Ducks, depending on their breed, can be flakey mothers. Abandoned ducklings are relatively common in domestic ducks, and it can be heartbreaking.
Both wild and domestic ducks will abandon ducklings, and they usually don’t make it more than a day or two. Wild ducklings are vulnerable to predators and drowning without a mother to guide them. Domestic ducklings are attacked by other birds in the coop without a mother hovering over them.
Some ducklings are sometimes abandoned almost by accident.
In our case, a mother duck hatched out a clutch of 12 and stopped sitting. She still had 4 eggs left in the nest, but something told her that an even dozen was enough!
A young (1-year-old) duck without a nest of her own decided to sit on the nest once their mother had left, and managed to hatch out 4 more ducklings from the surplus eggs they’d abandoned. Unfortunately, she wasn’t very interested in mothering them.
A duck that already has babies will often adopt abandoned ducklings, so long as they’re about the same age as her own. Perhaps her mothering instinct is strongest right after her babies hatch, or perhaps she just can’t tell them apart.
With a 2+ week difference in ages, the current mothers are not willing to take on extra responsibilities.
Not only do they not adopt the new babies, but they’ll actually go out of their way to attack and try to kill them. Two ducklings were found dead, and two more were hiding in a corner trying to avoid the cranky group of mother ducks.
Time to intervene and hand raise some fluffy cuteness, but what to do with abandoned baby ducks?
How to Care for Ducklings
So long as they’re well cared for, ducklings can be re-introduced back into the flock with no issues.
It takes about 6-8 weeks for ducklings to become self-sufficient. If you’re caring for abandoned ducklings, make sure you plan on housing for at least that long.
Water and Drowning
Ducks need an abundant source of water, and go through far more in a day than chickens. For lone ducklings, the water must be very shallow and ideally set up so that they can’t climb into it.
Very young ducklings are at great risk of drowning because they do not produce a natural oil that keeps them from getting waterlogged. They’ll get some of their mother’s oils through contact which allows her to take them for brief swims, but she makes sure to know their limits.
Ducks should not be given water to crawl in until they’re mostly feathered in. I’ve seen 4-week old ducklings become waterlogged and drown in 6-8 inches of water.
Food for Ducklings
Ducklings can consume any un-medicated chicken feed, ideally a starter ration or game bird ration because it contains higher protein to help them grow. The feed must be un-medicated because they consume more feed than chickens of a similar size, and they will overdose on medicated chicken feed.
They should be given free access to clean dry feed, though early on they won’t eat very much. They also love snails, slugs, and garden bugs as well as grass, clover, green, and lettuce.
(If you’re looking for more details, here are a few tips for feeding ducklings.)
Housing & Bedding
They’ll need a home safe from predators and bedding. A home can be as simple as a cardboard box, but ideally would be a Rubbermaid tote or something similar. Shavings, straw, leaves, or dry grass work well so long as you provide at least a 1-2 inch layer.
Ducklings love to play in their water, and their droppings are much wetter than chicken droppings. Without sufficient bedding, they’ll be soaked and may die of hypothermia. Paper towels also work well in a pinch but need to be changed daily as they become soaked easily.
Many sites will tell you how important heat is, and give instructions on a heat lamp and how to set it up so that it’s not a fire hazard. A heat lamp running all night after a few cloudy days is enough to cause our off-grid homestead to lose power.
In our first year brooding ducklings, we tried to use a heat lamp and kept draining the batteries.
For the past 5 years, we’ve brooded ducklings in a box in our garage in June, July, and August without a heat lamp and never lost a single one. A heat lamp may be nice and may keep them a lot more comfortable, but if you’re not able to set one up they’ll likely still do just fine.
Depending on the breed, ducks grow to full size in 8-12 weeks. They’ll need care for at least 6 weeks before they can be safely reintroduced to the flock.