First Time?

Be ready for your new arrivals — Morag Jones

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.

Pens and predator protection

Waterfowl are inquisitive and will wander a considerable distance from water, especially when they are first introduced. A bird which has travelled some distance in a box will naturally want to get as far away from you as possible. If your aviary is large, consider making a small temporary enclosure near a feed station so new arrivals can get their bearings and settle down safely.


Waterfowl need to be able to immerse their heads fully to keep eyes and nostrils clean. After transport, they welcome the opportunity to bathe. Keeping the feathers in good condition is instinctive as it is their key to survival.

Ring-necked Duck bathing — Ian Gereg


After the trauma of a journey, birds may try to hide for a while whilst they get their bearings. Waterfowl generally have more difficulty keeping cool than warm, so make sure they can get out of direct sun. In winter it may be necessary to provide frost-free ground and shelter from persistent rain for some. There should always be open water available for them. 

Who goes with who?

All domestic ducks except the Muscovy Cairina moschata are descended from the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, so can all interbreed given the opportunity. Geese too have common ancestors, mainly the Greylag Goose Anser anser and the Swan Goose, Anser cygnoides. If you keep several breeds you will need to have separate pens for each one or you will end up with mongrels. Many wildfowl can interbreed, even though they are distinct species. Some wild species have an instinctive dislike of others, it is worth doing some research if you wish to keep some of the less common species.

Birds may need to be kept apart for their own welfare — Sarah Cox


The basic duck and goose maintenance ration is a good starting point. At different times of the year you may need to change to breeder rations, young stock will need crumbs then grower pellets. Some people use feed formulated for chickens. Though generally cheaper, it is not perfect. If you do, the feed must not be medicated with a coccidiostat, which could be toxic to waterfowl. Medication is usually listed in the ingredients. Treats like wholewheat bread, millet or wheat are fine, but not as the only diet. 

Make a plan

Despite the best planning for your facilities, there may be times when things go wrong. For instance, what will you do if

  • you have travelling problems whilst collecting birds
  • a bird gets sick
  • you are taken ill and cannot get out to feed
  • you have an accident whilst tending the birds
  • your family insist you take a holiday or you have to look after a relative unexpectedly


Svetlana getting some TLC — Tyrant Farms

Part of your management plan should include registering with a vet, preferrably a practice that has a partner experienced with birds.

The BWA has a network of local and regional contacts, we hope you will join us and benefit from all we have to offer.

More information on waterfowl husbandry can be found here.

Buying FAQ

The very best way to buy waterfowl is to visit the breeder in person. They will understand the needs of the birds they are selling and should offer you advice on how to care for them properly. If you are new to waterfowl, don’t be surprised if they want you to return after modifying your facilities. When you come to sell birds yourself, you should check that the buyer understands what is requred and can provide what they need. It is polite to offer a deposit if you are not in a position to take birds home on the day. Otherwise don’t be surprised if the birds you want are gone by the time you are ready.

Auctions and bird fairs can have some good bargains; you get to see what you are buying. The price will depend on how much competition there is for the birds you are after.

There are some specialist dealers who are very knowledgeable. They will often take surplus stock from breeders who do not wish to deal with random strangers. Dealers will not be in the business of ducks and geese to become obscenely wealthy. The only way to make a small fortune out of waterfowl, is to start with a large fortune in the first place. 

Always isolate all new birds for a fortnight, wherever they have come from. You will not know if a bird has come into contact with disease or parasites for some days after you get them home. Always ask yourself why a bird is for sale, especially if it seems like a bargain.

In the UK, under DEFRA’s General Licence 18 you may purchase any waterfowl species except the Ruddy Duck.

Any bird sold under this licence must have been bred in captivity – its parents must have been in lawful captivity when the egg was laid. Advice on documentation here.

You do not need to apply for this general licence but you must meet its conditions and follow its instructions. There are 2 exceptions; the Mute Swan and Egyptian Goose need individual licences to be sold and are not covered by the General Licence. 

The Ruddy Duck is restricted in order to protect the endangered White-headed Duck that breeds in Europe. 

If you buy or move on such stock, the birds must be close-ringed or microchipped as proof of captive breeding. There is a list, Appendix 2 the General Licence 18 of ordinarily resident birds which are exempt from the requirement to be ringed. View the terms of the general licence here.

In the eyes of the authorities, waterfowl are poultry. If you keep more than 50 birds, you must notify the poultry register. That is 50 in total, so includes your chickens, pheasants and pigeons etc, but not your parrots!

You can register voluntarily if you have fewer birds. The advantage of registering is that you will be notified immediately if there is a disease outbreak. 

Information about the Poultry register can be seen here.

The following British traditional duck breeds have registrars. If you plan to keep any of these breeds we urge you to register your flock:

  • Aylesbury
  • Cayuga
  • Silver Appleyard
  • Abacot Ranger
  • Buff Orpington
  • Campbell
  • Crested
  • Magpie
  • Pekin
  • Welsh Harlequin
  • Stanbridge White
  • Shetland
  • Black East Indian
  • Silver Bantam
  • Miniature Silver Appleyard

Some of these breeds are kept in very small numbers and by only a few breeders. If you compare these figures with those for other categories of domestic animals on the RBST Watchlist, most would be classed as critical or endangered.

In the UK we face few restrictions as to which species of waterfowl we can keep. Only the (North American) Ruddy Duck and Egyptian Goose are prohibited. This is to minimise the impact of the introduction and spread of non-native animals and plants across the EU. Visit for further information for England and Wales

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 Swans 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, heath 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.

