Beginner’s Guide to Hatching Duck Eggs and Raising Ducklings

Beginner’s Guide to Hatching Duck Eggs and Raising Ducklings

A large part of the fun of raising ducks is the ducklings! Those cute little fuzzballs do take some work, however. Here’s a guide to the basics of incubating and hatching eggs with a broody duck or incubator and raising ducklings.

Contents:


Hatching basics

Should I hatch?

This is the first thing you need to know, because some people hatch when they shouldn’t and then cause problems for themselves and their ducks.

Approximately half of your ducklings will be males, of course, and what do you plan to do with them? Make a plan for what you are going to do with male ducklings before you hatch anything. If you are a homesteader or hobby farmer and are planning to send them to the freezer, fine; hatch all you want.

But if your ducks are pets, think twice before breeding. You may not be able to keep the drakes, and you may not be able to rehome them.

And if you’re hatching an egg or eggs you rescued from a wild/feral duck, either make plans to keep it or be sure you know where to find a home for it, because you can’t release it.

Also, make sure you have space for the ducklings.

How long do duck eggs take to hatch?

Most duck eggs take 28 days to hatch.

Muscovy duck eggs take 35 days to hatch.

It is possible for eggs to hatch after anywhere between 25 days and 33 days (or, for Muscovies, between 32 and 38 days). Eggs hatching sooner or later than that are not unheard of, but very rare and usually caused by inexperienced incubator operators.

Are broodies or incubators better?

There are two ways to hatch eggs: letting your ducks hatch them naturally or putting them in an artificial egg incubator. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages.

In general, broody ducks are good because they have a higher hatch rate and will take care of the ducklings for you; incubators are good because not all ducks will go broody, because you can hatch an unlimited number of eggs, and because you can hatch on your own schedule, rather than waiting for a duck to go broody when she feels like it.

Here’s more on natural vs. artificial incubation: https://www.raising-ducks.com/artificial-incubation-vs-natural-incubation/

Managing broody ducks

What is a broody duck?

A broody duck is trying to hatch eggs. If your duck is broody, she will sit on her nest all day and all night, only leaving once or twice a day for around 15-30 minutes to drink, eat, poop, and sometimes bathe.

Broody ducks also often act unfriendly or aggressive towards other ducks. They may even try to chase you or attack you if you approach their nest. They will fluff up their feathers and hiss or squeak.

Will my duck go broody?

Maybe. It depends on the breed and individual. Broodiness is not guaranteed.

This chart shows how likely each breed is to go broody.

BreedBroodiness
Abacot RangerSometimes
AlabioLikely
AnconaOccasionally
Australian SpottedVery Likely
AylesburyLikely
BaliUnlikely
Blue SwedishLikely
Buff OrpingtonSometimes
CallVery Likely
CayugaVery Likely
CrestedOccasionally
DuclairLikely
Dutch HookbillLikely
East IndiesVery Likely
Indian RunnerUnlikely
Khaki CampbellUnlikely
MagpieOccasionally
MallardVery Likely
MuscovyVery Likely
PekinUnlikely
RouenVery Likely
Rouen ClairSometimes
SaxonyLikely
ShetlandLikely
Silver AppleyardLikely
Silver Appleyard MiniatureLikely
Silver BantamLikely
Welsh HarlequinLikely

However, even within one breed, there are differences. Some Khaki Campbells go broody and are excellent mothers; some Muscovies never go broody.

When will my duck go broody?

Ducks usually go broody when they finish a clutch of eggs. Not all ducks lay in clutches, but those that do usually lay clutches of 5-20 eggs. As they approach the end of their clutch, they may start acting broody. They are likely to go fully broody either right when they stop laying or a couple days before.

It isn’t possible to force a duck to go broody. However, you can encourage her by making sure her nest is comfortable and peaceful and making sure to leave at least one egg in it. It is advisable to pick all the eggs even if you want her to sit on them. This will keep them clean and safe, and if she decides not go broody after all, you will still be able to use the eggs.

