Updated July 28, 2020
Very young ducks (also known as ducklings) have their own special care needs to help them reach adulthood in good health and comfort. Depending on how old they are when they enter your care and whether they have had or continue to have access to their mother, ducklings have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.
Intake For Ducklings
When a new duckling finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing flock. The duckling should receive all location and age-appropriate vaccinations (be sure to talk to your veterinarian about which vaccines, if any, are appropriate for your duck residents), and they should be evaluated for any health issues. If they are with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary, such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue.
Nutrition For Ducklings
Ideally, ducklings should eat a waterfowl or duckling starter food. Many (non-sanctuary) recommendations suggest that ducklings should be fed a formulation with 21-22% protein for their first two weeks of life and should then be switched to 16-18% protein from two weeks until they are 6 months old (or until females begin laying). However, according to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, ducklings under 2 weeks of age may not require such high protein levels, as a few studies have indicated that ducklings did well on protein levels of 18-19%. In breeds that tend to get quite large, such as Pekins (especially “Jumbo” Pekins) and Muscovies, it may be advisable to stay toward the lower end of protein ranges to prevent rapid weight gain. For recommendations regarding specific brands of food to feed ducklings at various ages, you can check out Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary’s recommendations here.
If waterfowl starter is unavailable, chick starter can be used on the condition that it must be supplemented with additional niacin and must be unmedicated. Without the supplemental niacin, ducklings can develop serious leg and joint disorders, often decreasing their lifespan. Niacin supplements can be purchased at many drugstores, or brewer’s yeast can often be found at animal food stores. If using a niacin supplement, add 100 to 150 mg of niacin per gallon of drinking water until 10 weeks of age. If using brewer’s yeast, add 2 to 3 cups per 10 pounds of food.
Be aware that ducklings tend to make quite a mess and will often get their food wet. In certain temperatures, this wet food will be prone to souring, so be sure to replace it as needed throughout the day and to thoroughly clean food dishes at the end of each day. Never remove a duckling’s water source in an attempt to keep their food dry- not only do they need water to stay hydrated, they can choke if they have access to food but not water.
Scratch can be provided, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole. Finely-chopped green food like fresh herbs and dandelion greens (not spinach) can be put into the ducklings’ waterer, offering both a tasty treat and a fun activity. Be sure the water source is easily accessible and cannot be readily knocked over or stood in. As ducklings have no teeth, they will need duckling-appropriate insoluble grit to help them break down any food other than their starter food, though if they have regular time outside, they should be able to get enough grit on their own. DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium as too much calcium can result in health issues for ducklings.
Water For Ducklings
Ducklings love water and should have access to fresh, clean drinking water at all times. They use water to help digest their food and clean their nostrils so they should have access to a water source into which they can dip their bills. Their water will become dirty quickly and should be replaced regularly. Ducklings also love to bathe and swim, however, it is important to know that their feathers are not waterproof yet, and they can become waterlogged and get sick or drown if left in a water source unattended or one where they can not easily get out. Any water sources for bathing should be lukewarm and remain shallow but deep enough for a duckling to fit their entire bill. It should be easy for them to get in and out safely. If a duckling soaks their feathers, they may need to be dried off to prevent becoming chilled.
Heat Sources For Ducklings
Young ducklings without their mother will need a heat source. Many online sources will recommend the use of a heat lamp, but you must be aware that these come with serious risk. Not only are heat lamps a fire risk, some glass bulb heat lamps are coated with substances containing polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). At high temperatures, these bulbs can put out highly toxic fumes, resulting in Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (also known as Teflon Flu and Polymer Fume Fever). PTFE coated bulbs (and any other items containing PTFE or Teflon) should never be used around birds. Ceramic bulb heat lamps are a safer option, but be sure they are set up OUTSIDE of the housing and at least 18 inches away from any flammable materials to prevent burns and fires. Place them at one end of their living space so ducklings can adjust where they’d like to be in proximity to the heat. An even safer alternative heat source is a radiant heater like the EcoGlo from Brinsea. You adjust the height each week until the ducklings’ feathers have come in. For an option that carries no fire risk and requires no electricity, you can use Snuggle Safe microwavable heat discs, but you must ensure it is enough to keep ducklings appropriately warm. Be sure to keep discs in a Snuggle Safe cover or wrapped in a blanket or towel, and pay attention to when they need to be reheated. Make sure to offer enough heat discs so that everyone can get to a warm area if desired, but make sure they still have plenty of non-heated space too so that they can choose how near or far they need to be from the heat.
Additionally, you will need to take care not to overheat ducklings in warmer weather. If you live in a warmer climate and have a draft-free living space for the ducklings, they may not require a heat source. A regular light bulb may provide enough warmth for any young ducklings in this situation. Observe the ducklings’ behavior. If they are too cold, they will crowd and huddle near the heat source. If they are too hot, they will attempt to spread out along the edges, away from the heat. Start off at 90 degrees Fahrenheit for newly hatched ducklings and decrease temperature 5 degrees over each week until their feathers come in or until you reach the ambient temperature of the space they are housed in.
Shelter For Ducklings
It is important that ducklings live in a draft-free shelter with proper ventilation. Drafts and poor ventilation can cause unwanted health problems. Their shelters should include soft bedding or grass. Do NOT place them in cages with wire bottoms as this can cause serious foot injuries. Additionally, be sure surfaces are not slippery as ducklings can slip and injure their legs (splayed or spraddle leg). You can use rubber drawer liners on the floor to ensure a non-slip surface.
