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Creating An Enriching Life For Ducks

Two ducks drinking water from a tub inside a living space.

Updated September 15, 2020

Enrichment is often thought of as an extra or optional provision for residents. Sanctuary workers are understandably focused on providing the food, water, and housing that is necessary for residents to live. However, we are hoping that by incorporating enrichment as an aspect of general care,  the lives of residents will be enriched. This is of particular importance for residents residing in smaller, more confined, or barren living spaces. In areas that experience intense cold, the best way to keep duck residents warm is to leave them in a smaller, coop-like space when they may normally have a larger outdoor space for foraging, a pond for swimming and bathing, and other duck behaviors. In cases like these, enrichment can make a world of difference in the lives of residents. No one likes to be bored, including residents, regardless of species!

Developing An Enrichment Plan

It is important to understand the species-specific needs of your residents, as well as to consider their individual needs. An example of a species-specific understanding acknowledges that ducks are very motivated to forage for their food and swim, bathe, and feed in water.

Many studies regarding enrichment for domestic birds have focused on chickens, including some showing that chickens are stimulated by visual enrichment, particularly those involving movement. While there is some information specifically on duck enrichment, there is quite a lot more for chickens. That being the case, many of the suggestions included in this article have been modified from informational resources for chickens. 

When developing an enrichment plan for residents, it is important to consider the types of behavior in which you are hoping to see an increase or decrease. For example, if you are hoping to reduce feather-picking, there are particular enrichment options that are ideal for that, such as tying a bunching of white string to an accessible part of their living space. Do you want to increase exploratory behavior? Novel objects and nutritional foraging enrichment may be better suited in this case. We know you likely have your hands full managing a sanctuary; developing an enrichment plan for species, particular groupings, and individuals could potentially help you safe time and money in the future!

In this resource we will go into different types of enrichment and how they can be implemented at your sanctuary. The great news is that there are many inexpensive ways to provide enrichment for your residents!

What An Enrichment Plan Could Look Like

The following is an example of a potential enrichment plan for an individual duck:

“Sammy the duck underwent surgery recently and their movements must be limited, especially walking, for the next week or two. Setting Sammy up in a sling or small living space and providing enrichment as a means of mental stimulation can assist in their healing. Examples of possible enrichment strategies for Sammy include playing the radio, stringing a treat garland within their reach, and adding a familiar smell to their temporary living space. A pool would not be appropriate enrichment during that time but a bowl of water with treats could provide mental stimulation.”

Social Enrichment

This one may seem obvious but it is important to mention: Ducks are social animals and it is important they have access to other ducks. Of course, there are times when this isn’t possible, due to medical issues, flock disagreements, or sadly, the death of their flock mates. In cases like these where direct contact with others of their species isn’t possible, there are ways that can enrich their lives during this time. 

  • If at all possible, ducks should be housed with other ducks. If this is not possible, then extra steps should be taken to alleviate the stress caused by their isolation.
  • Provide visual contact with other ducks.
  • Adding a mirror (some places hang old CDs) to their living space.
  • Including a small amount of soiled bedding (if contagion isn’t an issue) from their original flock space.
  • Play a recording of normal duck sounds.
A duck looking at themself in a mirror indoors.
Cassidy has been provided with a mirror which can be visually interesting while helping residents feel more at ease when isolated from others. Photo credit: Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary

Nutritional Enrichment

This is a fun one! We all know ducks enjoy foraging and enjoy an array of tasty treats.

Here is a list of ideas for nutritional enrichment for your duck residents:

  • Take a two to-three-inch wide PVC pipe and put caps on the ends. The length of the tube could be a foot long or larger. Drill a handful of holes on the side of the tube and it becomes a food dispenser when the birds roll and peck at it. 
  • Another option is to place a pet’s food in wiffle balls. As the balls roll, treats fall out. Or, you can hang the wiffle balls.
  • There are also food balls made specifically for chickens that distribute a small amount of food when the ball is manipulated.
  • Some puzzle feeders made for dogs can be used with supervision.
  • Provide forage boxes, or fence off an area inside their enclosure and plant duck-safe plants, then remove the barrier and let them forage in the new space.
  • Hang heads of cabbage or lettuce from a string or in a ball basket, making a tasty treat piñata! We recommend covering the string with stiff tubing or a piece of hose to prevent residents from getting tangled in the string.
  • Add a pile of leaves (be sure they aren’t toxic to ducks) and sprinkle treats throughout.
  • String produce and make a garland to hang in their living space.
  • When temperatures are hot, add chopped up produce to a mold, add water and freeze, creating a cool treat that can keep your residents engaged on a hot day.
  • Add greens to water and you can even place a rock on top of greens at the bottom of a pool for them to dive for!

Check out our resource on safe treats for duck residents!

Two ducks in a small pool with lettuce pieces floating in the water.
Princess and Little Man are enjoying some nutritional enrichment! Photo credit: Lewis Oliver Farm Sanctuary

Visual Enrichment

Research has shown that chickens can benefit from visual forms of enrichment. In particular, studies revealed that chickens that have been given visual forms of enrichment exhibit less fear when they are transferred to unfamiliar environments. It is quite possible that this is true for ducks as as well though further study is needed.

  • Computer screen savers, particularly those that move.
  • Television or movies
  • Images of chickens projected onto walls has shown behavioral imitation among the flock it is shown to. So projecting scenes of happy ducks may help your resident ducks feel good too. Interest in images can fade after a few weeks and so should be changed routinely to sustain interest.
  • Provide mirrors (Observe carefully to ensure they don’t find their reflection upsetting) or hang CDs around enclosure.
  • Place a pinwheel around their living space.
A Note On Color

In studies where ducks were given differently colored wiffle balls to play with, they showed more interest in blue and green enrichment toys than red or white!