How many eggs can a broody sit on?

Some supermoms can handle up to twenty eggs or occasionally even more. However, many ducks can only handle about a dozen. If they try to sit on more than they can handle, it could result in the eggs not staying warm enough and dying.

Can I move a broody duck?

Sometimes, a duck will go broody in a nest you disapprove of. You may wonder if you can just move her eggs to a more desirable location and put her back on them.

Unfortunately, this generally doesn’t work. If you move a broody duck and her eggs, she will run right back to her old location. She may continue to sit on the empty nest, or she may notice the theft of her eggs and give up brooding.

Ducks tend to fixate on the location of their nest more than the eggs themselves. Many ducks won’t even notice if you steal their eggs.

However, moving a broody duck can sometimes be successful. There are no guarantees, but if you move her and her eggs during the night and lock her into a new nest for a day or two, she might continue to sit on her eggs. But it’s risky, because she may panic and try to escape, breaking her eggs in the process, or she may refuse to sit on the eggs.

How do I take care of a broody duck?

Leave her alone, for the most part.

Make sure she’s protected and safe from predators, if she isn’t nesting in a protected coop.

Make sure she has access to food and water. She also should have the opportunity to bathe at least a few times during the course of incubation, as the extra humidity from her wet feathers is important for the eggs.

If any other laying ducks can access her nest, be sure to mark her eggs so you can tell if a new egg is added. Once a duck starts incubating, you don’t want to add any new eggs. For one thing, eggs laid later will hatch later, so when the broody duck’s eggs hatch, she will abandon the nest, leaving all the eggs laid later to die. Also, if too many eggs are added, she won’t be able to sit on them all and they will get cold. Since she rotates her eggs periodically, most of the eggs will eventually have a turn getting cold and dying, leading to no ducklings at all.

Incubating duck eggs

What incubator should I use?

Here’s a guide to choosing the right incubator for you: https://www.raising-ducks.com/egg-incubators/

What temperature should the incubator be?

The simple answer: for hatching duck eggs, your incubator temperature should be 99.5 Fahrenheit (37.5 Celsius).

You won’t go wrong with that.

Ideally, the temperature should stay between 99.3 and 99.6 degrees. However it can fluctuate from 98-101 degrees without causing significant issues.

Don’t rely on the thermometers that come with incubators. They are likely to be inaccurate. Put one or two extra thermometers in the incubator.

What humidity level should the incubator be?

Humidity is one of the most important things to get right and one of the easiest things to get wrong. Improper humidity probably causes more ducklings to die than anything else.

Unfortunately, there is no one correct humidity level. The correct humidity level for your eggs depends on multiple factors, including climate, elevation, type of incubator, number of eggs, egg porosity, and more.

What works for someone else may not work for you. In fact, the perfect humidity for someone else may kill your ducklings.

On average, the relative humidity should be somewhere around 50-60%, but it varies. Some people have success with humidity as low as 20%. Others have success with 70% humidity. There is no magic number.

There are two ways to check if your humidity is right: measuring the size of the air cell and weighing the eggs. This article explains both methods: https://poultrykeeper.com/incubation-brooding/incubation-humidity/

Eggs evaporate water and lose weight over the course of incubation. If the humidity is too high, they won’t lose weight fast enough and the air cell will be too small. If the humidity is too low, they’ll lose too much weight and the air cell will be too large.

Humidity needs to be raised for lockdown/hatching—more on that later.

Humidity is usually controlled by adding water to troughs at the bottom of the incubator. Some incubators also come with a humidity pump.

How do I turn duck eggs?

Eggs need to be turned on a regular basis so the yolk doesn’t stick to one side of the egg. Mother ducks do this by pushing and rolling their eggs around.

In an incubator, you can either manually turn the eggs or buy an automatic egg turner. Many incubators come with turners.

