Raising ducks in winter requires … flexibility
BY LAURA EMERSON
For several years, we have raised chickens and enjoyed their company, eggs and insect eradication. Last winter, my husband suddenly thought, “Let’s raise ducks, too. How different can it be?”
Well, four ducks later, I can tell you: very different.
Our chickens (Plymouth Rocks and Araucanas) are analogous to quiet, diffident librarians, delicately “sipping tea and nibbling scones” in a warm, dry place, before going to bed early.
By contrast, the ducks (harlequins) are like big-footed, gangly, noisy, messy teenagers, who strew their stuff all around, taking up space, spewing food and water everywhere, and wanting to stay up all night. When my husband first flew four of them to our property, in a tall pet carrier, I thought they were geese – they were so much bigger than the chickens.
The good news for Alaskans interested in raising ducks is that they are actually better suited to cold weather than chickens, which are, after all, descended from jungle fowl. Their downy under-feathers keep them warm, the oil in their outer feathers keeps them dry, and their big webbed feet function like snowshoes. Even in midwinter, they love waddling around on all but the windiest days, digging their long beaks into the snow and looking like happy kids with milk mustaches.
On sunny afternoons, I feel like a recess monitor, shoving a canvas chair into the snow to watch their antics, tossing them handfuls of their favorite snack, frozen peas, onto hard packed snow. Unlike the chickens, who often explore on their own, the ducks always travel together, usually in a line (with Dora the Explorer at the front). In their black, grey, brown, and white coloration, they remind me of illustrations in those Madeleine children’s books, with the little girls lined up behind the nuns. Unlike those little girls, though, or chickens for that matter, the ducks communicate constantly, not just with vocalizations, but also with necks jutting up and down, wings fluttering wide, and butt feathers twitching. They are very entertaining to watch. Whenever Dora finds something of interest, she sounds exactly like the Three Stooges, with a “yuck, yuck, yuck” sort of call. Maybe we should have named her Larry, Curly, or Moe.
Because of their cold tolerance, their outdoor exercise offers a bit of peace and quiet for the chickens, who favor the warm and cozy coop in cold weather. It also gives them a chance to poop outside so the straw bedding inside lasts a bit longer. In between snowfalls, the pristine white meadow looks pitted by shrapnel – duck shrapnel. Even with that reprieve, methane builds inexorably in the coop, beneficial for its heat generation but not for the ammonia. Over the course of the winter, we add so many inches of straw that eventually the chickens can’t fit in their nesting boxes. Then it is time for a major mucking out.
Another advantage of ducks vs. chickens is that they are more reliable egg layers – one egg per day per female, rain or shine, hot or cold. By contrast the chickens, especially the Aracaunas, tend to take winter vacations from egg laying – sometimes for months – while huddling disconsolately under the heat lamp. Chicken and duck eggs taste the same, and the yolks of both turn from yellow to orange when they shift from a winter diet of corn based feed to a summer diet of free ranged plants and insects. Duck eggs are larger (about 1.5-2 times as big) with a harder, almost rubberized shell, and they make lighter and fluffier scrambled eggs and baked goods. I have become a big fan of duck eggs.
The bad news is that ducks have very high water needs, of course. In summer, our lakefront property is like summer camp for them, as they tumble out of the coop every morning and head for the water. But in freezing weather, their requirements made them very high maintenance, and could have endangered the dry-loving chickens with whom they shared a coop. Over the course of a day, we had to haul 2 to 3 gallons of water out to two heated bowls. Because the ducks submerged their heads in the large bowl (to clean out their ears, nasal passages, and mouths) and then shook their heads vigorously to shed the water, they not only quickly depleted the available water, but created an ice rink in the fenced run. Inside the coop, the water bowl was smaller, but the spillage from their messy drinking caused the door to freeze shut several times per week.
Every few days, I had to lift the nesting box lid, reach in around the corner and hammer the door open from the inside, after which I would chop the ice away from the doorframe and water bowl with an ice spade. At one particularly low point in our animal husbandry history, our well hose froze for several weeks, so we had to melt snow (10 gallons of snow melts to 1 gallon of water) to meet all human and avian needs.
Based on our first year’s experience, I look forward to having ducks again, but not in the winter. We offered these ducks to friends and the breeder from whom we bought them and will buy or retrieve two of them in spring, before Break-up, when their puddle-loving ways offer an additional advantage of disturbing mosquito larvae in standing water.