Ducks Are Not Chickens–And Other Profound Truths

by Randy Graham

Early last year, I decided that the time had come to hit the brakes on my chicken enterprise. Please understand, I’m not going to abandon my flock and wouldn’t want that ugly rumor to find its way back to the girls. But I am aware of four inescapable facts. First, I’ll be celebrating my 70th birthday in a few weeks. Second, I allow my birds to live out their natural lives—that’s how it works in my coop. Third, some chickens can live for ten years or more. And fourth, I’ve done the math. Last spring, as the baby chick season rolled around, I made the firm decision I was not going to get any more chicks—ever. 

So, I got ducklings. 

Yeah. I know. The only logical way to look at my decision is to not look for logic. Maybe the logic was that I was in my second lackluster pandemic year and it was time to shake things up. 

Anyway, last summer was anything but lackluster. I filled my days building a duck coop, a duck run, and all the other necessary duck infrastructure. And as a newbie duck keeper I had to learn about these strange new creatures that had come to live in my coop.

Since I’ve been a chicken guy for a while, I went into the duck operation thinking that if I could maintain a flock of chickens, segueing into ducks would not be rocket science. Ducks and chickens are both barnyard poultry, after all. Both have beaks and wings and feathers and lay eggs. So, there you go, right? 

Um, nope. Segueing into ducks was not rocket science—it was poultry science. Fortunately, I read a bunch of books before the ducklings arrived. As I worked my way through the books I gradually arrived at this profound truth: Ducks are not chickens. Nearly a year of duck-keeping has reinforced that fact. It has also given me a ton of personal experiences about their differences. Here are a few.

Ducks Need Water

Well, of course ducks need water, you say. Chickens need water, too. All animals need water! That’s true, I reply. But ducks are basically fish with feathers! Chickens are neat drinkers, like connoisseurs at a wine tasting. Ducks are funneling frat boys at a kegger. Chickens sip water. Ducks insert their whole head into the water. It’s how they keep their eyes and nostrils clean. If ducks were limited to a water fount or a nipple drinker, not only would they be very unhappy, they would soon be unhealthy.

Ducks also need water to aid them in swallowing dry food when they eat. Duckie mealtime is a free-for-all of ducks bouncing between the food and water pans. At day’s end, the water is opaque with submerged and floating food chunks and the food is completely soggy. Dumping murky water and wet feed is not a thing with chickens, but with ducks it’s a daily chore.

I also discovered that if I give a duck a water container large enough to submerge her head, she’ll do her best to submerge her entire body. And she’ll accompany this action with wing beating and loud and happy quacking. 

But, in fact, ducks do need to get their whole body wet. They’ve got a preen gland near their tail that activates when they dunk themselves in water. They rub oil from the gland onto their heads and then use their heads to spread the oil over their feathers. Chickens dust bathe, but ducks bathe in water. I get that. I prefer bathing in water myself! So, ducks splash a little water. Okay, a LOT of water! It keeps them clean and healthy, makes them really happy, and that’s how it is! 

Ducks Are Messy

Sure, you say. Chickens are messy, too. That’s true, I reply, but, well, see above. While chickens are known for constant and indiscriminate pooping, ducks are too. And because ducks consume so much water, the volume and sheer gooiness of their excrement is beyond anything chickens can muster up. 

Because of all that wet manure, I lay a thick coating of absorbent bedding on the coop floor. I continue to layer new bedding as it becomes necessary. And I completely remove the soiled bedding and replace it with fresh bedding regularly. What is “regularly?” At least once a week. I clean more frequently in the summer because of the odor and because all that wet, manure-laden bedding is a breeding ground for flies.

I’ve learned that the swamp around the water container can happen as readily inside the coop as outdoors, and the best strategy is not having an indoor water container. And since ducks need to consume water with their food, the food pan also stays outside. 

At daybreak, the chickens can hop off their roost and get down to the business of pecking up some breakfast, since their food and water are right in the coop. But the ducks are forced to mutter under their breath and impatiently tap their webbed feet until I manage to get into the coop and get the pop door open. I’ve kept the ducks from revolting and myself in bed until a reasonable hour with a light-activated automatic pop door. As soon as the timer flicks the coop lights on, the door opens and the ducks can waddle outside for their al fresco breakfast.

Ducks Need Duck Food

Stores selling chicken feed are everywhere, thanks to the thriving backyard chicken movement. There are fewer backyard ducks, so logically, stores that sell duck feed are few and far between. If you’re new to ducks and expect your friendly local chicken feed place to carry duck feed, you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. Some of them will. And some of them may have a few dusty bags of one kind of duck feed in the back. A few might have less-than-perfect “all flock feed.” Many will have nothing. 

