Mallard Duck FAQ

I get quite a few questions about ducks every year. Since I answer these questions if the form of comments, many times people don’t read all the other questions and answers and end up asking about things that have been addressed elsewhere. The recent comment threading has helped a little, but it can still be tough to wade through the hundreds of questions and answers that have accumulated over the years. In the interest of not typing answers over and over again, I have created this FAQ.

Answer: How old do ducks have to be before they will fly

If you have true flying mallards, they should start flying between five and six weeks of age. In most cases, however, you will have domestic Mallards which have been selectively bred over the years to be larger. These birds will never fly as you expect from a duck, but will instead stay close to the ground, avoiding any dramatic flight. They can fly a little, but generally just in a straight line and close to the ground.

How can I keep my ducks safe from predators?

Most people who keep ducks have some form of duck yard that is fenced in with chicken wire on the sides and top. Mine is about 8 feet X 20 feet. The wire is dug into the ground so animals can’t dig under it, and it is entirely closed in on the top. Inside that, I have a duckhouse which is a 4X8 plywood box lined with hay and secured with a door that is closed at night. Even if an animal could get into the duckyard, there is absolutely no way it could invade the duckhouse.

You need to defend against the predators in your area. If you have mink or weasels, you need to keep things very tight since they can get through holes as small as one inch. If your biggest worry is coyotes, chicken wire protected by heavy gating is preferable. I prefer to keep my ducks close to home, so I only let them out of the duckyard when I am going to be home for extended periods. Other people simply let them run free and try to get them in at night, while still others allow them to roam free all night as well.

The decision of how to house your ducks is your, and there is no right answer. If they are going to be beloved pets and you can’t stand the thought of loosing a single one, it’s best to keep them in an enclosure. If you want them to live a more wild life and understand that nature is cruel and you will loose some of them to predators, you can leave them out. Below is a picture of my duckyard. Multiple coyotes and raccoons have tried without success to get in. This is because of the heavy gating combined with chicken wire.

Duck Coup

Duck Coop

What should I feed my ducklings / ducks?

When your ducklings first hatch or arrive, the first thing you should do is get them drinking. Make sure they all know where the water is, and where to find it. This will help prevent choking once they start eating. Once you are certain that everyone knows how to drink, start them off on a high quality, unmedicated game bird starter crumble. Mash will also work, but is less desierable because it tends to clog up their bills. The most important thing is that the food is unmedicated. Ducks eat a lot more than chickens, and will overdose on medicated food. Supplementing their food with fresh greens and vegetables is always appreciated, especially if given to them directly in their water.

Once your ducks are three to four weeks old, you will want get them started on an unmedicated game bird pellet. Game bird maintainer feed is best, but regular poultry feed will also work provided it is not medicated. This will be their staple for life, with the exception of Spring. When hens start laying eggs, you will want to feed them layer pellets so provide them with the calcium they need to produce eggs. This will not harm the drakes, but you don’t want it to be a permanent feed. Get them back on the maintainer pellets once the laying season is over.

You will find your local farm and garden store to be an excellent source of high quality feeds. Feel free to take their advice as well, but do NOT let them talk you into medicated food for ducks.

Will my ducks fly away for the winter?

Generally, no. In the same way that your domestic dog does not behave like a coyote of wolf, your ducks are domesticated, and will not behave like a wild duck. The look to you for food and safety, and will not know how to migrate unless they have been able to join in with a flock of wild ducks during the summer months. They can tolerate very cold temperatures provided they are given shelter from the wind, liquid water to drink and plenty of high quality food. Even though Mallard ducks are typically a wild bird, those raised by humans are tame, and generally not able to migrate or care for themselves in the wild.

It’s also important to realize that most mallards sold by feed and pet stores are not “True Flying Mallards”. They are hybrids that have been raised for meat production and are too heavy to migrate even if they wanted to.

I want to raise baby ducks and release them when they are adults. Is this possible?