To turn eggs manually, roll them over 180 degrees at least three times a day, preferably five. (It should be an odd number of rotations because they will always have to go for a longer period of time without being turned during the night, and turning them an odd number of times every day ensures that they will never spend two consecutive nights on the same side.) Marking the eggs may be helpful.

How do I candle eggs?

Egg candling is shining a light through the shell to illuminate the interior, allowing you to see signs of life.

It’s a good idea to candle your eggs at least once or twice during the incubation period to check if they’re alive. You don’t want to risk one rotting and exploding all over the incubator (or mother duck, if you’re hatching with a broody) and the other eggs.

Any light, as long as it’s bright enough, should work for candling, although some lights work better than others. You can also buy a specialized egg candling light if you’d like.

You aren’t likely to see signs of development until at least three or four days of development, so don’t candle on day 2 and get discouraged. Sometimes it can be hard to see development until day 6 or 7.

During the earlier stages of incubation, candling will reveal a network of blood vessels. Sometimes you may be able to see the embryo moving in the middle.

A clear egg is either infertile or failed to develop.

An egg with a “blood ring” died during the first few days of incubation.

Later in incubation, the growing duckling will take up more space in the egg and will primarily be visible as a large dark blob. You should still be able to spot blood vessels, though, especially near the air cell, which is normally on the large end of the egg.

How do I put eggs on lockdown?

On day 25 of incubation, put your incubator on “lockdown” to prepare for hatching. There are three steps to lockdown:

  • 1. Take the turner out (if you have one).
  • 2. Increase the humidity by adding water.
  • 3. Shut the incubator and don’t open it again unless absolutely necessary.

Eggs need very high humidity for hatching. The main reason you shouldn’t open the incubator is because it will cause the humidity to drop, and sudden humidity drops can cause the membrane in the egg to dry up, hindering the duckling’s hatch.

As for how high the humidity should be, again, it’s hard to say. In general, it should be as high as possible. As far as I know, there’s no such thing as too-high hatching humidity.

You will NOT drown your duckling by making the hatching humidity too high. “Drowning” occurs when the incubating humidity was too high.

How does hatching work?

Hatching can be a very long process. Ducklings usually take much longer to hatch than chickens. The full hatching process takes up to three or four days. Many hatches take at least 48 hours from start to finish.

The process of hatching begins when the duckling breaks the inner membrane and pokes its bill into the air cell, taking its first breath of air.

This is called the internal pip. The internal pip is not outwardly evident, but you may start hearing the duckling peep at this point. If you hold the egg up to your ear, you may also hear a rhythmic tapping. You may also see the egg rocking and rolling in the incubator.

After the duckling internal pips, there won’t be any more progress for a while, usually at least twelve hours, and often 24 hours or more (although there is a risk of the duckling running out of oxygen if it takes more than 24 hours).

Then, approximately 12-24 hours after the internal pip, the duckling will externally pip, creating a small crack in the shell.

After the external pip, there will be another period of inactivity. The duckling now needs to rest, absorb the yolk sac, and withdraw the blood vessels that surround it. This stage can last an extremely long time. People who are new to hatching often think something is wrong because their duckling seemingly isn’t doing anything, but the duckling needs this long period of rest. Sometimes a duckling will make the hole in the egg a little larger, but usually there will be no real visible progress for a long time.

Around 24-48 hours later (and sometimes longer, sometimes up to 72 hours), the duckling will start “zipping.” It will slowly and gradually rotate around the shell, cracking it as it goes. After it has rotated about three-fourths of the way around the egg, the top of the shell will pop off and the duckling will be able to push its way out.

Zipping, from when the duckling starts cracking the shell to when it is completely out of the egg, often takes less than an hour, and not more than approximately two hours.

Should I assist a hatching duckling?

In general, no.

Assisting a hatching duckling is likely to kill it, because the duckling is surrounded by a network of blood vessels, and if you try to remove pieces of the shell or pull at the membrane, you are likely to burst a blood vessel.

