Ducks and the cold: How to keep them safe and warm

Ducks are a great animal to have around if you have the room for them. In the summer, they can roam freely, gobbling up nasty garden pests and laying omega-3 packed eggs. But what about in the winter? 

How to keep ducks safe and warm? Ducks are custom built to survive in the cold, but they still need a little help from their owners here and there to make it through winter unscathed. Extra bedding, freshwater, and a little extra food can make a big difference in your ducks’ lives.

In the wild, ducks migrate from area to area to avoid the worst of cold temperatures. This allows them to always have access to food, water, and a warm place to sleep. Domestic ducks, however, rely entirely on their owners to provide these things, especially in the winter.

Can Ducks Live in the Snow?

Ducks generally do well in the snow. Their feathers work just like a winter coat, waterproof on the outside and insulating on the inside. The biggest problem many duck owners face with snow is their ducks’ feet. While the duck’s body is covered in thick layers of warm feathers, their feet are bare. 

Luckily, duck feet aren’t entirely defenseless when it comes to the cold. They have a specialized circulatory system in their feet which combats the risks of developing hypothermia or frostbite. You still need to be careful however, because in extreme temperatures the ground will be too cold for your ducks to handle.

You’ll know the ground is too cold for the duck to walk because you’ll see it take a few steps and then lay down. It does this so it can pull its feet close to its body to warm them before trying to take a few more steps. This can make it difficult for them to get to their food and water.

 The best thing to do if the snow is too cold for your ducks is to lay down a heavy layer of straw or wooden boards. Anything that the duck can walk on to get off the ground and protect its feet.

Can Ducks Tolerate Cold Weather?

Most ducks can handle cold weather with ease. For most ducks their fluffy feathers and thick fat make them perfectly suited to the cold, but they do have their limits. If the average temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, then ducks will often have trouble keeping themselves warm and may experience some potential health risks. The two most prominent health risks are hypothermia and frostbite.

Signs and Treatment of Hypothermia in Ducks

Hypothermia is a medical condition that happens when a person or animal’s core body temperature lowers to a dangerous level. Ducks who are suffering hypothermia will be limp and the skin under their feathers will be cold to the touch. Animals who are suffering from hypothermia need to be warmed gently and slowly until they reach their average body temperature. An adult duck’s body temperature should be close to 107.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your duck has developed hypothermia the best thing to do is get them somewhere warm and start trying to raise its body temperature slowly. Warm towels and a hairdryer set on low is recommended. It can take a long time for the bird to show signs of recovery so don’t give up. You’ll know the bird is recovering when it begins to make sounds or tries to move.

Once the bird seems more aware of its surroundings, and its skin feels warm, place it in a box near a heat source such as a radiator or a brood lamp. Leave it there until it has fully recovered.

Signs and Treatment of Frostbite

Frostbite happens when areas of the duck’s skin freeze. This can present itself as red irritated spots on the duck’s skin. In extreme cases, the skin may appear swollen or even black and shriveled. Their feet and legs are most susceptible to this condition as well as any exposed facial tissue, such as the Muscovy duck. 

If your duck has frostbite the best thing to do is try to quickly rewarm the duck’s skin in a warm water bath. Do not touch the area of the frostbite. Once the area has thawed, place the duck somewhere warm to continue recovering. Topical ointments like aloe vera can be used on the damaged skin. If frostbite is severe please consult a vet as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Cold-Weather Injuries to Ducks

The best way to prevent cold-weather injuries in ducks is to do your best to protect them from the worst of the cold. Insulating layers of hay, straw or wood chips laid on the ground prevents injuries to your ducks’ feet. 

An easily accessible, well-insulated coop will reduce the risk of hypothermia. In areas with extremely harsh winters, it may be a good idea to even have a large sheltered area such as a shed or barn available to your ducks. This way they have space to move around but aren’t exposed to the harsh cold. 

How to Insulate Your Coop

Ducks do best if they have a coop to take shelter in during the winter.

Duck coops don’t have to be elaborate. They just need to protect them from the wind, snow, and predators. A dog house, outbuilding, or even a children’s play shed can easily be converted into a safe place for you ducks to rest. 

In the winter it helps if our coop is insulated to help your ducks stay nice and warm. Electrical heating systems can be dangerous and unnecessary for ducks. The best way to insulate a duck coop is to simply add plenty of extra straw to the coop, especially along the walls. The straw helps by taking up empty space in the coop and blocks the cold before it reaches your ducks. 

Removing food and water from the coop at night is also important. Ducks generate a lot of moisture on their own and too much humidity inside the coop increases the risk of frostbite. Food should be removed as well because ducks can easily choke on dry food without water.

Be sure to remove and replace any soiled straw daily so as to prevent moisture and bacteria buildup.

Predator Proof Your Coop

Winter can be a rough time for all animals and the local predators are no exception. Rats, weasels, foxes, and many more are going to be looking for warmth and food. Don’t let your coop become a buffet. Check your coop thoroughly and perform any repairs you need to. Reinforce fencing, corners, roof, and the floor if necessary. If your coop has a dirt floor it may be a good idea to lay down some wire mesh to prevent any rodents from burrowing their way in.

How to Keep Your Ducks’ Drinking Water from Freezing?

Ducks need constant access to water throughout the day to maintain their health. To prevent their water from freezing solid there are several methods a duck owner can use.

The simplest is to just check the water frequently to remove any ice and refill the bowl. This method can be time-consuming and many people find it burdensome but if you find yourself checking your coop frequently anyway this may be a good method for you.