If you’re unable to find duck feed in your area, ducks can manage with chicken feed with a few tweaks. Bear in mind that the chicken feed must be age-appropriate. Adult ducks should receive adult chicken feed and ducklings should get chick feed.

There is a popular myth that medicated chick feed is harmful to baby ducks. It is only a myth. Medicated chick feed contains amprolium, a chemical that controls the parasite that causes coccidiosis by depriving it of thiamine. Amprolium is not an antibiotic, does not harm chicks, nor does it harm ducklings.

The most important thing to know about chicken feed for ducks is that it is deficient in niacin (vitamin B3). Ducks need almost twice as much niacin as chickens do. And without adequate niacin, ducklings won’t develop properly and adult ducks will become ill. 

While free-ranging adult ducks can forage a lot of niacin-rich food, if the bulk of their diet is chicken feed, they need supplemental niacin. Babies confined to a brooder only get to eat the food you give them. And since their growing bodies have even higher niacin requirements than adults, it is doubly important that they get a niacin supplement. 

Nutritional yeast is a popular, readily available and easy-to-use food product that is high in niacin. You can sprinkle it right on their feed. How much do you need? Well, chickens need 26-27 mg of niacin for every kg of feed, and commercial chicken feed is formulated for those needs. Ducks need 55 mg per kg. So, it’s just a matter of checking the labels on your chicken feed and your nutritional yeast and doing a little math. Don’t sweat the math too much. Excess niacin can be toxic in concentrated doses – five or more times the recommended dose. But niacin is a water-soluble vitamin, so if you go slightly overboard with the niacin supplement, your ducks will keep the amount their bodies need and excrete the excess. 

Ducks Nest on the Ground

Chickens spend their nights on a roost. Muscovy ducks also roost, but they are the only roosting ducks. All other breeds of domestic ducks spend their nights, and their whole lives, at ground level. 

Since ducks live on the ground, they obviously lay their eggs on the ground. The nest boxes I built for the ducks are about 1.5 feet on each side, with a 1.5-inch lip, but otherwise right at floor level. While I use pine shavings in the rest of the duck coop, I lay straw in and in front of the nest boxes. I put a few golf balls in the nest boxes to help promote the “roundish objects belong here” idea to the ducks. While I occasionally find eggs in random spots in the coop, most of the ducks get it right most of the time.

Ducks Are Cold-Tolerant

The good news about ducks is that they can tolerate cold weather better than chickens. On cold days, the chickens stick their heads out of the pop door, scowl, and go back in for the rest of the day. On those same days, the ducks are walking in the snow and splashing in water filled with ice chunks. Ducks survive cold weather thanks to a warm layer of down feathers, a preen gland that keeps their feathers dry, and a remarkable countercurrent heat exchange in the blood supply to their legs and feet that keeps the heat loss from those unfeathered body parts to a minimum.

Still, ducks can and do get cold, and if they are left unsheltered in extreme cold, they can suffer frostbite and even freeze to death. So, I’ve done a few things to keep them comfortable and happy in the winter cold.

Ducks don’t appreciate winter gales. I put tarps on two sides of their run to form a windbreak. I also covered the top of the run with tarps to keep out the snow. 

I put a nice layer of straw in the run—it keeps their little bare duckie feet off the icy ground. Ducks will walk right through snow—and even enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that when they walk in snow they sometimes hop from foot to foot or lift one foot up into their feathers and stand on one foot. A layer of insulating straw on the ground makes it a whole lot easier for the ducks to keep their feet warm.

Ducks need a constant supply of food to keep their bodies’ furnaces stoked against the cold. Since they always need water when they eat, I keep an electrically heated dog water bowl in the run and top it off with fresh water three times a day. 

It would be difficult to keep a duck pond unfrozen in the winter, but ducks don’t need a pond. But they do need to dunk their bills and heads. And they appreciate a quick bath and preen. For that, I keep a large rubber feed pan filled with water. The pan is not heated and eventually becomes solidly frozen. Every morning I knock out the ice and fill it with water. Two ducks can hop in at a time—while the others impatiently wait their turn around the edge. 

Are the ducks surviving the winter? Are they happy? One sign that they’re doing fine: I got my very first duck egg in the cold, dark days right before Christmas. Then the weather got even colder, yet I continued to get 1-3 duck eggs every day. And as spring approaches, the eggs keep coming.

Ducks Are Not Chickens

Ducks and chickens are both poultry. Both have beaks and wings and feathers and lay eggs. But after nine months of keeping ducks, I’ve learned the lessons I’ve told here and many more. Ducks are not chickens. They are ducks. And I’m really glad l have them!

photo credits: Randy Graham