There are many ways to house your ducks and many factors to consider. Ducks don’t like being cooped up, so their preferences are more space and less infrastructure. The more space they can have, especially for foraging, the happier they’ll be. But duck housing also needs to protect them from predators, provide relief from weather extremes, be hygienic and healthy, and, of course, fit into your budget.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- Types of housing
- Coop design
- Run design
- Mobile pens
Types of housing
Coop and run
The most common duck housing setup is a coop for the night and a run for the day.
- Both the coop and run can be completely predator-proofed.
- The coop and run can be any size, as big as your budget allows.
- Ducks are very hard on vegetation. Building a run big enough that the ducks won’t destroy the grass can be expensive, especially if the run is fully predator-proofed.
Coop and multiple runs
Sometimes two or more runs are better than one. I think this is an underrated duck housing method.
- With two or more runs, you can rotate your ducks from one to the other to minimize or prevent the grass from being damaged.
- You can separate ducks from each other if you need to.
- Building more runs can be more expensive, but each individual run can be smaller, so the cost difference should not be much.
Run and shelter
If your run is predator-proof, why use a coop at all? Most ducks would rather not have to spend the night in a coop, most of the time. A three-sided shelter, dog house, or similar may be all they need.
- Your ducks will love it.
- It’s cheaper, since you don’t have to build an entire coop.
- You don’t have to take the time to lock the ducks up every night, and you’ll probably also spend less time cleaning the shelter.
- You’ll probably need to put more money into predator-proofing the run.
- Your ducks might lay eggs in their pool or other places other than their nest or coop.
- In extreme weather, the shelter may not provide sufficient protection.
Coop and free-range
Free-ranging isn’t an option for everyone. In some areas, you’d just be offering a buffet for the local predators. But in other areas, there aren’t many predators to worry about, so letting your ducks free-range for the day (a coop or pen for the night is still recommended) may be worth it.
- This is what ducks like best. Ducks love freedom.
- Your ducks will be able to find a lot of their own food.
- You may not have to build a run, or at least it doesn’t have to be as big.
- Your ducks are likely to be at risk of predation.
- Ducks that can fly will need to have their wings clipped or they could fly away.
- The ducks may wander places they shouldn’t, such as nearby roads, your neighbors’ properties, your porch, your garden, etc.
“Chicken tractors” have become popular in recent years. They usually have a small coop in the back and a small run in the front, and they are usually moved by hand or by tractor/ATV, depending on their size and weight.
- They’re good if you don’t have much space.
- They provide constant access to fresh grass.
- Their size is limited, since they need to be light enough to be movable.
- They’re more difficult to predator-proof.
A coop is a small house or shelter, usually wooden, sometimes prefabricated and sometimes homemade or custom made, in which the ducks lay their eggs and spend the night. There are many, many ways to design a coop, but here are some factors to keep in mind.
First and foremost, coops need to protect from predators. That’s the primary purpose of a coop anyway. Many predators prowl by night, so your ducks’ nighttime quarters often need to be more secure than their daytime area.
Here are some tips on predator-proofing your coop:
Ducks don’t need as much weather protection as chickens, but they should still have a dry, draft-free area to bed down.
Most ducks don’t mind rain, but they like sleeping where it’s dry, and wetness in a coop can cause moldy bedding and other issues. Be sure the coop stays as dry as possible.
The coop also shouldn’t be drafty. Windows should be over the ducks’ heads.
As for winter, as long as snow and drafts stay out, your ducks are probably fine, at least down to -30 Fahrenheit. They do not need heating. In fact, heating may do more harm than good. Insulation is also likely unnecessary, but if it gets very cold where you live, you may want to consider it.
Ventilation is actually one of the most important things to have in a duck coop during winter (or any time of year). Ducks create a lot of moisture, and if the moisture can’t escape, the ducks are much more prone to getting cold or even getting frostbite. Open-air coops are much better than closed ones.
So: give your ducks as much ventilation as possible while still keeping out rain, snow, drafts, and predators.
Each duck needs at least 4 square feet of space, minimum. Large breed ducks need at least 5 square feet. More space is preferable. Ducks are active during the night, unlike chickens, so they need more space.
Try to build your coop big enough to hold more than the number of ducks you have. Ever heard of chicken math? In this case, we’re talking duck math. Flock size just…increases…somehow.
Another reason to make your coop larger than necessary is so your ducks will be more comfortable in it if they ever have to spend full days in it, such as if it’s extremely cold (duck owners usually lock their ducks in a coop when it gets somewhere between 15 F and 0 F). In fact, if you anticipate your ducks will have to spend a lot of time confined indoors, give each duck at least 10 square feet of space.
However, in general, if you have ten medium-sized ducks, the coop needs to be at least 40 square feet, at minimum. 50 square feet is better; more is better yet.
As for height, remember that they need to be able to flap their wings. Their wings rise several inches above their heads when they flap. 24 inches is the minimum pen height for ducks. However, unless the coop is very small, you may want to make it tall enough for you to stand up in, for ease of cleaning.