Breeds and species are two groups of living things that can breed with the members of the same group. Breed is mostly used to describe groups of domestic animals while all non-hybrid life forms belong to a species. The main difference between a breed and a species is that a breed is a specific population that is selectively bred for the preservation of specific characteristics whereas a species is the largest group that can routinely produce fertile offspring through breeding. Therefore, a breed is a smaller group of animals than a species. Think of a breed as a domesticated version of a subspecies, which has been subjected to artificial, as opposed to natural, selection. All domestic waterfowl are descended from a select few species: the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos for all duck breeds except the domestic Muscovy Duck, which is descended from the wild species Cairina moschata of the same name, and the Greylag Anser anser and Swan Geese Anser cygnoides for domestic geese. For a breed to be standardised it has to have proven to breed predictably for several generations.

A true-breeding organism, sometimes also called a purebred, is an organism that always passes down certain phenotypic (i.e. physically expressed) traits to its offspring of many generations. An organism is referred to as true breeding for each trait to which this applies, and the term ‘true-breeding’ is also used to describe individual genetic traits.

In Mendelian genetics, this means that an organism must be homozygous for every trait for which it is considered true breeding; that is, the pairs of alleles that express a given trait are the same. In a purebred strain or breed, the goal is that the organism will ‘breed true’ for the breed-relevant traits.

Some waterfowl are sexually dimorphic. This means male and female do not look the same, making it easy to tell them apart when they are adult and in breeding plumage. Some however, are not. 

As most domestic ducks have descended from the Mallard, adult ducks have a harsh quack and adult drakes develop a tail curl. Some domestic breeds of geese and ducks are auto-sexing, which means that the down colouring of males and females is different at hatch. Of course, this has huge benefits for the commercial world; shall we just say that boys may face a different destiny to girls. This method of sexing is only reliable if the breeding stock is pure.

The usual method of sexing unknown birds is by vent sexing, known as cloacal examination. Male waterfowl have a phallus, (intromittent organ) within the vent. With careful examination, you can sort the boys from the girls. However, this is a delicate procedure and must only be done after expert tuition. Even the most experienced keepers can get it wrong ocasionally with some species, such as Whistling ducks.

In the breeding season, the shape of the body can guide you. It is best to do your research about your species before going out to buy and this is especially true with the standardised breeds. If you study the colour and plumage requirements for each sex before setting out to buy, you will be in the best position to assess the birds on offer.

If  a bird is advertised as female, it should be female. If genuine mistakes are made, you should offer or expect a refund or replacement of the correct gender.

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 messy things, but there’s a lot we can do to keep them healthy. At times of heightened disease risk we need to take extra precautions. 

There are some simple measures that all poultry keepers, whether they are running a large commercial farm, keeping a few hens in their back garden, or rearing game birds, should take to protect their birds against the threat of avian influenza (bird flu) in the winter months. These include:

  • Keeping the area where birds live clean and tidy, controlling rats and mice and regularly disinfecting any hard surfaces
  • Cleaning footwear before and after visits
  • Placing birds’ feed and water in fully enclosed areas that are protected from wild birds, and removing any spilled feed regularly
  • Putting fencing around outdoor areas where birds are allowed and limiting their access to ponds or areas visited by wild waterfowl
  • Where possible, avoid keeping ducks and geese with other poultry species.

See the latest information from UK Government here.

When you first plan your facilities you should consider how you will cope with growing numbers when the birds breed.

One of the most common causes of health and welfare problems is overcrowding. Inevitably, living in dirty, cramped conditions and bickering with your pen-mates leads to stress.

Most areas of the metabolism are inter-related. For instance, a parasite infestation would cause stress and predispose the bird to other conditions. A stressed bird might be more prone to becoming overburdoned with parasites, so it is a vicious circle. Breaking the cycle comes down to good husbandry.

‘Less is more’ when it comes to the perfectly stocked facility.


Do not move birds when there are extreme weather conditions; hot or cold.

A box or container for waterfowl should be large enough for the bird to stand up and turn around and should have plenty of ventilation. 

Line the bottom of the box with newspaper and then add a layer of clean straw or wood shavings. Most will settle quite quickly if they do not feel they are sliding around. Keep the box out of direct sunlight and do not leave the vehicle in the sun with the windows closed whilst you stretch your legs and have an expresso.

Plan your journey to be as short as possible and make a contingency plan for unforeseen delays. This may include a dish and container of water. Whilst on the move, waterfowl are unlikely to drink, but if you break down they could need something. 


When you get home, transfer your birds to a secure holding pen or small hut, with access to food and water. Check the area is secure BEFORE you open the box!

If it is very late it may be better to keep them in their crate overnight. Some advocate using floodlights for the first night.

Chances are, the birds will try to get as far away from you as possible, so they’ll go and hide. A temporary release pen around the feeding area will ensure that they can find the feed.

New arrivals will settle better if you are quiet and calm. Talk to them in your normal voice and make time to watch them and make sure all is well. Watch for bullying, keeping other pets away until they settle in. Geese are sometimes slower to settle than ducks.

We hope it is. Our website content is available for all to use, but of course running our site has costs. Please credit any photographs and link back to the British Waterfowl Association. We hope you will join. Whether or not you do, will you help us continue to improve our content by making a donation?


Thank you.