Ducks can be charming companions in suburban backyards. As someone who never raised so much as a parakeet on her own, the idea that I could look out the window and watch our five full-grown, food-producing, bug-eating, fertilizer-creating waterfowl would have been pure fantasy only two years ago. Actually, it was a fantasy — a dream of my young daughter’s and mine when we moved to comparatively yard-rich Westchester County, New York from the land of tiny lawns, Westside Los Angeles. Like many urban and suburban families, we saw the cute pictures of folks with their A-frame chicken coops and their adorable backyard chickens and said, “That’s what we want!” My husband thought we were flat-out nuts but he loves fresh food and so humored us when we presented my latest eat-local scheme. (I mean, eat really local scheme.) Then, on our way to chicken ownership, we fell in love with another species altogether and decided to start keeping ducks.
Why Start Keeping Ducks?
I’m not sure that Groucho ever gave Chico a satisfactory answer but when people ask me, I give it to them straight: Why not a duck? Nothing against chickens — I like chickens, my mom kept chickens, I eat chickens — but in our particular case, ducks made more sense. As beginning poultry owners, we wanted the easiest option and our research kept suggested we start keeping ducks. Ducks are less prone to disease, more weather-hardy and easy(ish) to herd. The male is actually quieter than the female so if you want a mixed gender flock, you won’t have the same no-rooster issues that you might have with chickens. Now, please note, this means the female is louder, so if you’re in this for the duck eggs, keep that in mind. Certain duck breeds are noisier than others and, of course, more ducks make more quacks so factor that in as well.
Cayugas make little noise, good for suburban living. Ask your hatchery about their birds’ temperaments before you place your order.
Why Keeping Ducks & Suburbia Go Together
Even though I didn’t know this when we started, I’m sort of amazed at how simpatico the duck is to our cul-de-sac residing, SUV-driving lifestyle. For one thing, ducks are more like feathered dogs than you might imagine. They listen, they learn, they let you direct them where they need to go. Even at barely eight-weeks-old, our teenaged ducks figured out how to leave their temporary home in the garage then waddle across the driveway to the backyard play area. We showed them once and the second day, with very little motivation, they managed it on their own, without scattering or hiding. Try that with five cats!
Getting them out of the pen is easy, you might say, and that’s true — breakfast is a great motivator — especially for me! But even though we sometimes have to pick up a straggler, most nights, bedtime is also straightforward. Often our group even put themselves to bed—it’s hard work foraging among the hydrangeas all day and they can’t always wait for me to finish the dishes.
In practical terms, this tractability means you can share waterfowl supervision with others. Even my husband, a life-long cat person, can handle pen-up duty from time to time. Some folks strike deals with their neighbors, swapping duck eggs for duck-sitting. For those longer-term situations, however, i.e. vacation, I prefer to get professional pet-sitters who come twice a day while we’re gone. “Easier than dogs,” one of our regular caregivers pronounced after his initial stint. And dogs can’t give you breakfast!
Laying the Groundwork for Keeping Ducks
Before your first duck lays her first egg, though, it’s a good idea to do a little nest prep of your own. Probably the single most important item of research is making sure your local laws permit keeping ducks and if they do, what are the parameters (how many birds, how big a property, etc.). On one hand, living on the edge of a city might mean you have enough space to raise a duck or two in a healthy and wholesome manner. On the other hand, even if you have the room, your town might prefer swing sets to barnyards.
In the other good news/possibly bad news department, you might well consider soil testing before you order your birds. Many suburban lawns would in no way qualify for organic status and, for all their pretty greenness, were neither zoned nor built for food production. If your ducks are roaming, digging, eating and drinking from the products of your yard, they are ingesting whatever nutrients and less-nutritious elements may be found there. It pays to know in advance whether you’ll be able to enjoy the daily egg bounty or whether that dream will be, er, scrambled.
Last, but certainly not least, it’s a great idea to acquaint your neighbors with the news of your plans of keeping ducks before the hatchlings show up at the post office. Although you’re not starting a rooster factory (I hope), you’ll find when keeping ducks that they do make some noise from time to time. For instance, they might feel moved to send out a powerful quack when you show up in the morning with a bowl of kibble. The girls will be happy to see you at 7:00 a.m. but the fellow next door might not feel the same.
On a similar note, good fences make good poultry neighbors, especially in the ‘burbs. At our house, we went through the laborious but necessary process of surveying, permitting and installing a deer fence months before our ducks put one webbed foot on the lawn. Now, though, we can rest assured that our ducks won’t wander and friendly dogs can’t conduct unscheduled visits. Better for both sides of the fence.
