Do you have a broody duck? Thinking of hatching out some ducklings? In our experience trying to hatch ducklings has been an emotional roller coaster with very mixed results and a story line to rival any daytime soap opera, full of death, heartbreak, betrayal and custody battles.
We have hatched several clutches of eggs with our chickens. They all went very smoothly with excellent hatch rates and not a single causality. The momma hen did all the work and the babies were healthy and made it safely to adulthood. We went into hatching duck eggs with a sense that this would be just as easy breezy and before long we would have adorable ducklings. We were so wrong. Want to read more about hatching eggs with chickens? Click here
In our second summer of keeping ducks we were delighted when one of our ducks went broody! While our chickens go broody all the time, we had read that ducks don’t go broody nearly as often. We also had read that many domestic ducks are not successful in sticking out the broody period and even if they do, are not good at mothering their young. The duck in question, Peggy, is a beautiful Cayuga. She is sweet & shy and was young & healthy but born with a bad leg so was more often found sitting under trees rather than foraging around the yard. She seemed like a good candidate for a duck that would stick it out.
Peggy dutifully gathered a clutch of about a dozen eggs from her and her sister ducks. She seemed steadfast in her resolve. She didn’t like it when we came near the nest and would hiss at us, but she didn’t mind when the other female ducks came by. The other females would come in and sit with her on and off during the day and often for the entire night. They seemed to have a passing interest in what was going on, but they were by no means ready to volunteer for motherhood! Unfortunately, during their visits they often left a new egg that the momma duck would scoop into her nest.
Before long she had way too many eggs and couldn’t comfortably sit on them all. We knew we had to intervene or we would lose the entire clutch. We carefully pulled the eggs out and candled them. We kept a dozen eggs that were the furthest along and viable. Messing with a mother duck’s nest can be risky. She could decide to abandon the nest altogether when she finds some eggs missing and things askew. Luckily, Peggy went right back to her nest like nothing was wrong. Two days later though, she gave up on the nest, seemingly out of the blue. She started spending more and more time away from the nest until it was clear she was just done with it. The eggs were getting cold and we needed to do something. Luckily, we had a chicken that was also broody. We took the eggs and gave them to her. Several days later, one tiny duckling emerged. The other eggs never hatched, I think they had gotten too cold.
At this time, Peggy the duck had started building herself a new clutch and was sitting again. We decided to interfere once again. We thought that it was better for the duckling to be raised by the ducks and since Peggy had been sitting for so long, we hoped she was ready for a baby. The baby was gently slipped into the duck nest and Peggy took to it right away! We gave the new family some food & water and things were going smoothly. Unfortunately in the morning, we found the duckling dead in the run. Our main feed & water for the flock was on a pallet (to cut down on mud) and the baby looked like it got trapped in the pallet. Peggy was back on her nest.
I felt terrible. We had good intentions, but the result was a bunch of eggs that didn’t hatch, a dead duckling and a very sad chicken mother who had been a devoted mom for a bit and frantically kept searching for her strange looking baby. We got the chicken mom a couple chicks from the feed store. She was overjoyed and raised up those babies without issue.
What to do with Peggy? We decided to let nature take it’s course. We let her keep her new clutch. We didn’t intervene when it got too big. She devotedly sat on her new clutch, only getting up when needed. Hatch day came and out popped a single duckling! We removed the pallet from the run and gave the new family easy access feed & water. Peggy seemed pretty proud of herself and was tending to the baby. By the next day when no other eggs had hatched we started to get concerned. By day three we knew that the rest were unlikely to hatch. The problem now was Peggy would not leave the nest and the baby was starting to get more adventurous. Day 4 the baby was out wandering in the run alone and we knew we had to take the unhatched eggs away. We pulled out about a dozen and half eggs and candled them to confirm they weren’t viable. Thankfully, Peggy got up and tended her baby. We saw her proudly lead the baby to the kiddie pool for her first swim. Two days later, we found the baby dead with Peggy sitting nearby. I have no idea what went wrong, the duckling seemed perfectly healthy and didn’t seem to have any sign of trauma. The baby was out of the nest area and it was pretty chilly at night, so perhaps Peggy wasn’t providing enough warmth.
Our duck hatching experiment had gone terribly wrong and I didn’t have any intentions of ever doing it again. Too many dead ducklings, too many partially developed, abandoned eggs.
When Peggy went broody again the following spring I wasn’t going to let it happen. We kept taking her eggs, kept shooing her off the nest. She was so persistent though! Finally she started a clutch underneath the chicken coop that went unnoticed for almost 2 weeks! By the time we found it, she had well over a dozen eggs. I wanted to take them away but I just couldn’t do it. So against my better judgement we let her go again. She started to attract attention and not just from us. I have heard that broodiness can be “contagious” – when one hen sees another brooding eggs she wants to do it too. Before long, our Swedish duck Eliza joined her. The two ducks were getting along nicely and then suddenly one of our chickens joined in! It was the same chicken that hatched out the duckling last summer. I think she knew those ducks were in over their heads!
