Introducing Ducklings to a Broody Duck

little ducks in nest with mom

If you’d like to hear about life on the homestead, our crazy antics, and a story with a happy ending about a duck and her babies, well then- you’ll like this.

And if you are thinking of putting some baby ducklings under a broody duck and wondering if that will work and how that might look- then this one’s for you! I’ve also included the high-points, specifically, what steps I think lead to our success in putting baby ducks under a hen and the resulting happy duck family.

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Last month I shared that we had a broody duck sitting on a big ol’ nest of eggs. I thought that by filling her nest with eggs, it would cause her to want to sit on them. Which it did. Once she was on them, I feared that she had too many eggs in there, but if I disturbed her nest it might cause her to stop sitting. I thought she would know how to handle a nest of eggs, no matter the size. Gosh was I wrong…

Turns out there were too many eggs in her nest, too many to properly keep warm and develop- totally my fault. She was an awesome mother: extremely dedicated and protective of her nest, only getting up two or three times per day for a hurried swim and a quick bite of grass. I felt terrible that she put in all that time and effort, over a month of sitting ALL day EVERY day while everyone else ran about the yard and enjoyed the lovely Spring we had. All for nothing.

I had to make it right. We found someone local with newly hatched ducklings and promptly picked up two tiny little babies to give her, thus initiating Operation Duck Adoption. With our new ducklings in a box, peeping up a storm- we raced to get everything in place.

This whole thing was sort of a last minute decision. In the future, I’d prefer to be slightly more prepared. We were prepared for ducklings to hatch, but not necessarily prepared for an emergency duck adoption, and it felt a little more frantic than I cared for. Thus is life on the homestead.

Why was it an emergency? Well, she had been sitting on those eggs for 34 days at that point (normally, duck eggs should take 28 days to hatch). She was basically sitting on a nest of rotten ticking time-bombs. One wrong move away from a complete putrid disaster. We know because when we cracked a couple eggs open they literally exploded. You’ve probably never smelled a 30 day rotten egg before. I’ve been trying to come up with words to describe just how horrid it is. But it seems there are none. I can tell you that it is worse than the animal that has been rotting under our porch for two weeks now. Worse than a dead skunk on the side of the road. Worse than a sewer back-up. Worse than anything I can think of, really. By a lot.

We needed to get those eggs out of that nest soon, but we needed to have the baby ducklings in hand before we took all the eggs from her, in order for the adoption to work. And we didn’t decide to get ducklings until we officially knew that none of the eggs were going to hatch. It was also complicated by the fact that it was in nature… meaning, we knew about when she started sitting on them, but could have been off by a day or two. So we had to give it a few extra days. And sometimes there are late-hatchers. We wanted to make sure that any ducklings that were going to hatch had the time that they needed.


Pre-Adoption Preparation
We set up the duckling food (non-medicated chick starter + Brewer’s Yeast for added Niacin) and duckling sized water vessel in the duck house with Lady Duck. Ideally, I would have done this a couple days before hand. I realized after the fact that she wasn’t used to using these food and water sources, and might not show the babies how to use them. We also put out #1 (small size for babies) Grit for the ducklings, even though they have access to dirt floor in their run.

Since we had planned for hatching babies, we already had her in a safe and secluded location, away from the marauding chickens and over-zealous drakes.

When Lady Duck first started sitting on the nest, we put our surveillance video camera in the duck house so that we would be able to watch as the ducklings hatched. This proved to be a wonderful help for Operation Duck Adoption.

The Switcheroo
The plan was that when Lady Duck left the nest for breakfast, we would take the eggs and replace them with the two ducklings. I was in the house overseeing everything on the duck-cam, and Karl was ready to execute. We could communicate by open window (and by that I mean, shouting across the yard) and then after the ducklings were placed, we’d speak quietly by phone, covert-mission style.

Karl (gently) kicked Lady Duck off of her nest and although she initially protested, once she was off she welcomed the break to stretch her legs, go for a swim, and dabble around in the grass (we knew this would be the case). And we knew that once she got up, we’d have about 10 minutes before she came back to the nest.

While she was away, Karl collected all the about-to-explode-eggs from the nest into a tripled plastic grocery bag and moved them out. He probably should have been wearing a precautionary hazmat suit. Then he put three fresh eggs into the nest in hopes that it would ease her transition and she wouldn’t totally freak out that all of the eggs were gone.

The ducklings were peeping rather loudly, and we didn’t want her to hear them as we carried them through the yard. We wanted her to only hear their peeps coming from the nest. If we were going to fool this duck, we wanted to really fool this duck.

