For anyone in colder climates, caring for outdoor animals in the winter can cause worry, especially if it is your first winter caring for these animals. But when it comes to domestic ducks, like other waterfowl, they are well adapted to handle cold temperatures.
Ducks are amazing at regulating their body heat in the cold. While a duck’s body temperature is around 104 degrees, their feet, due to a unique vessel system, stay much cooler. Ducks have a counter-current heat exchange system between the arteries and veins in their legs. That means the warm blood coming out of the body warms the cold blood coming back in from the feet as it circulates. By the time the blood makes it to the feet, it is already cooled off (and the blood going back into the body is warmed up.) This keeps the feet supplied with just enough blood to provide tissues with food and oxygen, and just warm enough to help avoid frostbite. This neat little evolutionary advance is how they can stand in a cold lake in the dead of winter!
There are certain things YOU can do to make your ducks’ winter a more comfortable and enjoyable one. With just a few tips and tricks, you can relax this winter knowing your ducks are ready. So what do you need to know about caring for ducks in the winter?
The generally accepted rule of thumb is that each duck needs two square feet of floor space in a duck house to be comfortable. Ours live in our shed with our chickens and rabbits, so they have more room to move about, should they decide not to venture outside on really bad days. This keeps everyone from getting on each other’s nerves. While you want your duck house to be small enough to concentrate the body heat your animals are producing, you don’t want it so small they get on each other’s nerves and fight.
Since most duck breeds spend their time on the ground, you will want to put extra straw in their house for them to snuggle down in and to keep them off the cold ground or floor. Why straw? Because its hollow tube structure traps heat inside of it. It also makes great compost material if you used the deep litter method. What’s that? It’s like building a layer cake in your coop throughout the winter. When the bedding becomes soiled, don’t clean, simply put down a fresh layer of straw. As the dirty material underneath begins to decompose, it gives off heat. Not to mention, in the spring your garden will thank you!
|Deep Litter Method|
Keep in mind though, that while ducks tolerate cold very well, they tend to dislike wind. Make sure your ducks have protection from the wind. You can hang a tarp up in a corner of your duck’s pen so they can shield themselves against the wind. Our ducks free range our fenced in yard and we leave plenty of vegetation for them to hunger down in, or if they are smart, they just go back in the shed!
Ventilate in your ducks’ shelter is important as well. While you need to protect them from the wind and drafts, you do need to provide adequate ventilation to cut down on moisture issues. When ducks breathe, they emit a lot of moisture, which can cause health conditions, such as frostbite. Make sure your vents are preditor proof and near the top of the ducks’ shelter.
Ducks LOVE water and need it to eat their food and stay clean. If you live in an extremely cold climate, I am sure you have wondered how you are going to keep your ducks’ water from freezing. Well if you live somewhere like I do where it can get down to -30, you’re not! Well at least not without help.
To make sure they have water on hand during the winter, some people use heated dog water bowls. This will keep your water from freezing but it will also mean your ducks will party in in, because ducks like water. They will go from drinking it, to trying to bath in it, which leads to spills, which nobody wants, and more moisture in their shelter. Make sure to place the water on or in another shallow container to collect spills.
Since ducks do like to play in their water, they themselves will disturb it from time to time, and slow down the freezing process. You could also put ping pong balls in the water container if it is outside and the wind will cause the balls to move around, agitating the water and slow down the freezing process. However I have heard reports that ducks like to flip them out of the water!
|Waterer inside of rubber pan to catch spills.|
For our ducks, I place their normal waterer inside a rubber pan to catch spills. I start off with hot water (not boiling hot!) so that it takes longer for the water to cool and freeze. I check our animals’ water a couple times a day in the winter to make sure they all have fresh water. And I will admit, I have put a heat lamp directly over the waterer when we get down to -30 just so it takes longer to freeze because I am tired of thawing waterers by that point in the winter.
|Water (or ice) off a ducks back|
Ducks do need access to water during the winter to bath. As long as it is deep enough that they can get their head and neck in it, they can properly clean up just fine. Bathing is important in the maintenance of their feathers. If they can’t properly clean and preen, they will lose the ability to properly use their feather to maintain their body temperature.
|“Hot Tub” time in the winter.|
I like to let my ducks bath about once a week, if possible. I wait for a sunny day, if there is one, and then we have “hot tub” time. I fill a small rubber pan with warm water and let them go nuts. If it is very cold out (below freezing) you will see ice form on their feathers. Do not freak out! Your duck will shake it or preen it off with no problem.
Make sure you keep your ducks well fed. Since your ducks will not be able to forage for much food when there’s snow and ice everywhere, you need to make sure that they get enough and the right kinds of food. Protein is vital to a duck’s health. You can supplement their normal summer bug intake by giving them treats like Tasty Grubs. Also give your ducks treats like fruits, vegetables, and greens. It wouldn’t hurt to give them high fat, high calorie treats (such as corn and peanuts) during the winter at bedtime because digestion will help keep their body temperature up and help them maintain their fat layer that helps to insulate them.
In the winter I occasionally serve cooked oatmeal in the morning to get my flocked warmed up for the day. At night they receive Tasty Grubs. Other items can be fed throughout the day. Simply sprinkle the items on the floor. The ducks will enjoy rooting around in the straw for treats and it is a great boredom buster activity!
Artificial Heat and Light
We don’t use either, well except a heat lamp over the water when I get lazy halfway through winter. The lamp doesn’t change the constant temperature in our shed more than a couple degrees, but pointed directly at the water, it does help slow down the freezing process.
|Heat lamp, well secured, to help water from freezing as fast|
While you may worry about the cold, remember your duck was born with the ability to handle what Mother Nature dishes out. If your duck becomes accustomed to cuddling up to a heat source and you loss power, then what? The shock of being without the heat can do more damage than them learning to live without it in the first place.
Not to mention, heat sources, like lamps, can be dangerous. Coop fires happen, way too often, in the winter. Any heat source should be well attached, away from flammable bedding, and out of your animals’ reach. We hang our lamp by two different systems, so there is a backup should one of them fail. I also check that the bulb is firmly in place, daily, as repeated bumping can loosen the bulb causing it to fall out of the holder and start a fire.
As for light, ducks don’t need it. Ducks are much better winter layers then their chicken counter parts. Not to mention, a bird’s body is meant to slow down production over the winter to conserve needed resources. You don’t want to cause your duck harm by forcing them to lay on your schedule, do you? Trust me, you will get eggs…. More than your chicken will produce, even without a light. That is because ducks tend to be harder than chickens and will go out into the snow on a cold day, getting more natural light then a chicken will, because chickens they tend to hide in the coop during winter months.
Normal Winter Behavior
If you haven’t figured out yet, ducks are little odd balls. Unlike a chicken who doesn’t want to get her toes in the snow, a duck will charge out and great each new snowfall like a child seeing it snow for the first time. Ours really enjoy sitting in the snow! They enjoy being snowed on!! You might notice that your ducks pull their feet up off the ground and tuck them into their feathers and against their bodies for warmth during the winter, this is normal. Don’t freak out thinking they need heat or socks. Evolution has taught a ducks how to take care of itself.
|Just enjoying a normal winter day.|
If you see your duck “swimming” across your yard, this is normal. Our love to slide around like little penguins. Don’t assume they are hurt, they might just be having fun! Of course you should keep an eye on all your animals during winter for any possible issues, but sitting in snow, being snowed on, and sliding around are all normal duck behavior in winter.