The final fortified set-up in the garage—kiddie pool, poultry fencing, brooder lamp with crumble feeder and water dispenser on raised platforms.
Just Add Ducklings
Once you’ve determined that keeping ducks will work for you, time to figure out where to put ’em. If you’ve got a typical suburban set-up with attached garage, you already have the perfect housing. Actually, the more attached the better because it’s important to stay in tune with the hatchlings’ needs and the closer, the easier. Although, I’d draw the line at the guest bedroom, please.
In our garage, we began with the typical starter kit—a cardboard pen with brooder lamp and stand— but our birds quickly outgrew those tight quarters. We started raising ducklings with their food and water into a large kiddie pool frequently re-stocked with clean bedding. And I do mean “frequently.” Because as any duck person will tell you, waterfowl are messy creatures, their big floppy feet tailor-made for toppling bowls of crumble. They also produce wondrous amounts of wet poop. And five ducks, I have to admit, make an awful lot of poop. Something to think about, by the way, when calculating your property’s total waterfowl capacity.
In addition to supplemental heat, baby ducks need constant access to clean water. The tricky part is that in the early weeks, you can’t use too big a bowl as they may fall in and not be able to get out unassisted. They are waterfowl but before their adult plumage comes in, ducks can get chilled or even drown if not monitored. We used age-appropriate waterers but these had to be refilled frequently, especially since the rambunctious ducklings often knocked them over. This means—and parents of all ages will recall these days—you can’t leave the little ones alone for long stretches of daytime. For suburbanites whose primary occupation is not animal husbandry, a plan for this aspect of duck-minding will be necessary.
Making Your Backyard Duck-Friendly
Even though you have about two months from hatch to outside living, it’s wise to have your ducks’ adult needs in mind from the get-go. Basically, it comes down to this: Where are they going to sleep? And what I mean by that is, where can they sleep where they won’t end up as duck dinner? Many homeowners already know about the relentless cunning raccoons employ to get into trash cans but the outcomes could be much worse when they’re after your Pekin ducks and Cayuga ducks. Do not underestimate their ability to get through fencing and undo latches! Furthermore, in your part of the country, other varmints may come take a look. Do some research and secure accordingly.
When we entered the poultry housing market in early 2012, there didn’t seem to be any duck-specific coop options for sale in the U.S. (There were a few British models but think of the shipping costs!) Most of what I found on this side of the pond was more suitable for raising chickens than keeping ducks and different fowl have different habits. Ducks, for example, don’t use chicken roosting bars, won’t necessarily fit into a small coop and can’t use those nifty nest boxes built for hens. In the end, we purchased the stylish and easy-cleaning Yolk System but as the weather warmed up, decided that the coop itself would be too cramped and hot for overnight duck use. Instead, we took advantage of the extra-long pen and, with some reinforcing of the wire enclosure, used it exclusively for sleeping quarters. The plan now is to try keeping ducks in the coop this winter but we’re still not perfectly sure if it’ll be too small (or just right) for frigid conditions. We also don’t know if the ducks will be able to navigate a chicken-friendly ramp or whether we’ll have to “assist” them. In a nor’easter, of course, they might not mind a little help.
If you don’t want to jury-rig chicken housing, you can plan on keeping ducks in a general-use structure such as a shed or even build something custom. Just remember that cleaning is a huge part of owning duck real estate. We like an outdoor pen option because it drains easily onto the lawn and can be hosed or scrubbed down as needed. Our set-up does need to be lugged around every few days to avoid creating mud bogs and it is a bit awkward getting to the eggs if the ducks won’t cooperate by laying them near a door but so far it’s a reasonable trade-off. This year, we’re also going to experiment with a deep litter system, parking it for the season once the lawn dies back. One of our neighbors pens her birds this way and then turns the fertilized space into a garden plot in the spring.
Ducks in the Mist: Afternoon lettuce snacks kept up the ducks spirits when the heat and humidity wore everyone down this past summer.
To Pond or Not to Pond
Almost everyone who finds out we have ducks asks us the same thing, do you have a pond? Our answer is, well, no. Pools not ponds are more common in suburban areas and at this point, we’re not interested in the cost and maintenance of either. Still, it’s a reasonable question. In Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, Dave Holderread says “ducks can be raised successfully without water for swimming.” Nonetheless, ducks are waterfowl and still need plenty of water for drinking, bathing and playing. In our backyard, we use a couple of different sources—an automatic waterer, a sheep dip for daily baths and an oversized kiddie pool for the occasional swim treat. We drain all of these overnight to avoid encouraging mosquitoes. Not that they need much encouragement.