Assisting a duckling is only safe once these blood vessels have receded, but they take much longer to recede than many people think, so many people assist too early and kill their ducklings. Most of the time, these ducklings simply weren’t ready to hatch yet and would have hatched normally in their own time if they were left alone.

Don’t assist unless you have reason to believe something is truly wrong and if you are 100% sure the blood vessels are gone.

And even after the blood vessels have receded, the duckling may still need to finish absorbing the yolk. You may rupture the yolk sac if you try to assist.

Thus, I recommend only assisting if it has been more than 48 hours since the duckling externally pipped, and even then, only if the blood vessels are gone.

Some people say you shouldn’t assist ducklings at all, because if they can’t hatch on their own, they must be weak, and you don’t want to keep and breed birds with bad genetics. This can be true, but in by far the majority of cases, ducklings struggle to hatch because of human error in managing the incubator.

Read more about the situations in which you should help a duckling hatch here: https://www.raising-ducks.com/when-assist-hatching/

What went wrong with my hatch?

There are dozens of things that can go wrong and cause a bad hatch rate. You can’t expect a 100% hatch rate. For shipped eggs, even 50% is a decent or good hatch rate. For non-shipped eggs, 60-70% is generally considered pretty good. That’s not to say that higher hatch rates are unattainable, but don’t count on them, especially if you’re a beginner.

But sometimes, things just don’t go as well as they should. Here are some links to troubleshooting resources:

Trouble Shooting Failures with Egg Incubation

Incubation Troubleshooting

Common Incubation Problems: Causes and Remedies

Trouble-Shooting Failures with Egg Incubation

Incubation Troubleshooting Guide

Raising ducklings

What is imprinting?

Imprinting is how ducklings come to recognize and bond with their mother.

People often say that when a duckling hatches, it imprints on the first moving thing it sees as its mother. There is a little more to it—the process of imprinting actually starts before the duckling hatches, when it cheeps at her through the shell and she talks back to it. Even after hatching, it takes some time before the bond is solid.

Still, imprinting happens quickly. By the time the mother leaves the nest, all of the ducklings instinctively follow her and respond to her voice.

However, when ducklings hatch in an incubator, they don’t have a mother. If human contact is minimized, they will usually either not imprint on anything or imprint on their siblings. Sometimes ducklings imprint on inanimate objects such as a stuffed animal or even their brooder heat lamp, and occasionally they imprint on other animals, such as cats or dogs.

However, if they do have contact with humans, they tend to imprint on the humans and see them as their mother.

A duckling that has imprinted on you thinks you’re its mom. So it will want to be right beside you at all times. Ducklings never leave their mothers.

This means that the duckling will follow you everywhere and want to sleep on your lap or at your feet.

It also means that every time you try to put the duckling in its brooder or somewhere else, it will peep in distress.

Letting a duckling imprint on you can be fun and cute, but it does mean that the duckling will be under a lot of stress if you have to leave it often, especially if it’s a single duckling. So I recommend trying to avoid imprinting ducklings onto yourself if you don’t have time to spend with them.

How do I feed ducklings?

Ideally, ducklings should eat feed formulated specifically for ducklings.

If that is not available, ducklings can also eat flock raiser or chick feed.

Ducklings need more niacin than chicks, so you may need to add supplementary niacin to their diets, especially if they’re eating chick feed. Niacin deficiency can cripple ducklings very quickly.

Ducklings can also be fed small amounts of veggies, fruits, and chopped grass as a supplement.

Ducklings should have food available 24/7 for at least their first two weeks.

Here’s more on how to feed ducklings: https://www.raising-ducks.com/feeding-ducklings/

How do I make a duckling brooder?

Ducklings need to be kept warm and safe.

If they have a real mother, she will keep them safe on her own. The ducklings won’t need to be kept in a brooder, but they will still need to be kept in a safe area protected from the elements and from predators.