And they probably were, they definitely were not the most devoted moms. They both took breaks that were far too long and far too frequent. I am pretty positive not a single egg would have hatched had it been left to just the ducks. Our chicken was a very devoted broody though and between the three, those eggs were very well loved.
Because we were surprised by this clutch, we were not exactly sure when these babies were due. We knew it would be soon so we were keeping a close eye on the little family and had the chick feed & waterer in the nest area ready to go. Then one morning I went out for morning farm chores and found a dead duckling by the water bowl. I was so upset, thinking of the horrible time we had last summer. I checked the nest and no others had hatched or even pipped yet. All the moms seemed calmly determined to keep sitting. The next morning while going out for farm chores I was greeted by the happy sounds of peeping! I was cautiously optimistic as I inspected the nest. My heart sank as I found yet another dead duckling not too far from the nest. Inside the nest however were three lovely, fluffy alive ducklings! Checking over the other eggs, I found one more that was nearly hatched. I was relieved at least so far this hatching was not a total disaster. I left the new family alone, trying not to interfere.
I checked on them later in the day and found the half hatched duckling had passed away, I don’t know if he just wasn’t strong enough to get out or if he somehow got stuck, but he did not make it. The three little ones were starting to explore a bit. One seemed very healthy running between the three moms. One looked like it was limping and the third was sitting very quietly next to the chicken mom. The other 8 eggs showed no sign of hatching although the chicken mom was not giving up on them.
By the next day, trouble was starting to brew in paradise. Eliza, the Swedish duck, and our head duck hen, decided she no longer wanted to share mothering duties and wanted sole custody. She chased the other duck off, but the chicken was steadfast. She would not move off the nest. Eliza ended up leaving and quacking for the babies to follow her. Two of them did, but the smallest one stayed with the chicken. This baby was not looking good, hardly moving much and we didn’t have much hope for it. So the duck mom toddled off to free range with the the healthy baby and the limping baby in tow. Momma chicken stayed with the unhatched eggs and the sickly duckling. Poor Peggy was left out, slowly trailing behind the duck mom and babies hoping to be included, her long days spent on the nest once again yielding no babies. Overnight, the sickly duckling past away and the remaining eggs were not showing any sign of hatching so the chicken finally gave up the nest. She wanted to reclaim the two healthy ducklings, who by now were both walking well and following duck momma Eliza all over the yard.
Chicken mom followed the family everywhere calling to the babies, finding food for them and acting as a temporary babysitter. The duck mom actually tolerated it all very well. I think she was grateful for the help! The ducklings definitely preferred their duck mom, but they trusted the chicken mom and would occasionally follow her about. Things had settled down and we thought we were in the clear until one morning when the ducklings were about 2 weeks old. We went to close up the birds at night and one of the ducklings had disappeared! We looked in every corner of the yard and listened for peeping everywhere but there was no sign of her. We never found any remains, so I don’t know if a predator got her or she got stuck somewhere, or if she escaped under the fence and wandered off. The good news is the surviving duckling thrived and is now a full grown beautiful bird.
So for those keeping score that is 3 separate clutches, approximately 40 eggs that either didn’t develop or only partially developed but didn’t hatch, 7 ducklings that died and one single duckling that made it to adulthood. Those are terrible odds, and I would definitely not consider any part of it successful, just an emotional and frustrating experience. I don’t know that I would want to try letting my ducks hatch any more clutches. If I want to hatch duck eggs in the future, I will likely just let the chickens do it! But a few lessons I have taken away to share with you:
*Give ducks a separate pen for brooding/raising young. I always let my chickens just hatch eggs in the nest box and raise the babies in with the flock and have great results. I think the ducks need a smaller, less distracting environment. They are already prone to wandering off instead of sitting and were not great about watching newly hatched ducklings (at least my ducks). So a safe, small pen would be helpful. Keeping her separate will also ensure other ducks aren’t adding to her clutch, making it unmanageable.
*Don’t interfere. Again, my chickens don’t mind me touching the eggs, candling them, reducing numbers or generally being in their business while hatching and raising young. The ducks were more likely to bolt and abandon the nest than defend it when I come near.
*Don’t let the new family out to free range for a couple weeks. My chickens take their chicks out in the yard after a day or two, everyone stays close, mom takes great care of them. Ducks were all over the place. The duck mom would waddle away and if the babies kept up, great, if not they could be halfway across the yard alone and peeping. Give them a couple weeks in their private brooding pen to bond and get a little bigger before letting them free range.