Incubation

Baer's Pochard keeping a low profile - Phoebe Vaughan

In an ideal world, female waterfowl should incubate their own eggs. However, for a number of reasons this is not always practical in captivity. We may remove eggs because the mother is not a good sitter or is being disturbed by other birds. Sometimes if the first clutch of eggs is taken away, it is possible that the female will lay a repeat clutch in the same season.

Going ‘broody’ is a natural phenomenon with nearly all birds that incubate eggs. It is particularly obvious in female waterfowl. Males may guard nests; some species may even share the incubation. It varies from species to species how much involvement drakes, ganders and cobs have in the raising of the family. This may influence our decision whether or not to parent rear. Geese and swans, where males play a parental role, are frequently more successful.

One method for larger ducks and geese is to take the eggs, as they are laid, and replace them with dummies of near identical size and weight, until the clutch is complete. Then, should a predator find the nest, at least some of the eggs may be saved. However, despite this risk, it may be better to leave small duck eggs in the nest rather than exchanging them for dummies. Very small bantam eggs, matched for size and weight, may be an alternative substitute but not always. Some of the smaller teal can be very suspicious of any disturbance and are better left until the clutch is complete.

Egg Collecting, Storage and Record Keeping

Memory, especially with several different species or broody hens sitting, can be embarrassingly unreliable! It is therefore recommended that a simple record (on a card) is kept with each clutch. Notes can be taken on a smartphone too, but hard copy is still a sensible option. The species; the date incubation started; and the anticipated date of hatching should be written down. Notes on the nature and effectiveness of the broody or location of the nest might be kept too.

Cleanliness is one of the best ways to improve your success with incubating. Take a fresh container with clean straw and soft lining. You should also have a separate bag to carry any obvious addled eggs, the aim is to prevent transfer of harmful bacteria. Eggs should be stored on a tray of sand in a cool place. A wine cabinet is one option for storing eggs. The ideal temperature is around 15°C. A few degrees above or below this figure while the clutch is being collected should do no harm to the eggs. Normally a clutch takes up to 14/16 days to complete.

More than one species is using this box, but you can see by the down that someone is ready to sit - Barry Nicolle

The eggs should be turned a couple of times a day, as the mother would do each time she returns to the nest. As soon as down from the mother bird’s breast appears, covering the eggs in the nest, it can be assumed that the clutch is close to being completed. Clear the nest of dummies and scrap the nest site if you want to encourage the bird to lay again.

Artificial Incubation

The type of incubator you choose will depend on how many eggs you plan to set and what your budget is. They all work on similar principles: to replicate the temperature consistently that the parent bird would provide, allow fresh air around the eggs to let carbon dioxide escape and have some means of turning the eggs. Automatic humidity control is available on most machines. The accuracy and sophistication of incubators largely depends on what you pay.

The temperature for incubating waterfowl eggs is usually 37.4°C. Some incubators can schedule a brief cooler spell, replicating the time the bird spends off the nest. During the course of incubation, the egg loses about 15% of its weight. This is mostly down to transpiration and is affected by the humidity surrounding the egg. If too much moisture is lost, the hatchling may struggle to get out. Too little and the bird may not be able to breathe in the air sac before hatching. The ideal humidity for incubation is 55%, rising to 60-70% for hatching.

Egg turning is often automated too. If it is not, or has malfunctioned, you will need to turn the eggs yourself. This needs to be done in alternate directions at each turn. Turning is very important for the development of the embryo.

Hygiene is really important. Eggs should be checked regularly by candling (a strong light shone through the egg). Any eggs not developing should be discarded before they contaminate healthy eggs. When the correct incubation period is close to completion, be ready to move the eggs to a hatcher. It really is best NOT to allow eggs to hatch in the incubator but done in a separate hatcher.

terrier looking into an incubator
Assistant Duckery Manager checks the hatcher - Barry Nicolle

Broody Hens 

Using a broody hen is a very traditional but effective way of incubating.

The ideal broody is steady, quiet, clean of feather on feet and does not mind being handled. Good broodies are hard to come by so it is best to keep your own flock. You need a ‘bank’ of spares, ones that have proven themselves and in turn should have been bred from, to fix the characteristics you require – the incubation and rearing of the waterfowl. Silkies, Sumatra Game, Scots Dumpies and crosses of these breeds are cited by many as being the best sitters. 

