or tub is especially high, or you find that your residents are struggling with a gently sloped ramp, it may be best to create an in-ground pool by digging out an area in the yard and sinking the pool or tub into the ground. Alternatively, you can dig a small pond and use a pond liner to contain the water, but be aware that soft plastic liners are often damaged by duck nails over time and will need replaced. In addition to a safe way into the water source, you also need to make sure they have a safe way out. If using a deep tub or a pool or pond with steep sides, the addition of sturdy stacks of large rocks can create a safe way out, or you can add a partial ramp or “dock” to help them get out of the water. When introducing a new water source to your residents, always make sure they are able to get in and out with ease.  Swimming pools and tubs will get dirty quickly, and algae can become a problem in hot, sunny weather. If using a swimming pool or water tub, it should be cleaned thoroughly each day and refilled with fresh water to lower the risk of disease. Small man-made ponds will also need regular maintenance and will need to be drained and refilled periodically, but typically don’t get dirty as quickly as small, shallow sources of water. Larger man-made ponds will require even less maintenance, and stream or spring fed ponds will naturally cycle in new water, which will help keep them clean. Ducks are particularly susceptible to botulism so it is important that their water supply is kept clean and well aerated. Be sure to regularly remove dead leaves and other plants matter regularly and to drain and clean the water source as needed. If your duck residents have access to a pond, be aware that snapping turtles can seriously injure and kill ducks.   

Two ducks with their heads underwater in an outdoor pond.
Bottoms up for the duck residents! Photo credit: Edgar’s Mission

Be sure to create enriching spaces that provide your duck residents with ample opportunities to exhibit their natural behaviors while still taking the necessary precautions to keep them safe from predators. Not only will this have a positive impact on their overall quality of life, it can also help promote healthy flock dynamics!  

Article Acknowledgements
This resource could not have been created without the pioneering work and shared knowledge of compassionate duck advocates including Farm Sanctuary, Wildwood Farm Sanctuary, and Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge.

SOURCES

Waterfowl Care | Farm Sanctuary

Duck And Goose Fact Sheet | Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Standards For Aquatic/ Semi-Aquatic Bird Sanctuaries | Global Federation Of Animal Sanctuaries

How Should I Keep And Care For My Pet Ducks? | RSPCA

Tips For Protecting Backyard Flocks From Predators | Poultry DVM

Cedar Chips and Pine Shavings As Bedding | The Spruce Pets

Frostbite | The Majestic Monthly Issue 26

Frost Bite | The Majestic Monthly Issue 75

Muscovy Duck | All About Birds

10 Important Things To Consider When Building A Duck Coop (Non- Compassionate Source)

Cold Weather Tips For Winter Duck Care (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.


Updated on August 3, 2020

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