Coops should provide your ducks a place to lay their eggs so they’ll be clean (hopefully) and easy to find. Some ducks won’t lay in nest boxes, but many do. Ducks don’t use raised nest boxes, so nest boxes in a duck coop need to be on the ground. Here are some ideas on how to make a duck nest box:
In general, you need about one nest box for every four ducks.
Coop flooring can be dirt, wire mesh, concrete, or wood.
Dirt floors only work with well-drained soil. You’ll likely also need to add a thick layer of sand over the dirt. It may be necessary to bury the coop walls a few inches underground to prevent predators from digging their way in. Dirt is cheap, easy, and is the best flooring if you’re planning to use deep litter bedding.
Wire mesh floors are especially common in brooders or raised chicken coops. They are supposed to allow poop to fall through the floor to the grass below, so, if done right, they tend to require less cleaning. However, you’ll still need to either move the coop or clean the area below it, and it’s difficult to make a wire floor that both is sturdy and protects from predators but still has large enough holes to allow poop to fall through. Wire floors can also be hard on ducks’ feet. And they are not a good option in cold weather.
Important note: Raised coops are not ideal for ducks. They are clumsy and don’t like ramps. If you do have a raised coop with a ramp, it needs to be wide and the incline should not exceed 45 degrees.
Permanent coops often have concrete floors. Concrete is durable, easy to clean, and keeps predators out. In many cases, it’s the best flooring option.
Wood floors are simple and cheap, but can be difficult to clean and may rot.
There are many coop bedding options, but the most common, best options are sand, pine shavings, and straw.
Sand is easy to clean and, if done right, is better at keeping smell down than most other types of bedding. However, it doesn’t compost.
Pine shavings are absorbent and easy to clean.
Straw is the best option for deep litter bedding, which is ideal in winter conditions, as it’s warm and insulates well. It’s also easy to find. But it can be difficult to keep clean and smell-free.
Believe it or not, duck housing should not smell. If there’s a smell of ammonia strong enough to be detectable to a human nose, then it has already started harming your ducks’ health.
If you are around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure—you are smelling mismanagement.Joel Salatin
Coop smell can be caused by three problems:
- There is insufficient ventilation.
- The coop isn’t being cleaned often enough.
- The ducks are overcrowded.
“Farm animals = smell” has become normalized, but what has actually become normalized is overcrowding and other problems.
Ducks need more space and more ventilation than you might think.
Tip: deep litter bedding is the least smelly. It works best with chickens, since they will scratch and turn it over, but it’s good for ducks as well.
There is no such thing as too much ventilation in duck housing. It is an absolute must.
You should have at least one square foot of ventilation per duck. More, of course, is better. You just don’t want drafts blowing in your ducks’ faces.
Ducks will do fine even in open-air coops even when temperatures reach 0 F (-18 C) or even lower.
Be sure to cover all ventilation holes with 1/2” hardware cloth.
Water and food in the coop
Ducks + water + bedding don’t go together well. Almost inevitably, ducks will put the water in the bedding, creating a soggy, stinky mess.
Food isn’t so bad, but ducks must have water with their food. If you offer food in the coop, you must offer water too.
To minimize mess, put your ducks’ waterer over a raised wire platform. That way spilled water can either fall through the floor to the ground or fall into a bowl beneath the wire platform.
Chicken drinkers may actually be messier than buckets, because ducks like to filter water through their bill and out near the base of it, and the troughs of chicken drinkers are often too small and narrow to catch this water.
Buckets can be a good option, although ducks may try to bathe in them. They also may need changed more often because ducks will make the entire bucket of water dirty, rather than just what’s available in the little trough of a chicken drinker. Also, they may not be able to reach the bottom of a bucket.
Ducks can easily go without food during the night. There is no need to provide food in the coop. It can attract mice and other unwanted creatures. However, you can provide food if you want to.
Ducks can also go without water for the night if they don’t have food either. I think it’s best for them to have water available 24/7, but if you do withhold water for the night, try to let them out of their coop early in the morning.
A run is an outdoor yard where your ducks can spend their days.
The simplest run is merely a fence enclosing an area of your yard. Sometimes this is enough. It will keep the ducks in. Unfortunately, it won’t keep all predators out.
However, if you have problems with aerial predators, you may have to cover the top of the run. Some people have success with stringing CDs across the top of their run, but it’s not foolproof. You may need to put netting or fencing over the top of the run.
Some predators can climb, so covering the top of the run may also be necessary to deter those.
If you have problems with digging predators, you may have to either bury the bottom twelve inches of your fencing underground or lay a wire mesh skirt or apron, one foot wide, around the exterior perimeter of your run.
Runs should be as large as possible. Ducks love to roam, explore, forage, and run around. The absolute, absolute minimum run size is 10 square feet per duck. I think, except in a mobile pen, that’s too small. I would recommend at least 20 square feet per duck.
Even with that, your ducks will destroy all their grass before long. If you want to maintain a healthy ground cover, you should have at least 100 square feet per duck.
Chicken wire is often the first thing people thing of, but it’s the worst fencing option. The only thing it does is keep chickens (and ducks) in, and sometimes it doesn’t even succeed at that. It’s flimsy and easy to break. However, if all you want to do is keep your ducks out of your garden, it will suffice.