Ducklings can and will splash their water, and their waste is quite watery. This being said, you will have to keep up with the mess as best you can to ensure they have a dry, clean living space. They should have clean, dry bedding- options include non-woven blankets, pine or aspen wood shavings, or straw (long strands of straw can be difficult to walk through, so shorter fibered varieties may be best). Cedar should never be used in avian living spaces as it can cause severe respiratory issues. Ducklings will nibble at anything in their living space, including bedding. For this reason it can be important to get bedding that is either big enough that they can’t eat it or is something they do not appear interested in eating.
If the weather is warm and calm, you can begin taking ducklings out for mini supervised “outings” but they should not be left unattended or remain out for long periods of time until they are at least 6 weeks old. Additionally, they may need to be encouraged back into their shelter during inclement weather.
Social Considerations For Ducklings
Ducklings are social and should be brought up with other ducklings when possible. They learn important skills from their mother and, when possible, should be kept together. They can later be introduced and integrated into an existing flock or be their own little flock.
If you are caring for a single duckling, be sure to still follow proper intake and quarantine procedures as placing them within the flock could potentially spread disease. In the case of a single duckling in quarantine, you might place a stuffed animal duck in with them as “company”. Groups of ducklings that come in together but without their mothers, while missing out on important developmental time with their parent, can generally be adequately cared for by human caretakers.
Duckling Health Considerations
Ducklings can be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. At this stage in life, they need time to build up their immune systems before risking exposure to disease. It is important to speak with a veterinarian about appropriate vaccinations as early as possible.
Ducklings should be monitored closely for any signs of illness including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, labored breathing, panting, and sinus flaring. If a duckling appears to be separating themselves from the flock, this could be a sign of illness or a sign that they are getting picked on. Pay close attention to their mobility- healthy ducklings should walk and run without any sign of lameness, and when they stand both legs should be evenly under them.
Angel Wing is a condition affecting ducklings that causes their wing feathers to turn outwards. A diet high in protein and excess calories is thought to be the cause of Angel Wing. The good news is it is preventable! Angel Wing manifests as a twisted wing joint resulting in their wing tip being unable to lie flat against their body. This problem can lead to lifelong disfiguration, but is much more detrimental in wild ducks since it will prevent them from being able to fly. Consult with a veterinarian regarding treatment- they can determine if the condition can be fixed by keeping the wing wrapped to their body. Never attempt to do this without working with a veterinarian, as improper wrapping can have serious health consequences.
Duck Virus Hepatitis
Duck Virus Hepatitis specifically affects ducklings between the ages of 1-28 days. It is rarely seen in ducklings older than this. The disease has a rapid onset and is both highly contagious and fatal. Ducklings with this disease may develop spasms in their legs and die within the hour. Their backs are usually arched upon death. Sadly, once a duckling has it, the mortality rate is between 90-100%. If you suspect your residents have this disease, call your veterinarian immediately. Keep younger ducklings (under a month old) separate from adult ducks (including wild waterfowl) to help prevent this disease.
Spraddle Leg, or Splayed Leg, can be caused by an issue during incubation or hatching, but the most common cause is a slippery floor. If a duckling cannot get proper traction on the floor, their legs will slide to one side, preventing them from developing their leg muscles. Because ducklings like to bathe and play in water and their waste is mostly composed of water, they can make quite a mess that can result in slippery surfaces if this isn’t planned for in advance. Rubber drawer or cabinet mats can help ensure ducklings have enough traction.
Ducklings are susceptible to worms just like their grown-up counterparts. Sometimes cases are mild but other times it can be fatal in ducklings if left unchecked. Be sure to speak to your vet about the best deworming options and protocols for your duckling residents!
Wry Neck, an unnatural twisting of the neck, can be a result of trauma, toxins, a vitamin deficiency, or an issue during incubation. This twisting can range from minor to severe. If one of your duckling residents is showing signs of wry neck, be sure to consult with your veterinarian immediately in order to determine the cause and best treatment options. In some cases vitamin supplementation may be necessary. In severe cases, individuals may have difficulty walking, eating, and drinking. Be sure to provide supportive care as necessary to ensure they are able to get the nutrients they need and make sure their current living arrangement is safe for them.
When Ducklings Grow Up
As we have covered, ducklings have different nutritional, environmental, and health needs than adult ducks. The younger the duckling, the more protection, heat, and protein (amino acids) they need. As they grow, their downy fuzz will become feathers (around 6-7 weeks) and they will become more “waterproof”. This will allow them to regulate their body temperatures and become more buoyant in water. They will be able to swim more safely at this point and can be on a waterfowl food that has a lower protein content. Female ducks who are actively laying may need to be fed a “layer” diet or receive additional calcium.
The age at which you slowly start introducing the ducklings to the flock will likely be dependent on personalities, diets, flock arrangements, and your set-up. In most cases, you should wait until they are at least 6 weeks old, though some prefer to wait quite a bit longer. Ideally, introductions are done in short, supervised meetings, spread over several days. If it is spring, drakes (male ducks) may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored. You should watch for any signs of older ducks “picking on” or biting the ducklings and intervene immediately. Alternatively, if there is a duck who has taken to the ducklings, you can place them with the ducklings during their outside time. You can read more about the introduction process here.
Taking time to consider the specific needs of ducklings as a species and as individuals will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!
Duck Health Care | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)
Nutrient Requirements of Poultry: Ninth Revised Edition, 1994 (Non-Compassionate Source)
Raising Ducks 101 | Life Is Ducky (Non-Compassionate Source)