We also invested in a few extra-long hoses of varying sizes and made sure they were rated for drinking water—like those used for boating. And, in case you’re wondering, our water bill did go up this summer but not as much as my husband feared. In all fairness, the extreme heat didn’t help but neither did our 10-year-old’s extravagant efforts to keep the ducks happy in muggy weather.
Do You Really Need All That Lawn?
Of course, one of the hallmarks of suburban living is the manicured lawn. Perfect for keeping ducks, right? They roam around, dining on unwanted bugs, looking all decorative and peaceful. Um, sort of. The thing about ducks I didn’t know before keeping ducks is they like to play in mud. OK, right, they’re waterfowl but give them some dirt with that H20 and suddenly, they’re in hog heaven, so to speak. Even on their maiden voyage outdoors, the moment some water splashed from a dish, the ducklings dug holes in that thatch faster than a jackhammer (but, luckily, much quieter!)
Which, however, does not bode well if you’re hoping to retain that manicured lawn. Or, at least not in the same place where your ducks wander. The solution, once again, is fencing. Creating zones where you allow yourself the pleasure of grass cultivation (mowing and weeding, oh joy!) and others where you just accept that there will be less than pristine green space. Or space that is not even green at all, alas!
At our house, we’re in the process of converting the backyard in a scheme I call “anything but lawn.” For instance, we maintain ornamental plantings around the borders, including lots of shrubs where the ducks can hunker down in the hottest weather. We also installed a giant sunflower maze for our daughter and the ducks to play in and (for the ducks) to take shelter. In addition, we have two raised beds for corn as well as a pumpkin patch that, by the end of summer, takes over a huge chunk of grass. We hope to add even more features next year because, let’s face it, the less lawn you have, the less you have to mow!
Whatever you decide to do, you will need to maintain the groundcover (clover counts, right?) because you don’t want those aforementioned mud holes. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to moving the pen fast enough so I have to mulch the bare spots and avoid those areas for a while. Well, so much for “best-laid plans.” Duck shoes, obviously, are in order.
Home on the Free Range
And speaking of fences (again), have you thought about the effects of keeping ducks (or chickens for that matter but ducks have bigger feet) on your plants, ornamental or vegetable? It’s fine at the end of the season when they can nose through the post-harvest detritus but ducks love those sweet leaves of plant youth like nobody’s business. We learned straight off that if we wanted our corn, pumpkin, and sunflowers to make it to adulthood, we needed to get our plastic poultry fence up as soon as possible. Once secured, we let the birds noodle around the perimeter in hopes they would keep the slugs and other pests in check. We still got some bugs on the cornstalks but not too many. With a no-spray, duck-only deterrent, I actually think we did rather well.
With flowerbeds, it’s a different issue. Covering the sedum with bird mesh and caging the ferns may be effective but it sure defeats the prettifying purpose! Again, it helps to look at this as duck-allowed vs. duck-protected areas. And remember, if there’s no barricade, the ducks will come by and check stuff out. They have absolutely no sense of personal space—yours, that is. I guess it never occurred to me that our ducks would like to come up on the deck and peek into the French doors just to say hey. (Or ask for a snack.) The duck, as it turns out, is a curious bird. So without further impediment, our group goes wherever it likes—around the patio, on the deck, under the deck, along the fences, in the flowerbeds, up by the composter. This is wonderful for two reasons—one, if the weather shifts and you’re not around, you don’t have to worry that they are cooped up (literally) in uncomfortable conditions—they can seek shelter in the rhododendrons or wherever they like. Two, it’s distinctly pleasurable to walk outside and have your ducks waddle out with a quackish greeting or to glance out a window and see them moving around, busy and content. In fact, I find it truly restful just watching them go about their ducky business.
Which, come to think of it, is a perfectly good reason to start keeping ducks.
Further Reading on Keeping Ducks
For more detailed information on predator protection, housing, feeding and much more, I recommend starting with the comprehensive and newly revised Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread, Storey Publishing, 2011 edition. Also, Ducks: Tending a Small-Scale Flock for Pleasure and Profit by Cherie Langlois, BowTie Press, 2008; and Carol Deppe offers useful tips in The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010.
Photos and text ©2012 by Lori Fontanes
Newbie poultry enthusiast Lori Fontanes blogs about converting her suburban lawn into a backyard homestead.
Originally published in Backyard Poultry December 2012 / January 2013