For a modest collection, a bank of three to six broody boxes and a series of short netting covered runs are needed. When the hen has gone broody, she should be gently moved from the run to the box. This is a good time to treat her with a proprietary delousing agent. A base layer of clean sand, covered with leaf mould or a sod of grass, shaped into the form of a nest, should fill the bottom of the box. A few dummy eggs should be left under the broody for a day or two to test her. All this is best done in the evening. The next evening, she needs to be lifted from the broody box for exercise in her run, and then the dummy eggs can be removed, and the waterfowl eggs slipped in.

An experienced breeder will candle the eggs once or twice during incubation – it is best after 10 days and again after 20 days. As you would do with eggs in an incubator, eggs are candled by shining a bright light through the egg. Any which are completely clear after 10 days are infertile and if, after 20 days, you cannot see clear signs of blood vessels then the embryo has most probably died and is going rotten. Such eggs should be removed so they don’t contaminate the good ones.

A reliable broody hen is a huge asset - Morag Jones

 

Broody Care

The broody boxes need ventilation holes and should be kept in the shade or under shelter to avoid heat stress to the broody in hot weather. She needs to be allowed off the eggs at least once a day, fifteen to twenty minutes on average, at the same time each day. She should have water and food receptacles that she cannot turn over in the run. Wheat, cut maize and a little grit is suitable food. She must have time to both feed and pass a dropping during this period. If possible, a dust bath should be provided. Experience with the individual hen will tell you whether you have to shut her out with the slide from the eggs or not. Some will hurry back to the eggs before defecating with unpleasant results later for the eggs, hen and handler!

Although the broody will be turning the eggs herself, she may need help to turn larger goose eggs, and the breeder should do this as a routine precaution. During dry conditions it may be beneficial to dampen the ground around the broody boxes.

Hatching

You will need to check incubation times for the breed or species you have. ‘Downies’, as young waterfowl are often termed, will be heard calling within the eggs up to forty-eight hours before they are due to hatch or the eggshell has been chipped. The broody will sit tighter and will be less inclined to leave the nest for food or exercise. It may take seventy-two hours for all, or the majority of the eggs, to hatch.

Light spraying of the chipping eggs with tepid water might be beneficial at this stage, especially in periods of dry weather.

The downies will not need food for twenty-four hours or so, since they have yolk reserves to draw upon for sustenance.

broody hen with a small duckling
Broody hen with a duckling - Val Kitt

Rearing

At this stage a brooder should have been prepared which will house both hen and downies on clean ground. Preferably it should be an area of closely mown grass upon which waterfowl have not been kept recently, to avoid potential parasite problems.

This is where a good broody really proves her worth, not only as an incubator, but brooder too. Depending on the species, chick crumbs, turkey crumbs and duckweed should be introduced for the young. This will be sampled by the broody and she will coax the downies to try, and indeed to eat. Water should be available in shallow trays filled with smooth pebbles so that the young don’t get too wet before their down and preen glands have become active. The brooder, hen and downies should be moved onto fresh clean ground every day.

Finally, all broody boxes and incubating equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected ready for the next valuable batch of eggs or young to be hatched this season, or the next.

A fine crop of ducklings - Julian Burrell

Husbandry FAQ

  • Activated charcoal
  • Antiseptic wipes/hand gel
  • Clean crate with fresh wood shavings always ready
  • Cotton bag to carry the bird
  • Micropore tape
  • Nail clippers
  • Preparation H ointment (not gel)
  • Saline solution (eyewash)
  • Sam splint
  • Scissors/cutters
  • Surgical gloves
  • Tick remover
  • Tweezers/forceps
  • Vet surgery contact details to hand
  • Veterinary wound powder
  • Vetwrap bandage
  • Wing restraints (socks/towels/custom made jackets)

The principles of biosecurity are frequently discussed, particularly in respect of the now possible threat of Avian Influenza.  Biosecurity is essentially the creation of a microbiological barrier to prevent contact between the pathogens (in this case Avian Influenza Virus) and the host (domestic or captive waterfowl).