But if the ducklings were hatched in an incubator, they will need a brooder.

The brooder itself can be pretty much anything that is safe, large enough, and keeps the ducklings contained: a plastic tote, kiddie pool, wooden box, fish tank, etc.

Each duckling needs about 1 square foot of space. Also ensure that there is sufficient ventilation.

There are several types of bedding you can use in a brooder. The most common are pine shavings, straw, and newspaper. Here’s an article detailing the pros and cons of each type of brooder bedding: https://www.raising-happy-chickens.com/bedding-in-the-brooder.html

Since ducklings can’t stay warm on their own very well, they need a source of heat. Heat lamps are the typical answer. This is an incandescent light that is suspended over the brooder and raised or lowered to modify the temperature.

However, heat lamps are a fire hazard. Many barns and coops have burned down due to brooder heat lamps. Also, the red light they produce can interfere with a duckling’s natural sleep cycle.

A better option is heat plates. They mimic a mother better, don’t produce light, and are much safer.

The rule of thumb is that you can decrease brooder temperature by five degrees each week. Here’s what temperature your brooder should be, by duckling age:

Duckling AgeRecommended Brooder Temperature
0-3 days95 F (35 C)
Rest of week 1 (3-7 days)90 F (32 C)`
Week 285 F (29 C)
Week 380 F (27 C)
Week 475 F (24 C)
Week 570 F (21 C)
Week 665 F (18 C)
Week 760 F (16 C)
Week 855 F (13 C)
Week 950 F (10 C)
Week 1045 F (7 C)

Providing water and food in the brooder without giving the ducklings the opportunity to make a gigantic mess is difficult. To some degree, mess is unavoidable, but you don’t want the brooder turning into a swamp.

Placing the waterer on top of a wire frame over a baking pan or bowl will reduce the mess a lot, as all spilled water will fall into the pan instead of into the bedding.

Chick waterers work for ducklings as long as the troughs are deep enough for the ducklings to submerge their bills. If you can’t find a chick waterer with deep enough troughs, you may have to improvise. Ducklings need to be able to dunk their bills (and preferably their whole faces), but they shouldn’t be able to swim in their drinking water. One possibility is cutting holes in plastic bottles, but these holes need to be expanded periodically.

Chick feeders work fine for ducks. Open pans and bowls also work, although the ducklings will probably stand in, walk in, and sleep in their food, inevitably soiling it and spreading it around the brooder in the process.

Can the ducklings be outside?

Once the ducklings are fully feathered or once the temperature outside matches what they can handle for their age, you can move them outdoors. They can probably be outside during the day before they can be outside full time.

Ducklings with a broody mom can usually be outside from the very beginning, as long as it’s not terribly cold.

Ducklings are very vulnerable to predators, so put them in an enclosed run. Letting ducklings free-range is not recommended.

When can ducklings swim?

Some sources will tell you not to let ducklings bathe until they’re a week old or something. This is not true. They can swim as soon as they’re fluffy and active.

However, they do need to be supervised. Ducklings can become soaked and cold very quickly, and they can drown if they can’t get out of the water. They should not have swimming water in their brooder, but you can let them have short, supervised baths.

If they have a broody mom, she can probably supervise them herself, but be absolutely sure they can exit their pool on their own. Keeping an eye on them is probably still a good idea.

Can ducklings be with the flock?

Adult ducks will often peck ducklings, so they should not be left together unsupervised when they are young.

Ducklings can often be introduced to adult female ducks when they’re around six weeks old.

Drakes may attempt to mate young ducks, especially if they don’t have very many adult females. If possible, ducklings should not be introduced to adult drakes until they are at least sixteen weeks old. If you have plenty of adult females in your flock, it may be safe to introduce them sooner, but keep an eye on them.

Ducklings with a broody mom may be able to be with the flock from the beginning, but not necessarily. Just keep an eye on them, and if there’s pecking or bullying, keep the ducklings and their mother separate for a while.

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