Winter winds are howling and a good old-fashioned New England nor’easter is knocking on the door. Most residents are rushing to the grocery store to stock up on batteries, bread, and supplies for their families. Farmers have an additional concern weighing on their minds. How can I keep my animals comfortable in the extreme cold? Luckily, with a little preparation, ducks are super cold hardy animals. Even when temperatures dip into the single digits for a prolonged time, your ducks will be just fine with a little help from you.
Ducks come equipped with some God-given gifts for weathering harsh weather. They have a double layer of slick, waterproof feathers on top of a thick layer of warm insulating downy feathers. Under all that fluff is a warm, fatty body. They have an average body temperature of around 106-108 degrees F.
Counter Current Blood System
Ducks don’t have fleshy, frostbite-prone wattles & combs like chickens. The only exposed skin ducks have is on their feet. Duck feet have a special counter current blood system. Ducks (and some other birds) have a unique alignment of blood vessels. Their veins and arteries lie next to each other & lace-like capillaries weave among them. Warm blood comes down the legs from the body and meets the cool blood coming from the feet. Heat is exchanged in these special capillaries.
This preserves a core temperature in the feet which can be just above freezing. Just enough to keep the blood moving to feed the tissues. The cooled blood from the feet is warmed before making it’s way back into the body. This helps maintain their core body temperature. Ducks are also able to tuck their feet up into their warm bellies to warm them when on land. They really are an ideal cold-weather farm animal!
Does this mean you don’t need to do anything special for your ducks in the winter? Maybe. It depends on your climate. If temperatures dip below freezing or stay for extended periods below 20 degrees F, your ducks will appreciate a little help from you.
Water is obviously the most important consideration for ducks in the winter. Ducks need access to liquid, unfrozen water to digest their food. They also need it to clear their sinuses & eyes to keep them healthy. If you have access to electricity, the easiest way to keep their water unfrozen is to have a heated dog bowl. Change the water daily to keep it clean. Heated bowls are equipped with a thermostat that will kick in when the temperatures dip below freezing.
I would suggest keeping the water outside of the coop. If you put it inside, they will spend the night splashing about making a mess. The splashed water outside the bowl will freeze. This will lower the temp in the coop and increase the moisture and risk of frostbite.
Remember ducks should not be given access to food without water. They could choke on dry feed. If they don’t have access to water overnight, they should also not have access to food.
While ducks do love to swim, it isn’t really necessary to provide swimming water. It can be difficult to maintain a swimming pool for them in freezing temperatures. I usually settle for pulling out the pool every once in a while on the rare, sunny, “warmish” winter days.
Quality layer pellets should make up the majority of their diet, just like for the rest of the year. To conserve energy on short winter days, you will likely notice a decrease in egg production. Even with fewer eggs, the nutritional needs are still there.
In the winter, I like to also offer scratch grains in the evenings before bed. The ducks love this little treat. The grains take longer to digest, upping their body temperature during the night when it’s coldest.
Other good winter treats are protein rich meal worms, fresh greens like lettuce, kale or wheat grass. Click here to learn how to grow your own wheat grass. Warm plain oatmeal or warm fermented feed are other good choices. click here to learn how to ferment feed
Ducks are slow on land and predators are always on the prowl for a meal in the winter when prey can be scarce. It is important to provide a safe, predator-proof shelter for your birds at night. This can be in a totally enclosed coop or a three-sided shelter inside a secure run.
Ducks like to nest on the ground. Provide them with a secure place where they can escape the wind. Add in plenty of straw to arrange a cozy nest. Bales of hay or straw can act as great insulators and draft blockers by stacking them along the walls of the coop.
While their feet can withstand standing on the frozen ground, they will be much more comfortable if you lay down a layer of straw for them to walk on in the run. During the day, they will likely still enjoy roaming the yard, even when it’s covered with snow. They will have a grand time digging their heads into it, shoveling it with their bills, and “floating” on it (sitting in the snow with their feet pulled into their body).
But even during the day, make sure they have somewhere they can escape the winds. I do not recommend adding heat lamps to the coop. They are unnecessary and with all the dry bedding and erratic movements of birds, there is a real risk of fire. The fire could endanger the life of your flock. It could spread to your home or neighbor’s home endangering human lives. It’s just not worth the risk involved!