We let her have her 10 minutes of freedom before bringing out the ducklings. In order to cover up their peeping, Karl sang Opera, loudly (about a duck, I might add) to drown out the peeping as he rushed the babies out of the house, through the yard, and into the nest. The second he stopped singing and she heard their peeping, her head shot up from the grass and she bolted to the nest. Motherly instinct in full force! That was really cool to see, and exactly the reaction I was hoping for. Even as a first time mother, she knew exactly what that noise was.

Post-Switch
Karl was standing-by outside in case an intervention was needed, and I was watching indoors with a clear and closeup shot of the nest. She ran into her house, ran right by the babies, and hopped onto the nest. She definitely seemed confused, “how long was I gone?!” She checked her eggs, and I could tell that she knew something was different about her nest, but she didn’t seem too concerned about it.

She sat on the nest and arranged the eggs as the babies stood in the corner peeping loudly. She was acting like she didn’t even see them. After a couple minutes, they hopped up on the edges of the nest next to her, about eight inches away.

She continued to sit on her nest and rearrange her three eggs, completely ignoring the crying babies in front of her face. We really didn’t know what to think, but at least she wasn’t trying to kill them, right? They just stood there, peeping loudly. It stayed like this for at least half an hour. I think she was still focused on hatching the rest of the eggs.

After a while, she put her bill out to them a couple times, as if to smell them. Within an hour of the introduction, the babies started to move closer to her, and pretty soon they were climbing on her back and trying to snuggle under her neck. She let them, but looked as if she didn’t know what these two things were that were crawling all over her. I was just glad she didn’t try to eat them.

I really had no idea what to expect, but it seemed that things were moving in an okay direction.

We were comforted that she was tolerating them, but were hoping for a more motherly embrace. They wanted her badly, and she didn’t seem to care that they were there. Of course, this is purely speculation based on my vast knowledge of duck body language.

A couple hours had passed. Karl was doing work around the yard, no longer on emergency-ready-to-run-in-duck-patrol, but still close by and I worked on my computer with one eye on the duck-cam. As the time passed they started to warm up to each other. Lady Duck was starting to interact and acknowledge their presence. They both curled up next to her and slept, fighting each other to get the primo position under her neck. She continued to get up and turn around on the nest every 15 minutes or so, rousing them in the process and making them re-settle every time.

I watched that duck-cam all day. And all day long they progressed. At the 4 hour mark, I definitely felt confident that she wasn’t going to hurt them, but was also starting to worry that she hadn’t shown them the food or water yet, and was still hoping to see them go underneath her in the nest before the temperature dropped at night.

Karl and I decided to “help.” We mulled this over for a while and ultimately decided to intervene. We already meddled in her business by putting the two babies in her nest, and we had a responsibility to make sure they were okay. We wanted the ducklings to know where the food and water were, even if mama wasn’t going to show them. Karl went in the duck house and dipped both their bills into the food and water. They were definitely scared of him and wanted the safety of their new mom. Lady Duck was protective of her nest, just as she had always been.

Two more hours went by with no signs that the babies were eating or drinking yet. Again, Karl went in and dipped their bills. They wanted nothing to do with food or water. We figured that if they were in desperate need of water, that they would drink some, even if they were scared. And that it was possible that they were drinking during times we weren’t watching.

They continued to cuddle Lady Duck in the nest, usually half-tucked in by her neck and side. It was about 6 hours after introduction that I saw her lift up her wings for them to go under. Yes!! Finally!! Everything was going so smoothly. Karl and I both agreed that so far, this couldn’t go any better. The final marker of success would be when she took them out to eat and drink. The food and water was in their house, about two feet from the nest. But it seemed the babies weren’t leaving her side for anything, so it would be up to her to take them to eat, even though it was so close.

We worried that because she still had a nest to tend, she couldn’t give them her full attention. And because they were a little bit older (Little Brother was two-days and Big Brother was 3 or 4 days) they might need more food and water than she realized. Newborn ducks and chicks can go without food and water for a couple days because they are still absorbing nutrients from the yolk sac. Our little guys were probably passed that stage and would need food and water soon.

Then it happened- she showed them the food and water! This was around the 6-7 hour mark.

little ducks outside

We were elated, and relieved. We saw everything we wanted to see to ensure duckling survival through their first night. We pretty much left them alone from that point. We took the remaining three eggs out of her nest the next morning. She took a couple hours to adjust and let go of that phase, and has been an incredible mother to her two adopted babies since then, giving them her undivided attention.

They just adore her. And she is so, so protective of them. When we let them out for some supervised free range time, they stay right by her as they nose through the grass together. They are growing like weeds, and they have about tripled in size in one-weeks time.