Heated pet bowls. Electrically heated pet bowls are widely available and are very popular with duck owners. Most bowls have built-in thermostats which automatically turn the bowls on when the temperature drops below freezing. These bowls are especially effective because they can be kept outside of the coop preventing the ducks from spilling the water and getting their bedding wet.

Heated water base. Also available are electrically heated water bases. These are made to be used with metal duck and chicken waterers. If you choose to use a heated water base be sure to place it on some bricks away from any straw or hay as it can be a fire hazard.

Ping pong balls. Floating a few ping pong balls in your ducks’ water dish can help to prevent ice from forming as quickly as it normally would. The movement of the balls from the wind and the ducks moving the ping pong balls to drink stops ice from forming on the surface of the water. 

Saltwater bottle. A 20oz bottle of water with ¼ a cup of salt added to it can help to prevent duck water bowls from freezing. Salt lowers the freezing point of water. By floating the bottle in the water bowl it will help to lower the freezing point of the surrounding water while also reducing ice formation on the surface.

Boiling water. Some people like to use boiling water to keep their ducks’ drinking water thawed. Simply take some boiling water to your duck coop a couple of times a day and add it to any frozen water to help thaw it out. Be careful if you choose to use this method so as to not burn yourself or your ducks.

Feeding Ducks in Winter

Most people who keep ducks allow them to free-range so they can forage for their own food. This becomes a problem in the winter when the grass is frozen the bugs are gone. This means the ducks will need to have their food supplied by their owner. 

Duck feed should always be available for your ducks and it often helps to supplement their feed with calcium in the winter to promote healthy feather growth. Giving your ducks a carbohydrate-heavy snack, such as cracked corn, before you lock them in their coop for the night can also help to keep them warm as their bodies burn energy digesting it.

Best Winter Treats for Ducks

Because ducks need the energy to stay warm it’s important to give them a little extra food when it gets cold. That makes treats a great way to help your ducks through the winter. Ducks need extra protein and calcium in the winter and a few carbohydrates can help them stay warm at night.

Calcium supplements are sold at most farm and pet stores but you can also give your ducks calcium by feeding them crumbled eggshells.

Normally ducks get all the protein they need from their feed and bugs they find in your garden. But bugs can be hard to find once it gets cold outside and the ducks need more protein than usual in the winter because it gives them the energy to stay warm. Luckily for the ducks, you can buy bugs at the store. Most pet stores sell live crickets and sometimes mealworms which are packed full of protein. Your duck may also enjoy some plain yogurt or eggs for that extra protein boost.

As mentioned before, a small treat of carbohydrate-rich foods before putting your ducks in for the night can help keep them warm through the night. A few duck friendly carbs are oats, potatoes, crackers, and pasta.

Just as there is good food for ducks there is also bad food. Bread, spinach, onions, avocados, and many other foods can cause severe issues with ducks digestive systems.

Swimming in Winter

Ducks don’t actually need to have swimming water constantly available to them. If swimming water isn’t available to them in winter there is no harm done.  

If they do have swimming water available in cold weather, it’s perfectly safe for them to swim. Even if the water is frozen in some places, the duck will still be able to swim without any issues. An interesting fact about ducks is that they have a highly specialized circulatory system in their feet. The arteries carrying blood to their feet are very close to the veins that carry the blood back to their heart. This causes the warm blood from the duck’s body to cool down and the cold blood from its feet to warm up. The cooled, but not cold, blood keeps the duck’s feet warm enough to not be damaged but not so cold that it lowers the duck’s core body temperature.

Because of this, ducks can happily swim in cold water. While it isn’t necessary, your ducks will still be likely to enjoy swimming in their ponds or kiddie pools if you fill it up for them. 

Eggs in Cold Weather

Ducks lay eggs year-round and mostly do so at night. Egg production decreases in winter but normally doesn’t stop completely. These eggs should be collected when you let your ducks out in the morning. If you wait the eggs might freeze and crack their own shells.

It is possible to salvage frozen eggs though. If the shell isn’t cracked the egg will still be safe to eat once it thaws. To thaw the frozen eggs simply place them in a bowl in the refrigerator and wait overnight. The eggs may have a grainy texture to them after freezing and thawing. If the egg is cracked it can either be cooked and given to your ducks as a snack or thrown away. Do not consume any eggs if they’re cracked because the risk of bacterial contamination is too high to take a chance.

Caring for Ducklings in Winter

Because ducks lay eggs year-round there’s always a chance you’ll end up with some ducklings in winter. Ducklings are far more sensitive to temperature than adult ducks are. Most people recommend a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit for newly hatched ducklings. 

The temperature you keep your ducklings at can be lowered by 5 degrees every week as the ducklings grow. Once the ducklings are 2 months old they’ll be acclimated to an average temperature of 50 degrees. If the outside temp is still too cold for the ducklings they should be kept indoors until the temperature reaches a safe level. Be sure to never drop the temperature too far too quickly or you risk sending the ducklings into shock.

What Breeds are Best for your Climate?

While most if not all duck breeds are well suited for the cold. There are some that do better than others. Larger breeds, like the Pekin duck, do much better in the harsh cold. Smaller breeds, like the Indian runner, tend to have a rougher time in the cold and will need more care through the cold months. The best way to figure out the right ducks for you is to see what’s available in your area and what other people have had success keeping in the past. 

Ducks are extremely hardy little birds and most cold climates don’t bother them a bit. If you are considering getting birds but you’re worried about harsh winters, ducks are a great option. Whether it be for meat, eggs, or just as family pets. Ducks can offer all that and more to any person willing to care for them.

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