The purpose of this note, therefore, is to consider aspects of biosecurity which can be put into place to protect these populations of waterfowl. Every waterfowl keeper will have a different set-up and it is possible to adapt their situation to fit in with these guidelines.

We should understand both the nature of the virus and the circumstances under which the virus can be introduced to our livestock.  There are two main ways the virus might be introduced. Firstly there is the risk of direct spread from migrating birds and secondly the indirect spread from these or another infected population.

Migrating waterfowl will be attracted to stretches of water and in the case of geese associated grazing.

The safest approach is to bring all susceptible livestock indoors and to keep them so confined for the length of the risk period.  Should this not be possible, then birds should be fenced well away from their swimming water if this is fed from a watercourse.  Efforts should then be made to avoid wild birds visiting the livestock.

An extra safeguard is to supply the feed and water inside the bird housing. Outside large water troughs must be avoided.

Having penned the birds away from water, it is an additional precaution if those pens can be netted over to prevent wild bird access. Your birds could be allowed access to a mains fed pond if it can be included in the netted area.

The virus is spread from the wild birds through the faeces. These will contaminate the edges of the ponds as well as the pond water itself and also any grazed pasture.  The precautions taken must consider how these faeces might get walked into the livestock pens.

  • Avoid walking round the ponds.
  • Do not go fishing, when clothes, footwear, vehicle and fishing equipment could become contaminated.
  • Change footwear before entering livestock pens (do not rely on foot dips).
  • Do not let dogs or other pets enter the livestock pens.
  • Always ensure the water provided to the birds is clean mains water
  • Drain or fill in any puddles.

Whilst migrating waterfowl may not visit your ponds they may be visited, for example, by local Mallard which could have picked up the virus from other ponds.

The other precautions to have in place are to avoid direct or indirect contact with other domestic waterfowl (or poultry) collections.

  • Do not borrow equipment from others.
  • Do not lend equipment to others.
  • Do not let other people visit your waterfowl.
  • Any staff must not have their own livestock nor have contact with other people’s livestock.
  • Do not visit other people’s livestock.
  • Do not bring other birds into your livestock pens (purchases, borrowings, gifts etc)
  • Do not take your birds to shows, exhibitions, etc nor bring birds from these events.
  • Do not lend your birds to anyone (eg a drake for mating other people’s hens)
  • Do not share a feed delivery with anyone.
  • Ensure stocks of feed are kept undercover in a clean, dry, rodent-free store.
  • Collect up and discard any spilled feed.
  • Don’t share incubation facilities with others.

Whilst this might not be a comprehensive list of precautions, it is sufficient to stimulate thoughts on the precautions to take.

If in doubt about anything, don’t do it.

The time to introduce these precautions is now. Don’t wait for the infection to be diagnosed in the country. Yours could be the first infected premises.  Register all livestock, however small the population, with DEFRA, who can then be expected to keep you informed of any increased risk of disease and keep you supplied with advisory notes.

If serious disease is seen in your birds, notify your veterinary adviser and DEFRA immediately. Remember, however, avian influenza in waterfowl may not make them sick.  This is why you must be suspicious of any other stock which is not yours and appears healthy.

Please follow this advice as closely as possible.

I should be pleased to help if needed. Any questions should be submitted through the BWA secretary by letter or email info@waterfowl.org.uk

Keith Gooderham BVSc, DPMP, MRCVS, Specialist in Poultry Medicine and Production

We recommend you locate a veterinary practice which has a partner specialising in avian medicine. This should be done as a basic part of planning your facilities. Some farm practices might be able to help, recommendation from other waterfowl keepers can be invaluable.

Birds mask their symptoms well as defence against being targeted by a predator. With careful observation we can detect a problem developing.

Sick birds often sit hunched up with fluffed out feathers. They may lose appetite, or simply hide away.

The topics and advice on these pages are given in good faith. The intent is to provide a general overview but is not a replacement for specialist veterinary care. If you suspect any of the following, immediate veterinary assistance is recommended:

  • Poisoning
  • Broken bones (especially if bone has broken the skin)
  • Attack by other animal
  • Swallowing something sharp
  • Significant wounds
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Eye injury
  • Prolapse (phallus or oviduct) that cannot be replaced
  • A need for pain relief

In the UK we face few restrictions as to which species of waterfowl we can keep. Only the (North American) Ruddy Duck is prohibited. This is to protect the endangered White-headed Duck.