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Every situation is different- but if you are going to introduce ducklings to a broody duck, I think these were the points that helped make our experience a success:

  • The ability to see into the nest. You don’t need a duck-cam, but it is great if you can monitor the nest without her knowing you’re there, like through a window or crack, just in case she rejects them.
  • Not taking all the eggs from her when we did the switch. Even if you have to replace them with chicken eggs or golf balls, keeping something in the nest to minimize shock and keep her glued to the nest seemed helpful.
  • Having duckling food and water already set-up (and if possible, set up a couple days ahead of time) so that you don’t disturb the new family by doing so after the introduction, and so that she has time to realize what it is and use it herself.
  • Introducing them as young as possible. I wonder if she would have taken them if they were much bigger? Of course, we can’t really know this, but my thought is the younger the better. It probably also helped that she had been sitting on the nest for a good looong time.
  • Not letting her see or hear us put them in her nest. I think we fooled her. Or maybe we’re just fooling ourselves and she saw exactly what we were up to and took them anyways. We are fortunate that the ducks free range, so she was 20 yards away from the nest when we put the ducklings in there.
  • Doing this during the daytime. I think most people recommend introducing babies at night. I just don’t see this going as well for us at night. I don’t know if it was because she was still sitting on eggs, or the ducklings were older and more active than just-borns, but it took several hours for them to warm up to each other. The night time lows were in the 60s, and I don’t think we could have gotten them under her without her getting up. Then they might not have went under her right away, and it might have been too cold for them. Just a lot of what-ifs. And I like those what-ifs better during the day. Our backup plan for if she was mean to them or didn’t accept them, was to take them away and try again in the middle of the night. The backup plan to the backup plan was for us to raise them ourselves. Glad we didn’t have to go there.

Since the day that we introduced them, Lady Duck has taken perfect care of her two ducklings. They are now in the awkward teenage years and she has taught them how to preen and head-dunk, how to dabble in the grass to find bugs and worms, which greens are the best to eat, and the shady places to take an afternoon nap. And although they are old enough to take care of themselves, they still follow right by her and peep when she gets too far away.

Little ducks 4 months We let them out several times a day to free range, and when they get just a little older and stronger, they can join the other ducks and become members of the flock.

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Comments

  1. says

    Hay! Read your column about duck adoption. We had something similar. We have 14 ducks and geese. This summer one of our domesticated Mallard-type ducks got real serious about sitting on a nest of 12 eggs. They finally hatched, all of them and they were adorable. All colors (we have a mixed herd). Then a raccoon breached the pen and kill all of them but one. (WE were devastated about it.) Anyway, we took the one which was about 2 days old and put it in a pen (completely fortified against raccoons) with three Pekin female ducks. These ducks were not brooding. The little baby immediately imprinted on these females and just force his way in. He would snuggle with them at night and he was already eating and drinking from his mother who was killed. Anyway, long story short, he is about a month old now and seems to go from one duck to the duck and snuggles in at night. Of the three we put him in the pen with, now two are sitting on nests. The one is right at about 30 days so we’ll see if they hatch and he’ll have siblings. Anyway, we learned out lesson. A raccoon has all night to walk the perimeter of a pen. We have everything fortified even if it didn’t need to be fortified. Thank you for you note. I will let you know about our new ducks.

    Oh…the one that has been sitting for about 30 days, I worry because she has started getting off the nest for extended periods where before she was completely committed. I hope the eggs are not duds. I hope we have a whole new batch of babies. Good luck with you ducks.

  2. Kathryn Clarke says

    Thank you so much for your detailed post. I’m in suburban Perth, Western Australia, and googled today to see if I could find information about putting a duckling under a broody duck. That brought me to your site. We got our first ducks as day-olds in October 2015, two girls as it turned out, and our now-12-month-old Indian Runner has been brooding very seriously indeed for the past few weeks. She’s absolutely committed… to two plastic eggs in her nest. (There’s a story behind that, but no need to go there right now!) We had already planned to get another duck or two, and we’ve been feeling very bad about her commitment to the non-eggs, so we had been wondering if we could get a couple of one- or two-day-old quackers for her to bring up. The detail you have provided is extremely helpful, thank you! Just one question: are your two young boys reasonably happy around humans? I wondered if they would be human-shy if they had been reared by a real duck, if you know what I mean. Now I’ll have a look around the rest of your site!

    • crystal@wholefedhomestead says

      Hi Kathryn- I’m glad you found the information helpful!

      We got all of our original ducks as adults and they were not very human-friendly to begin with… still aren’t. So the duck who raised the two little ducks was not very friendly, therefore she taught the two babies to not be very human-friendly. (I mean, they aren’t like terrified of us, but they don’t like to get too close to us).

      I think if they were raised by a human-friendly duck and if we made it a point to spend time with them and gave them lots of treats they would be wonderfully friendly with no problems. Hope that helps! -Crystal

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