Raising Waterfowl

a broody hen with ducklings
Broody hen with ducklings — Val Kitt

Wild waterfowl are usually led to the relative safety of water by one or both parents soon after their down is dry. Many duck and goose breeders use broody hens to incubate eggs. If they hatch under the broody, she will do an excellent job of caring for the youngsters. No matter how strong the imprinting is on the foster mother, it will not outstrip the urge to swim. Despite the hen scolding and fussing at the waterside, waterfowl still love to splash about!

If brooding under a duck, goose or swan, oil from the adult’s feathers transfers to the downie. As soon as the youngster starts to preen itself, we see the use of its own preen gland increasing. It is thought that swimming helps the development of this gland. The oil produced is key to maintaining the fine structure of the down and eventually the feathers, which are both vital in insulating the bird. The fine barbs and barbules of the feathers must remain supple in order to mesh together and allow the microstructure to be water-repellent. This integrity is actually more significant than the hydrophobic properties of the oil itself.

Artificially reared birds may need to have their access to water limited to short periods until they are able to maintain their own down. Some breeders of the most challenging species will get them swimming straight away. Experience will be your best guide and observation as always, is the key to good stockmanship.

Imprinted on mother, downies will stick close by — Morag Jones.

Imprinting is a specialised form of learning that happens in some very young animals so they develop a strong irreversible attachment to the mother. It is only possible during an extremely limited ‘critical period’ soon after birth.  Imprinting has a huge effect on wild hatchling survival. Though waterfowl imprinting on humans undeniably gives pleasure to many who rear waterfowl, it is not necessarily the best approach. The individuals may not learn the social cues of their own species and may never go on to form a normal relationship with their own kind.

When we talk about breeds, we mean variants of a domestic animal. Call Duck, Cayuga or Campbell; all are descended from the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, which is a wild species. Given the opportunity, they can all interbreed. The other wild ancestor of a domestic duck breed is the Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata; where domesticated, there is little variety in its body form, so it is known as a single breed, but with various colours.

Muscovy ducklings — Nick Willis
Blue Fawn & White Runner ducklings — Julian Burrell

The range of wild waterfowl we keep as ornamentals are different species; for example Ringed Teal, Red-crested Pochard or Ruddy Shelduck etc. Whether or not they are able to hybridise depends on many factors, but in the wild, species are often separated by geography. Where their ranges do overlap, interbreeding generally does not occur because youngsters learn the breeding cues from familial groups. When we keep and rear closely related species together, this social learning can go awry. Each species is different, but the knowledge of who you should be breeding with is not necessarily instinctive; it is a partly learned behaviour. With this in mind, clearly it is better to rear each species as a group. However, if you have a single downie hatch, it will probably be happiest amongst others of similar size rather than being reared alone.

A mobile rearing run can be moved onto fresh grass as required — Morag Jones

The attrition rate in wild waterfowl is high. A Mallard can have two or three clutches of more than a dozen eggs per year: we’d be knee-deep in ducks if they all survived. They are naturally a really important food source for a wide range of predators in an intricate web of life. With captive waterfowl, we tip the odds in our favour to get a good return and need to be prepared for their development. In the earliest days, hatchlings of similar age and size can be reared together, making management easier. As they age, breeds and species develop at different rates and may need to be separated. It is worth considering here what your plans are for the future of the birds.

Female Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) and adorable ducklings swimming in lake
Mallard and ducklings

Sudden, unexpected noises and visual events strike fear into young birds and where we have them confined in rearers, they cannot flee to the cover of undergrowth. So it makes sense to allow them to grow accustomed to your voice and appearance. Commercial units generally have a strict policy on who accesses growing birds, to minimise losses from panic. On the smaller scale, waterfowl will be confiding and calm if regularly exposed to your presence as a keeper. Anything that avoids sudden panic, such as talking or singing as you approach will improve the welfare of your birds. Geese in particular are very social and make greeting calls whenever they meet, some of the wild duck species do the same.

greeting display from Sebastopol Geese
White Sebastopol and Bar-headed Geese — Morag Jones

As the downies grow and their need for heat reduces, they become ever more adventurous. They also become increasingly messy and waste management becomes onerous. Unlike chickens who will happily scratch around on a dry substrate such as shavings or straw, the associated wetness of waterfowl means these are not ideal. Bacteria and fungal spores will build up in warmth and moisture. There are two approaches to growing on you could consider. For small batches, an elevated brooder works well. This should have a mesh floor, over an easily cleaned surface. At one end will be a pool of water and at the other a loafing and drying area with a heat source. Stock boards to isolate the areas make management easier. If the brooder is sufficiently long, the running to and from the water to the food helps to improve their condition as they grow.

Emperor goslings in a grazing pen
Emperor Goslings in a grazing pen — Ian Gereg

Getting youngsters out onto grass is very satisfying. Geese and some other waterfowl have an instinct to graze very early on. Without turf available, goslings will frequently graze each other. Hanging some lettuce or dandelion leaves can be a distraction, or even snipped grass floating in a dish of water. Grass is so popular that this option will last less than an hour. There is nothing like the real thing. You should not expect to have an immaculate lawn for long though. A brooding box with an open floor and rain proof lid will be useful. A tray of water needs some form of exit and entry, the humble brick is often adequate. You will either need two people to move it safely or have wheels at one end if it is to be of a useful size. Great care is needed if birds are kept in the brooder as you move it: far better to catch them gently and place them in a box or bucket or coax them into one on its side and scoop them up whilst you attend to the housekeeping. Pens will gradually have to increase in size.

