As we move into cooler weather here in the Pacific Northwest, and around the country, we wanted to share a post about winter duck care. We are often asked how we provide the best care for Dusty and Otter and keep them as comfortable as possible when the temperature drops. My husband and I are both from the Northeast, so know how brutal winters can be. To be fair, life here in the PNW, though dreary and wet, isn’t as cold as many other regions in this country. We will do our best to share what we’ve discovered in terms of practical advice, and hope that you can adjust it to your own climate.
Ducks are fairly cold hardy by design.
Ducks are quite tolerant of cold weather, they are designed to stay warm and dry thanks to a nice bit of insulating fat and their notoriously warm down feathers. They also run a natural body temperature of 105-106 degrees, so with a down coat on they can stay pretty toasty. All that being said, they do need a few things to stay happy in the colder months.
To stay comfortable in cold weather ducks need a secure, dry, and comfortable enclosure where they can sleep, eat and warm up.
We built Dusty and Otter a duck house that we hoped would keep them comfortable all year round. Many folks keep their ducks in a shed or other modified coop. The key is that it be protected from the elements (wind, rain, snow, sleet, etc) and have clean, dry bedding for them to lay on and nest in to stay warm. A leak proof roof is key, as well as minimizing drafts and making sure their bedding stays dry. Our duck house is built like a deck which is elevated off the ground. The floor is made of slats which are close together but about 1/4” apart, when we pile straw or shavings in for the night, some inevitably fall through the cracks and they slowly compost underneath their house generating additional warmth. This wasn’t planned for but it seems to keep their house fairly cozy. We also ensure they have a nice thick layer of clean, dry bedding at all times. Their feet seem to get chilly when they walk around on the cold ground and ice and snow, you’ll see them lay down to warm up their feet. Be sure they always have dry, warm bedding to nestle into.
Keep them well fed and healthy.
As their caloric intake increases when it’s cold and they don’t find as many bugs or greens when they forage, we ensure they have plenty of feed day and night. We also supplement their feed with treats like chopped lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, chopped kale, and an occasional bit of chia seed in their water bowl. We also give them about 1/2-1 tsp of brewer’s yeast mixed into their food everyday (year round), this helps prevent bumble foot and other infections and generally keeps them healthy. Occasionally, maybe once a week (also year round) we put a splash of apple cider vinegar in their big water bowl as we’ve heard it’s good for their gut bacteria and immunity. They seem to like it :)
Be on the lookout for hungry predators.
As the temps drop, many predators are on the lookout for a quick and easy, high calorie meal. Ensure all coops are securely closed and locked at all times, check for holes, gaps or other ways a predator can enter. Be sure to have wire mesh which extends into the ground around the coop to prevent diggers from digging into it from outside. Be sure to use hardware cloth with smaller than 1” openings (instead of chicken wire), as raccoons can reach through chicken wire, kill a bird with their hands and eat it through the mesh :( Watch your flock very closely at all times when they are foraging. We have eagles, hawks, raccoons, and coyotes here in Washington and they are all looking for an easy to snag snack, Dusty’s white poof is like a giant marshmallow target just waiting to get grabbed. If we hear or see a predator we put them in their enclosure or bring them in our house until the threat has passed. It’s essential for their safety that you take their vulnerability very seriously. As they cannot fly like wild ducks, they cannot migrate or escape predators either. They rely on us as their family to keep them safe all year round.
To pool or not to pool.
We usually have 1-2 weeks of below freezing temps here in the PNW. That means that for most of the winter we aren’t dealing with a ton of ice. When their pool does freeze over, it’s usually about 1/2” thick at most. Occasionally their pool drain pipe will freeze which makes changing their pool water very difficult. If that happens I will set up a kiddie pool in their garden and just fill that daily until the pipe thaws. If we lived in a climate that was frozen for most of the winter I would likely rely on the kiddie pool and other small tubs which are easier to drain, clean and refill. Unfrozen water for ducks to drink and bathe in is essential for their health. They don’t care if it’s freezing out, they still need to drink and bathe. Some folks use heated dog water bowls to keep the water from freezing. We have a hose in our insulated basement that we use for refilling buckets and cleaning their decks. If we didn’t I would install a freeze proof hose. It’s very difficult to refill and clean their coop without running water.
Heat lamps, insulation, and bringing ducks inside the house.
We have heard many horror stories about heat lamps falling in coops and starting a fire. I can’t recommend using them for this reason. If you’d like to insulate your coop or wire it for heat and electricity be sure it’s wired properly and safely. As we don’t have severely cold temps here we decided not to insulate ours, as it would be too hot the rest of the year. They seem quite comfortable with their extra bedding and clean, dry quarters. Most people seem to go the uninsulated route, but it really depends on your climate. If the temps drop into the 20’s for a few days in a row, we sometimes set up their pack-n-play in our kitchen, mudroom or my husband’s woodshop. They really love this and appreciate snuggling into a toasty little crib. I don’t think it’s necessary but we like to spoil them and they enjoy the occasional, special “snow day” with us in the house. Pack-n-plays also come in handy for monitoring a duck after an injury or medical procedure, or needing to bring them inside for any reason. We bought one at Target for $30 (I’m sure you can find them used for even cheaper). We lay plastic sheeting into the bottom and cover it with a nice layer of straw or wood shavings. We put their water and food in one corner and plop them in and they settle right down and watch us through the mesh contentedly. If your ducks make a mess with the water, you can try putting puppy pee pads under the straw instead of plastic. They do poop a lot and of course make a mess, but we clean it all in the morning and they go back outside happy and refreshed.
Extra bedding, extra food/treats, extra love.
When in doubt, treat them like the angelic beings they are and give them the extra flake of straw, the extra bowl of food or lettuce, the extra bath, the extra night in the house, or the extra snuggle. They might be able to handle the cold weather but they still deserve to be as comfortable as possible.