See Q4. Ducklings are cute, but they grow into large, messy birds. I can’t stress this enough… Do not raise ducklings and expect them to fly away or live in the wild when they are adults. If you raise ducklings be prepared to care for them for their five to eight year lifespan. Even though Mallard ducks are typically a wild bird, those raised by humans are tame, and not able to care for themselves in the wild. If you abandon them and expect them to fend for themselves, they are likely to die a very slow and horrible death. There are methods of getting ducks to integrate into the wild, but this requires the special skills and training of a wild bird rehabilitator.

I rescued a baby duck that was all by itself. What do I do now?

You probably heard the duckling cheeping. This noies was the duckling calling its mother. Most likely she was hidden, but close by. For future reference, you have to be very careful about rescuing baby ducks in this way. Most states have laws against taking animals from the wild, so you could get yourself into a lot of trouble. The only time “rescuing” them is appropriate is if they are very obviously not going to survive unless you do. An example of this might be a situation in which you saw the mother get hit by a car and all her ducklings are wondering around in the middle of the road.

That said, your heart was most certainly in the right place. You now have a baby duck, and need help with it. Let me see what I can do. The first thing I would do is search all the local bodies of water to find the mother and other ducklings. If you can, try to reunite them. If not, the absolute best thing to do would be to call a wild bird rehabilitator. They have the skills and training to raise ducklings in such a way that they can be integrated into the wild when they are adults.

Answer: How can I tell if my duckling is a male or a female?

Everyone wants to know the gender of their ducklings before they get their voice. Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is through a procedure called “vent sexing” whereby you stretch open the vent and look inside to find the duckling’s sex organs. This procedure is not only very traumatic for the duckling, but potentially dangerous as well. Without having someone who is experienced to train you, you can very easily hurt or even kill the duckling.

The best way for you to tell the gender of your ducklings is to wait until they are four or five weeks old when they get their voice. Drakes will develop a soft “whrack” sound, while hens will produce a loud “QWACK”. Check out the recordings below:

Mallard Hen
Mallard Drake

Many people make the mistake of thinking they have only hens because they all look like hens. It is important to remember that Mallard drakes don’t get their nuptial plumage (green heads, red chest, etc) until they are one year old. All juvenile Mallards look more or less like hens for their entire first year.

Raising Mallard Ducklings Redux

Last month Lola, our one-year old Mallard hen, started laying eggs at an tremendous rate! We first counted seven, then twelve, then a whopping 17! About four weeks ago she built a nest out of straw, rolled them all into it, and started sitting on them like she was on a mission.

Every day when I got home from work, I let Lola and Hank (the father) out of the duck coup so they could fly down to our pond and dabble around in the water. As the weeks passed, Lola was less and less inclined to get off her nest, but when she did decide to fly down to the pond she would stay for quite some time.

In my reading about hatching duck eggs, I learned that the hen should really not stay away from the nest for more than about thirty minuets. Since Lola has made repeated sorties lasting longer than a few hours, Courtney and I had all but given up on the prospect of this nest full of eggs hatching. As the book suggested, we would let her sit on the nest for the entire 28 day incubation period, but we were really starting to dread the task of removing the eggs and taking down her nest. Loosing a nest in this way is devastating for a brooding hen, but once you are sure the eggs are not viable, it must be done so that her health will not suffer.

Last Thursday, however, as I was bringing them fresh food and water I decided to check up on the nest. I gently nudged Lola’s wing out of the way to view the eggs, and much to my surprise I saw cracking shells and heard little “peeps” coming from the eggs. I put a small drinker full of fresh water near the nest, along with a little dish of starter crumble in case they hatched while we were away at work.

Friday, I came home from to a very confused looking Lola and a nest full of eggs that were in the process of hatching. Some ducklings were totally free from their shells, while others were just climbing out. All in all, we had 13 ducklings hatch and only four eggs that were not viable. Much to Lola’s dismay, I gently removed the broken egg shells from the nest, but left those that had not hatched in place. By Saturday afternoon she had pushed the four unhatched eggs out of her nest to make room for her sizable brood.