With wire enclosures on grass, you do need to provide some form of shade and shelter if there are no trees or bushes. As the pens are moved, the used patch should be swept of debris and hosed off to allow the turf the chance to recover. Short lawn grass is ideal but nothing survives the constant padding of growing webbed feet — if this bothers you, rear fewer at a time or spread them over a wider area.

Pet duck with her ducklings — Morag Jones

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.

The answer has to be that if you breed waterfowl with a view to obtaining birds of a particular type, then, like it or not, you are applying genetics. You are accepting that your birds are able to pass on features (in the form of genes) to their offspring, and that, by breeding only from those birds with the characteristics you want, you will ‘improve’ the next generation. By getting your head round some of the basic principles, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by realising what is or is not possible. If you are purchasing birds, you should be confident that the breeder has applied basic principles so that the birds you are buying are as you expect.
All domestic animals have been developed from wild ancestors by human intervention. Our domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovies, are descended from the wild Mallard. The differences we see now have come about by mutations – random, rare changes in genes from those producing mallard characteristics, which humans have seized upon to breed selectively. In the wild, odd genes would disappear into the mass or the birds carrying them would be easy prey to predators, but in captivity they have been artificially selected for, and not only maintained, but combined in new ways, resulting in the wide range we see today.

So how does it work? Each living thing (including ducks) has a number of pairs of chromosomes in each cell of its body, carrying thousands of genes — one set from its father and one set from its mother. Since any duck receives one gene for a particular character from each parent it must have two genes for any character. Different versions of a gene are called alleles. Taking the simplest possible scenario, if these two alleles are the same, (called homozygous) there is no problem, the alleles will decide the feature and will show in that organism. If they are not the same (heterozygous), there are two possibilities. Often, one allele (the dominant one) will show itself (be expressed) and the other (recessive) will be hidden.

For example, the black colour seen in Cayugas, Black East Indians and others is caused by an allele that is dominant over the normal wild-type colour. If we use the letter E to represent the black, and e to represent the recessive wild colour, we can see that a black duck could be either EE or Ee, but a wild colour bird could only be ee. When these birds go on to breed, the homozygous black (EE) can only pass on E alleles, the wild type can only pass on one e allele, but the heterozygous can pass on E or e alleles. Thus, it would be quite possible that two black ducks could produce wild-type offspring (unless you could be sure they were EE) but virtually impossible for two wild-type birds to produce black offspring.

In other situations, one allele is not dominant over the other, so that if the alleles are different (heterozygous), the result is a form like neither parent but somewhere between, or different from either. This is called co-dominance. An example of this is blue colour, as in the Blue Swedish, where the blue results from two alleles being different, the homozygous situations giving Black and Splashed White. Only 50% of offspring from two Blue Swedish will be like their parents. The only way to get 100% Blue is to cross a Black with a Splashed White! Thus, it will never be possible to breed pure Blue Swedish, and it actually raises the question about whether this can be considered a true breed at all. A get-out here is that the inheritance in blue birds is at least predictable!

The single gene situation is not the norm — many characteristics are the result of a number of genes acting together, often one gene modifying the effect of another (such as dilution genes), so that it is often far harder to see the underlying principles at work. In addition, since there are colour differences between male and female ducks, there is the added complication of sex Iinkage.

Only 22 mutations in domestic ducks have been described so far — there is obviously much more work to do. Mike Ashton has given much more detail of the mechanisms of inheritance of some of these genes, in his articles in Waterfowl and in his and Chris’s book, The Domestic Duck. I am not proposing to repeat his work here, but to urge duck breeders to think about the mechanisms underlying their breeding programmes, to try applying some basic principles and to share information with others to add to the body of knowledge available. It would be especially useful to keep track of the numbers of different forms obtained from particular pairings.

There are two possible issues arising from a lack of regard or understanding of the underlying principles. Sometimes all colours of Calls, for example, are run together. Offspring are chosen which happen to correspond to show standard criteria for a particular colour for exhibition and sale and a great disservice is being done to that colour. In all probability the birds will have a number of recessive alleles which are not expressed but will show up in successive generations. In other words, despite appearances, they are cross-bred and will not breed true.

Another issue is from random crossing, where a colour of duck appears which is novel and which the breeder likes. It is easy to assume to assume that, by successive breeding and selection, eventually a pure-breeding line can be produced. In all probability, the ‘new’ colour only exists when a gene or probably genes, are heterozygous, in other words ‘split’, and a pure-breeding form will never be possible. 

So, if you’ve never thought about the mechanism of inheritance in this way, give it a go. It can make sense of what you see happening and certainly adds interest to the breeding side of the hobby.

Geoff Chase

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

Getting your first birds is exciting but we do need to put their needs first.  Time spent on research is never wasted, so make sure you choose the right breed or species and have everything in place for their arrival.

See more here.

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