Olfactory Enrichment

Olfactory enrichment is often overlooked when considering ducks. However, studies have shown that many domestic birds have a developed sense of smell, and providing ducks access to certain smells may contribute to feelings of safety.If you need to transfer a duck to a new living space, add a bit of soiled bedding from their previous space.

Other olfactory enrichment opportunities may include:

  • Chicks have been shown to prefer smells like vanilla over garlic. 
  • Chicks exposed to geranium oil exhibited an increase in pecking, vocalization, preening, and movement.
  • If introducing new birds to an existing flock, the presence of vanilla scent may have a calming effect if both living spaces where the birds resided had vanilla in them as well.

Auditory Enrichment

Do you love a good tune? Or have a favorite song that soothes you? The same can be true for ducks! While so much of the research refers specifically to chickens, it may provide a place to start thinking of auditory enrichment opportunities for ducks.

  • Chickens have been shown to experience reduced fear when played classical music! 
  • Other studies have shown that playing a radio for hens made them calmer.
  • Natural sounds for chickens work but are not as helpful as music can be for brain growth.

Tactile Enrichment

To encourage ducks to interact with their environment and redirect otherwise problematic behavior, consider adding tactile enrichment to their living spaces. This might include:

  • Ducks love water! Healthy adult residents should have access to a pool or source of open water where they can bathe and dive (for some species) and forage. It is important they can safely and easily enter and exit the water. Ducklings should not be left in water longer than 20 minutes and should be supervised to prevent drowning. Alternatively, you can provide a shallow dish with stones or balls that allow them to play in the water without risk of drowning.
  • Tying a bunch of thick white strings in their living space. (Be sure they cannot remove and swallow them!)
  • Adding colorful balls (large enough that they can’t swallow them, and made from material they cannot digest) to food dishes.
  • Parrot toys and duck safe baby toys can be hung around the enclosure for investigation.
  • Adding multiple types of duck-safe substrates to their outdoor living space and see which one they are most drawn to.
  • Adding unique roosting opportunities.  However, it is important to consider the needs of your individual residents. Structures that are higher up may not be advisable for seniors and ducks with special medical issues. 

Take Notes

Because every duck is an individual, they are likely to have individual responses to enrichment. When you first add enrichment items, be sure to carefully observe the reactions of your residents. To prevent discomfort from new items or enrichment schedules, consider adding novel objects to an area at the side of their living space, or in a space that doesn’t require them walking past the item to go inside, outside, or reach their water or food. If you believe one of your resident flocks or individuals may be fearful of certain enrichment, encouraging them to investigate object while you are sitting and holding the object can help ease fears. Using food or treats to motivate them to interact with the item is a great way to start. Giving your residents the option to engage or not with enrichment items can be empowering and improve emotional states. Be sure to make notes of any reactions and when their level of interest seems to subside. This will help you know how to best schedule days to change up their enrichment and provide them with a mentally stimulating environment.

Novelty

Novelty can be enriching on its own. Making changes to the “furniture”, arrangement, placement of food, and the addition of balls, toys, and swings, can all create an interesting and enriching environment for your duck residents. Ducks are clever and become bored after some time with provided enrichment. For this reason, it is important to incorporate “switch it up” days into your residents’ enrichment schedules. As mentioned above, it is important to take notes on flock and individual responses so you can properly tailor enrichment to the interests and needs of your residents. 

Positive Reinforcement Training

Many ducks enjoy interacting with their human caretakers. One way to build a strong human-duck bond and boost cognitive functioning in your duck residents, is to try clicker training.

It Shouldn't Be For Humans

It is important to note that clicker training should only be implemented for the positive experiences that can be provided to your residents, never as an exploitative activity to train your residents to ”perform” for human amusement.

Examples of activities to learn with your duck residents could include learning to choose a specific shape or color and being rewarding with an immediate click and treat. Other examples include learning to come to the call of their name, how to ring a bell,  walking through agility courses, and practicing necessary sanctuary protocols such as walking into a crate, which can make transportation events less stressful. Positive reinforcement can also be used to ease medical procedures. This infographic from Poultry DVM provides a brief tutorial on how to clicker train with chickens.

Building A Schedule

Once you learn more about your residents’ interests, you can build an enrichment schedule to provide varying forms of enrichment as part of your care-taking routine. This will keep things interesting for the ducks and help provide a stimulating and happy life for your residents.

Do you have an exciting enrichment strategy you use with your ducks? Tell us all about it!

SOURCES:

Caring For Ducks | Association Of Avian Veterinarians 

Duck And Goose Toys And Enrichment | Majestic Waterfowl

The Effects Of Environmental Enrichment Devices On Feather Picking In Commercially Housed Pekin Ducks | Poultry Science  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Enrich Your Chickens’ Environment For Better Health | Hobby Farms  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Environmental Enrichment Ideas For Poultry | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Do You Need Toys For Chickens? | Backyard Poultry  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Music | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Familiar Smells | Poultry DVM  (Non-Compassionate Source)

Colorful Balls | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Mirror | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Environmental Enrichment For Poultry Welfare | British Society Of Animal Science (Non-Compassionate Source)

The Effects Of Four Types Of Enrichment On Feather-Pecking Behaviour In

Laying Hens Housed In Barren Environments | Animal Welfare (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 September 15, 2020

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