Most of her time is currently spent hovering over the baby ducks to keep them warm, but every hour or so she takes them to the drinker for some water and food.

Death Defying Duck

And you think you’ve had a rough couple of days! Perky the Duck was happily flying by when she was suddenly shot down by a hunter. Now, this is usually where the story of being a duck ends, but it was just the beginning for Perky. The hunter, believing the duck was dead, brought her home and put her in the fridge, no doubt looking forward to a nice meal of roast duck some time down the road.

It was not be be, however, because when the hunter’s wife opened the fridge two days later, she was shocked to see the duck’s head pop up and look at her. She quickly rushed the plucky duck to a local animal hospital, and then on to the Goose Creek Animal Sanctuary where she was given more specialized treatment. Vets at the sanctuary gave Perky a 75% chance of survival. They were optimistic about her chances for recovery, but doubted she would ever be well enough to be released into the wild.

The gunshot wounds had injured Perky’s wing, leg and bill, and as veterinarians were conducting surgery to repair the damage, her heart suddenly stopped. Dismayed, senior vet David Hale declared her officially dead. Amazingly, however, in yet another death defying comeback, Perky came around, stuck her head up, and began flapping her wings! Few details have been made public about how the medical team brought Perky back to life, but the Associated Press said she was revived using CPR.

Perky is now recovering at the Goose Creek Animal Sanctuary where she is expected to make a good recovery. Time will tell if she will heal enough to return to the wild. She has a pin in her wing, so her chances of flying again are uncertain. Either way though, it seems she will be welcomed at the sanctuary for as long as she needs to stay.

UPDATE: You can buy a Lucky Duck T-Shirt with a picture of Perky on it by clicking here. The proceeds go to the Goose Creek Animal Sanctuary, and help with Perky’s recovery.

Raising Mallard Ducklings

In March, Courtney and I decided that we would try our hand at raising Mallard ducklings. We have a large pond with plenty of land, and it seemed like it would be fun to have some quacking around.

About a week ago out little ducklings arrived from the hatchery in Texas. Both are female, and were only three days old when these pictures were taken. We have them in a kiddie pool with some cardboard to make the walls higher. The bottom is covered with hay, and they have a heat lamp to keep them warm. They have both grown a lot, and seem to need the heat from the light less and less each day. You would be amazed at how fast these little ducks can run!

Every day they get to follow us around the yard, and go for a swim. They eat game bird starter as a staple, but really seem to enjoy chives, blackberries, clover and dandelion greens as a treat. The larger one even ate a slug.

Tame Ducklings

Tame Ducklings

Duck Invasion

Earlier this Spring, we decided that since we have a pond, and a big yard, we would head on down to the hardware store and get three Mallard ducklings. We thought it would be nice to have some quacking around and the thought of them eating slugs and pests out of our garden would be a welcome treat. Little did we realize, ducks can become very friendly…

Over the weekend I made the monumental mistake of showing our web-footed friends how to get up on our back deck. For the next few days they followed me up there, and wandered around begging for food until they grew impatient and waddled down to the pond. This was more or less harmless, and we didn’t really mind… Harmless, that is, until yesterday.

Since we allow our cats to come and go as they please, we always leave the sliding screen door slightly opened for them while we are around. Keep in mind, this is just a slit. Our cats are very thin and the screen door was only open about five inches. None the less, the three stealthy ducks managed to slip through this gap yesterday afternoon, and infiltrate our living room where they proceeded to carry our their nefarious black op mission of pooping on our floor!

I have no idea how these fat ducks were able to get through this tiny gap, but they had no intention of leaving after having worked so hard to get inside. They ran, quacked, flapped their wings and generally resisted ejection to the best of their duckly abilities until finally being ushered back outside where they belong. Even then, the quacks of protest could be heard for some time and they re-adjusted to outside life.

Cleaning up the mess was a fairly easy prospect, and the trouble of it was well worth the hilarious story. It would seem that I now must focus my attention onto the development of an elaborate duck security system capable of thwarting the invasion efforts of these winged masterminds… Most likely a small bit of mesh.