How to Successfully ‘Parent’ Ducks

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

how to keep a duck as a pet

Story at-a-glance -

  • Perhaps the first consideration when bringing ducks home is providing them with a completely enclosed coop to protect them from harsh weather and predators
  • If you don’t have a pond for your ducks, a basic backyard pool deep enough for them to submerge themselves and swim around in will suffice.
  • Ducks poop a lot, which means your duck coop and bedding should be cleaned frequently, not just because it will build up quickly and smell, but also because it can create a perfect breeding ground for bacteria
  • Ducks enjoy snacks of leafy greens, ripe tomatoes, green beans, oats, carrots and bananas, but slugs, snails and numerous insects and grubs, including mosquitoes, are seriously depleted by hungry ducks
  • Ducks have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years when they’re taken care of properly, especially in a free-range situation; many people who keep them as pets find they pay for themselves many times over in companionship, pest control and sometimes eggs

Ducks are interesting creatures that prove how much like many other animals (and people, as well) they can be, as they exhibit distinct personality traits that can range from bossy to quirky to maternal. As tiny ducklings growing into their half fuzzy, half feathered “awkward” stage, they’re cute and immensely fun to watch, so it’s no surprise that a few years ago, ducks ranked as one of the top 20 pets searched for on Google, right next to rabbits.1

The phrase “like a duck to water” denotes the pleasure ducks seem to find when there’s water around. If you don’t have a pond, supplying water for them is as easy as providing a basic backyard pool, but water that’s deep enough for them to submerge themselves and swim around in is preferable.

Before you bring home a pair or a passel of ducks (the proper term being a flock, brace, raft or team, or the noun “paddling” when a flock swims together) though, be informed that they produce a lot of droppings, aka manure, so a small, enclosed space will quickly become more or less a “wet, stinky mess,” PetMD observes:

“Ducks love to swim. And splash. And drink. And bathe. Everything in their life revolves around water, which means the bigger the tub, the better. But remember that ducks will soil their water with amazing speed, so the tub needs to be changed regularly.”2

Much of that equation has to do with how many ducks you have in relation to water. Finding a tub that’s large enough for them to swim around in should be balanced by your ability to keep it clean. Providing pure, fresh water on a daily basis is one of the requirements for healthy ducks. Finding a pool low enough for your ducks to get in and out of easily is another consideration. Many ducks prefer deeper water, with a ramp for easy access to their water source.

Housing Protection for Ducks

Not unlike those made for chickens, ducks need a coop that’s completely enclosed to protect them not only from harsh weather, but predators. Land animals like foxes and coyotes can be a threat, but so can owls, eagles and hawks, which can swoop down, attack or carry away an unsuspecting duck in seconds.

An enclosed yard for ducks to forage — one of their favorite pastimes — is something else you should consider, but monitoring their safety is recommended if there’s a risk of predators, even in urban areas. Hawk netting or “hawk stopper” is strong, flexible and widely held to be effective at keeping the right critters in and the wrong critters out.

Because they don’t fly up to roost and perch like chickens do, a duck coop doesn’t need to be very high, but floor space is important. Other than a few exceptions, domestic ducks can’t fly, so they tend to nest on the floor. As long as there’s around 4 square feet of space for each duck, they’ll be comfortable and safe at night and during inclement weather.3

However, this brings the “messy” aspect of ducks into play as ducks just plain poop a lot. This means your duck house and bedding should be cleaned frequently for a few reasons: It will build up quickly, smell terrible and create a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Ducks need dry bedding for sleeping and nesting, so regular coop-cleaning will be required.

A thick layer of bedding, including soft wood chips, straw and even recycled paper, can be used to create an insulated, cozy environment for your ducks while they’re in their coop. Straw holds its shape and provides insulation to keep the birds off cold concrete or wood floors. Unlike straw, though, hay encourages moisture and subsequent mold. Mold fungi from any bedding material can lead to a potentially fatal respiratory tract infection known as Aspergillosis4 in ducks. Further:

“The house should be at least 3 feet tall, with vents along the top near the roof to allow for good air flow. Ducks emit lots of moisture when they breathe, and if that moisture can’t escape, it can lead to moldy and mildewed bedding or even frostbitten legs and feet in winter.”5

Ducks need access to drinking water in their coop, but overall the coop should be kept clean and dry to avoid environmentally induced diseases.

Advertisement
​Save 37% on a Joint Support for Pets 3-Pack	​Save 37% on a Joint Support for Pets 3-Pack

Food and Treats for Ducks

There are several types of ducks, both domestic and exotic, but generally speaking, domestic ducks have specialized types of diets. Mergansers have narrow, “toothed” bills more constructed to eat small fish, while ducks with spatula-shaped bills like the northern shoveler go more for algae and aquatic insects.6

Where a duck lives largely determines their diet.7 Those living near marshes or shorelines eat small fish, algae and crustaceans such as snails, while those in forests, such as wood ducks, forage for fruit and nuts.

Ducks often eat sand, pebbles, gravel and small shells, which aids their digestion and offers trace amounts of calcium, and they have a greater need for niacin than chickens do.8 Although some keepers who have both chickens and ducks may give chicken feed to both, it’s not recommended. Mother Earth News notes:

“If you are a gardener or farmer, or have a pond or stream on your property, ducks can be valuable allies in natural pest control. Watching these feathered vacuum cleaners enthusiastically hunting for and devouring pests both on land and in water is extremely satisfying to anyone who has struggled to find practical and safe methods to control the harm done by garden and farm pests.

These web-footed omnivores are tireless consumers of slugs, snails and a wide array of bothersome — and potentially dangerous — insects and grubs, including (but not limited to) mosquito pupae, Japanese beetle larvae, potato beetles and grasshoppers …

With the variety of diseases that mosquitoes can spread among avian and mammalian species, the duck’s ability to stop mosquitoes at the non-feeding pupa stage is significant.”9

Ducks of every variety enjoy snacks of leafy greens, ripe tomatoes, green beans, oats, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin, squash, carrots and bananas. Waterfowl food can be purchased online or at specialty pet stores.10 Feeding ducks bread or similar products is not recommended as these processed carbohydrates fail to offer anything nutritional.11

Who Can Keep Pet Ducks?

Some people find ducks to be more labor-intensive than chickens, but what they offer in the manure you can add to your garden, natural pest control and the eggs they provide make the effort worth it if you have the space.

One of the first things to check before you go to the emotional investment and expense of getting ducks is that your local municipality allows poultry, such as ducks and chickens, although one or the other may be allowed. If ducks are permitted, a limit on the number may exist. Contacting the proper authorities beforehand may be as easy as making a quick phone call.

Ducks have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years when they’re taken care of properly. In a free-range situation, many people who keep them as pets find they pay for themselves many times over. Not only do they contribute to the natural balance between pest control and nutrient supply, there’s also a symbiotic relationship for their environment.

One reason you may observe ducks as part of the ambiance in the ponds and waterscapes at many city parks is that in the right setting, ducks thrive with relatively little care. That said, the “right setting” should be a healthy ecosystem that helps them remain safe and healthy as they raise their young to do the same.

If you are interested in adopting a duck as a pet, contact your local humane society or animal rescue group. Each year, thousands of ducklings are purchased as Easter pets, then discarded a few months later. There are lots of homeless ducks across the U.S. waiting for their forever pond … it’s worth the effort to research and rescue one of these worthy quackers instead of visiting a hatchery.