Whoever wrote the song about the ugly duckling has obviously never seen one.
With their fluff-coated bodies, big feet, beady eyes, and stubby bills they are just about the cutest things you’re ever likely to come across.
But what do you feed these yellow balls of fluff and how do you keep them alive long enough to mature into adult ducks? More importantly, what do these little critters need to eat?
How to Raise Baby Ducks
Ducklings are also surprisingly hardy, especially compared to baby chicks which are liable to die at the drop of a hat or a small cardboard box and a strong gust of wind! (Where to buy ducklings)
Ducklings are a bit tougher but also a little fussier when it comes to their diet. It won’t look like it when you put the feed down for them, however, as they vacuum it up at a rate almost faster than the speed of light. Unbeknownst to them, they also need certain vitamins and, initially, a diet that contains 20% protein. (Read more about niacin for ducks!)
Baby ducks take to eating like, well, a duck to water, but they also need plenty of H²0 if they’re to grow up big and strong.
Why Ducklings Need Fresh Water
We all know that ducks like swimming but even before they’re ready to take the plunge – at 4 weeks – baby ducks need water to help them swallow and digest.
Ducks don’t have teeth as such, but the spatulate shape of their bills helps them crush and “filter food from water, sand, or mud.” Because of this, they use water to help with digestion – taking a mouthful of food and then swishing it around with water.
Ducklings, like adult ducks, don’t have effective tear ducts either so they need water to clean their eyes and keep them moist. Similarly, without access to clean water, dirt can build up in their nostrils, causing blockages that can lead to “respiratory problems or chronic sinusitis”.
- Formulated to meet the niacin requirements of growing and laying ducks
- Feed as sole diet from hatch for duck s entire life
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Ducks, be they baby ducks or adult ones, also need a lot of drinking water. Adult ducks can drink up to half a gallon of water a day, and even baby ones need considerably more than a chick of the same age.
Can Baby Ducks Swim?
To ducklings water is life! They love it and, whether they’re drinking it or playing in it, they particularly love making a mess. With very young baby ducks, however, you need to be cautious.
Not only is drowning “a major cause of duckling deaths,” for the first few weeks of their lives, “ducklings have not yet begun to produce the oil that makes them ‘waterproof’ and able to float”.
Newborn ducklings and babies up to around four weeks of age “shouldn’t be allowed to swim because they will get cold too easily and can tire quickly and drown”. (source)
So, your baby ducks need access to water that’s deep enough for them to submerge their bills in, but not deep enough for them to drown in. The solution?
A chicken waterer can work, although many are designed, as the name suggests, for chickens rather than ducks. This means that many of them are too small for your baby ducks’ stubby bills.
We use an old tractor tire for our Indian runner ducks but, then again, we don’t have any ducklings to worry about. An automated waterer is a smarter option, especially if you’ve got baby ducks waddling around, or a dish of water that is shallow enough for them to step out of.
What Is the Best Food for Baby Ducks?
Baby ducks aren’t especially fussy eaters and will happily tuck into your adult duck food but this often fails to give them the nutrition they need to grow into healthy adults.
There are some multi-purpose feeds around, like Purina’s duck feed pellets which are “formulated to meet the niacin requirements of growing and laying ducks” and contain both probiotics and prebiotics.
Specialized duck starter feed, like the one from Manna Pro, gives your baby ducks everything they need for a good start in life. It isn’t medicated and doesn’t contain any potentially harmful antibiotics, making it ideal as the basis for any baby duck’s diet.
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During the first week of life, baby ducks need extra protein which is why a duck starter feed is better than a chick starter feed. Some non-medicated feeds can also be used, as long as it doesn’t contain any medications.
If you do go this route, you’ll need to supplement the diet with both riboflavin and niacin to create a balanced diet. Niacin deficiency is a common problem with baby ducks and can restrict both growth and development. (Read more about niacin deficiency and Brewer’s Yeast to combat it)
It may now sound like you need a degree in nutrition to successfully raise a baby duckling, that’s not the case.
Just boost the diet with brewer’s yeast, adding “1.5 tablespoons of brewer’s yeast into each cup of feed,” and your baby ducklings will thrive, getting all the riboflavin, niacin, and other B-complex vitamins they need.
What Treats Can You Give Baby Ducks?
To give your baby ducks a well-rounded diet, you can add the occasional treat to their meals. Up to 10% of their total food consumption can be made of fresh food like tasty fruits and leafy greens, bugs, and worms.
Before feeding any fruits, be sure to remove the pips and stones to prevent choking, and mash them up a bit to make them easier to digest.
Fruits your baby ducks will thrive on include:
- Bananas (but not the peel)
- Berries like blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries
- Tomatoes (only the flesh as the other parts of the plant are toxic)
Learn how to grow these fruits yourself in a food forest!
Ducklings enjoy green, leafy vegetables and will gobble them up either raw or cooked. It’s best to tear them up into more manageable pieces, however, as a large spinach leaf and a gust of wind could flatten a small duckling!
Vegetables, such as those listed below, boost the calcium content and provide a range of nutritional benefits and vitamins:
- Dandelion greens (grow your own dandelions!)
- Lettuce (but not in excess as this can cause diarrhea)
- Radish greens (grow your own radishes!)
- Swiss chard (but not spinach)
- Turnip greens (grow your own turnips!)
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You could also give your baby ducks other healthy treats like these:
- Fly larvae
- Eggs – boiled and diced
What Should You Not Feed Ducklings?
Most duck owners and experts agree that ducklings “should not be fed a medicated starter-grower feed” because ducklings eat more than chicks “and can over-medicate themselves”. (source)
Recent research suggests that’s not true, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution, especially when a little life is at stake.
Surprisingly enough, bread is bad for baby ducks as it can lead to a condition known as Angel Wing. Caused by “an excess of calories or protein…, Angel Wing manifests as a twisted wing joint” and “can lead to lifelong disfiguration”.
Some foods are toxic for baby ducklings, including:
- Citrus fruits – these can disrupt a duckling’s ability to absorb calcium
- Green or unripe tomatoes
- Purple eggplant
- Dried, uncooked beans
Ducks Become Part of the Family
Baby ducks are undeniably cute but they don’t stay that way for long, so enjoy playing around with your little yellow balls of fluff while you can.
Give them treats, monitor their first swimming experiences, and get to know them. Ducks live for up to 10 to 12 years, so they’ll become a part of your family, especially if you give them the best start in life with a good starter crumble and a dose or two of brewer’s yeast.
They may be rather on the messy side, splashing water around and laying eggs in the mud, but they more than make up for it, providing your homestead with plenty of amusement, friendship, eggs, and even meat, if you can bear to part with them.