As long as you keep them contained, that means not released or allowed to escape, you may keep all the other Anseriformes. All may be traded freely as long as they are individulally proven as captive bred. This means close ringed or microchipped for identification. Our native and ordinarily resident birds listed in Appendix 2 of the General Licence may be moved without a ring. Mute Swan and Egyptian Goose require an individual licence to be moved.

Our responsibility to these birds is to keep them in conditions sympathetic to a contented mental state. They should be adequately fed and watered, kept in comfortable conditions with relation to their size and normal habits, and sheltered from weather extremes. We should protect them from pain, injury and disease and allow them the freedom to express normal behaviour. We should do all in our power to protect them from fear and distress.

Essentially, these are summed up in the five freedoms of animal welfare. Expanded; four physical or functional domains of nutrition, environment, health and behaviour surround and influence the mental state. The Five Domains are key to the highest standards of welfare.

As the British Waterfowl Association we believe that the highest standard of welfare should remain one of our core values.

Read the paper about Fundamental Welfare Requirements here.

The clue is in the name – waterfowl. So the answer is yes.

The pond need not be huge for basic health, provided the water is changed frequently and kept clean. All waterfowl need to be able to fully immerse their heads in water, to keep eyes and nostrils clear. They nearly always wish to drink when feeding.

Clean water is also vital for bathing. Waterfowl know their survival is dependent on keeping their feathers in good condition, so a high proportion of their time is spent on washing and preening. They will have a regular routine of splash bathing, flapping, then rearranging their feathers.

Small bodies of stagnant water, especially in warm weather, can harbour disease. Waterfowl soil the water every time they bathe, so any disease or parasites present can be shared quickly amongst the flock.

Nearly all waterfowl prefer to mate on water. Particularly, the heavier breeds of domestic geese may be injured if forced to mate on land.

Geese and many of the ducks have evolved to eat grass – lot of grass. In the wild they range widely, mowing as they go. The intake of a goose is about 1/5 of that of your average sheep. Why eat so much? The answer lies in nutritional content. This varies according to the growth stage of the plant and also the season. All but the very freshest leaves are high in fibre and low in meaningful nutrition. No surprise then that newly emerged leaves are nibbled away with relish. Many people keep geese to manage grass and reduce the need to mow. There are merits in this strategy but only to reduce, not eliminate mowing. If the grass is bowling green short all summer, it will disappear completely over the winter.

Domestic ducks and geese are not always good parents, it very much depends on the breed.

Many breeders of domestic and wild waterfowl use small broody hens and have excellent results. Muscovy ducks are also used.

Wildfowl may reliably sit on a clutch. It will depend on the species as to how reliable they are if there is any disturbance in the vicinity. Some species are very secretive, like the Garganey. Others, like Eiders, will sit faithfully through all manner of civil unrest.

You will need to make a choice as to whether to lift the eggs early or leave the eggs under the mother.

There is a vast array of incubators on the market. Whichever one you choose, it is best to hatch in a separate hatcher. The bacterial contamination of hatching birds will affect any eggs of different stages still in the incubator.

Waterfowl are naturally inquisitive and will uproot and nibble any plants in and around the pond. Some native and common garden species are poisonous. We suggest that these should be avoided in a waterfowl enclosure where they could be nibbled:

  • Black (deadly) nightshade
  • Bracken
  • Bryony
  • Castor Bean
  • Clematis
  • Common St John’s Wort
  • Corn Cockle
  • Daffodil bulbs
  • Daphne berries
  • Delphinium
  • Some Ferns
  • Foxglove
  • Some Fungi
  • Hemlock
  • Henbane
  • Hyacinth bulbs
  • Hydrangea
  • Most ornamental Irises
  • Laburnum seeds
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Meadow buttercup
  • Oleander
  • Potato sprouts
  • Privet
  • Ragwort
  • Rapeseed
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Sweet pea
  • Tulip
  • Vetch
  • Yew

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