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 family. Farmers have an additional concern weighing on their mind – 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.
Winter Time Duck Care
Natural protection – Ducks come equipped with some God given gifts for weathering harsh weather. They have a double layer of slick, water proof feathers on top of a thick layer of warm insulating downy feathers. Under all that fluff is a warm, fatty body with an average body temperature around 106-108 degrees F. They 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, with veins and arteries lying next to each other & lace like capillaries that 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. It also means that cooled blood is not making it’s way back into the body, which could lower their core body temperature. They are also able to tuck their feet up into their warm bellies to warm them. Ducks 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 – depending 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, and 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 at least daily to keep it clean. Most 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. Outside of the bowl, the water will freeze, lower the temp in the coop and increasing the moisture and risk of frostbite. Remember ducks should not be given access to food without water so they will not choke, so 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, so 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 it does the rest of the year. With the short winter days and to conserve energy, you will likely notice a decrease in egg production, but the nutritional needs are still there. It’s a good idea to make feed available at all times to encourage them to bulk up a bit for the winter. In the winter, I like to also offer scratch grains in the evenings before bed. The ducks love this little treat, and 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 (greens are so hard to find foraging in winter. Click here to learn how to grow your own wheat grass), warm plain oatmeal, or warm fermented feed (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 pray 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. Providing them a secure place where they can escape the wind with plenty of straw to arrange a cozy nest will make them quite happy. Bales of hay or straw can act as great insulators and draft blockers by stacking them outside the walls of the coop (or lining the walls inside if you have space). 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 (refresh a few times during the winter). 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 to if the winds are howling. 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 not only the life of your flock but it could spread to your home or neighbor’s home endangering human lives. It’s just not worth the risk involved!