Galvanized hardware cloth is the most secure type of fencing. If you want to make a fully secure run that will keep all predators out, hardware cloth is the way to go.
Electronet will keep out most predators, except aerial predators and digging predators. It’s also easy to move. Many people have a mobile coop and with a fenced Electronet yard around it, and both are moved weekly or as often as necessary.
Chain-link is extremely sturdy, but it’s expensive.
Hog fencing will keep ducks in, but many small predators will be able to fit through it.
A three-foot fence will keep most ducks in.
Pekin ducks and other heavy breeds, being heavy, can usually be contained behind a two-foot fence.
My Muscovies, with clipped wings, can be contained behind a four-foot fence. Some of them could probably get over it if they were really determined, though I’ve only seen them do it once. I don’t think a three-foot fence would reliably keep them in. I should note that I give their wings a light clip. A heavier clip would keep them down better.
Run ground cover
All this fencing can be quite expensive, which means that many covered runs are not large. As a result, the ducks usually destroy all the natural green cover. If you’re not careful, they’ll soon be living in dirt, mud, and feces, which, of course, is unsightly, unhygienic, unhealthy, and deprives the ducks of their favorite thing: foraging.
To prevent this, you have several options.
1. You can keep your ducks in a mobile run instead, so they have constant access to fresh grass.
2. You can build two or more runs and rotate your ducks through them so each run has time to recover and grow back before the ducks are returned to it.
3. You can have two runs: a smaller bedded one with a roof, and one larger one with grass. Ducks do the most damage to ground cover when it’s wet. During these times, confine your ducks to the bedded run so they don’t damage their grass run. This is what Dave Holderread mentions he does in his book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. He says his bedded runs contain gravel, topped with sand, topped with coarse cedar sawdust.
4. You can have a really large run — at least 100 square feet per duck.
5. You can put sand or gravel in the run so it doesn’t get muddy, and then bring your ducks grass clippings and other entertainment since they can’t truly forage.
It’s essential to have shade in your ducks’ run. Bushes and trees usually make good shade, and you can also rig up small structures to provide shade. Be sure there’s enough shade that all your ducks can share the space at once.
Shade cloth doesn’t provide sufficient shade for ducks if it’s hot and sunny.
Furthermore, if your run isn’t covered, shade sources are also your ducks’ best protection against aerial predators. If they’re hidden under something, hawks and other birds can’t see them. Or if they’re close to cover, they can sprint to safety if they see a hawk—and they do try to. They often keep a wary eye on the sky if they’re in the open.
A windbreak is also a good thing to have in your duck run, especially during winter.
Mobile pens are small and cheap, but since they can be moved, they allow the ducks to be moved to fresh forage as often as necessary. Your ducks will never be sitting in mud and dirt. If you can’t let your ducks free-range and can’t afford or don’t have the space for a large run, a mobile pen is the third best option for the happiness and quality of life of your ducks.
Some mobile pens have a complete, protective coop, usually in the back, with a run in the front. These are safer, but heavy.
Others are essentially a run with a roof, either over the entire thing or over the back. These are less protective, but lighter.
It’s possible to build an apron for a mobile coop run, so mobile coops are capable of being just as safe as regular coops and runs.
There are hundreds of mobile run designs. Some are so big they have to be moved with a tractor; others only fit three ducks and can be moved by a small child.
If you look for mobile pen designs, you should find some ideas for mobile pens specifically designed for ducks. Search for chicken mobile pens as well to get more ideas, but keep in mind that ducks need more space than chickens and don’t like raised nests or ramps.
There are various definitions of free-range, but in this context, I’m using “free-range” to refer to ducks who either range freely with no fences whatsoever, or have the freedom to range over a very large area (at least half an acre), even if fences do exist.
Free-ranging is an attractive option, but it comes with significant risks. If you think you can free-range your ducks without significant losses (no losses is too much to hope for), here are a few ways to make it safer:
1. Provide cover
Provide ample cover. Aerial predators are one of the main dangers for free-range ducks. However, if they have a lot of cover, they can’t be seen from the air so easily, and even if they are, they may have time to sprint to safety. I think this is one of the main reasons we’ve been able to free-range our ducks with barely any losses. We have many buildings, trees, and bushes, and the ducks are rarely more than fifteen feet from something to hide under. Many times, I’ve seen them spot a passing hawk or other large bird, freak out, and vanish under something in the blink of an eye.
Geese can help to protect ducks—or a goose, I should say. Two geese are likely to stick with each other and abandon the ducks (or even attack them), but one gosling raised with ducklings will bond with the ducks and stay with them. Geese are large and will sound an alarm at any sign of danger, so they make good protectors for ducks. Some geese may even try to attack intruders.
Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) are even better, so if you’re serious about free-ranging and have a large flock, an LGD might be worth it. However, they are a major commitment and need training.
4. Stay alert
If you can, stay alert and keep your ear out for sounds of distress from your flock when they’re free-ranging. They will likely cry out if they’re attacked, and you may be able to run outside and intervene.
Rather than letting your birds go completely free, consider using Electronet fencing.