Dr. Strange Duck or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Broody
Hatching duck eggs is pretty easy when with an incubator. Even easier if the incubator as an auto-turner. But once ducklings hatch you need to brood them, usually inside. Ducklings are messy critters, and when confined, they can quickly get smelly despite regular cleaning.
When brooding ducklings indoors they need heat for a few weeks, which can be a fire hazard. This year alone I’ve seen a few reports from local chicken and duck keepers about losses due to burned down barns and coops.
To get away from the smell, mess and fire hazard we can go back to how it was done before incubators and heat lamps and employ a broody hen. For some (myself included) the broody hen was something I never wanted. They’re cranky, territorial, and they don’t give you eggs. Sometimes you don’t even know they’re broody, because they’ve built a nest elsewhere, so you find yourself suddenly missing a duck and put everyone on lock down in the run for a while in case the predator comes back. Despite this I’ve become a convert.
If you’re lucky, your hen will go broody in your hen house and you’ll have some fair warning that it’s going to happen. When I go to the hen house in the morning and one nest box of eggs is warm, that usually means that one of the gals has been getting some practice sitting in. Even if all the girls leave the house when I open the door, I take note of the early AM sitting, especially if it happens a few days in a row. I also make a point of counting how many eggs I get. There’s a hormonal change that happens when a duck goes broody, which will shut down her egg production and may increase metabolism, so trying to keep good logs of who is laying can tell you if someone is in likely to go broody.
Once you see someone start “practice” with a decrease in egg production, you need to decide if you’re going to indulge the behavior. Sometimes though, you miss these signs, or the ducks just skip to full on broodiness. If you enter the house or run and your duck fluffs up more than a stay puft marshmallow man, quacking at you like the dickens she may be broody. If so, try and set her up with a nesting location that will be safe and secure for her while she sits, and for easy for the ducklings to access in their first few days. Usually, you’ll want her to sit in the hen house, but if that’s raised up off the ground it can be difficult for ducklings when mom first leads them from the nest.
Sometimes, she’ll build a nest somewhere less than ideal. Maybe between some shrubs, behind a shed, or under a deck. If so, try to secure her with fencing, a dog house/kennel, or a duck fort made of cinder blocks, plywood and milk crates. I’ve seen all of these and more, and they’re generally successful. I’ll write a How To post on how to move a broody duck later.
Once your broody girl is sitting, it’s time to mark your calendar and play the waiting game. There isn’t too much to this part, but keep an eye on her. Make sure that any drakes around aren’t harassing her. Watch to see if she’s getting up off the nest to eat, drink and bathe. If she’s not, consider moving a small amount of food and some water near the nest so she can eat and drink with out leaving. If she is leaving, use the opportunity to candle her eggs. If some aren’t developing, remove them so they don’t go rotten and explode, contaminating the nest.
Just like with an incubator, things can go wrong. A predator could get your girl, or chase her off the nest to get the eggs. She could sit for three and a half weeks only to get up one day and not return to sitting. She could incubate them all the way to hatch only to have a drake kill the ducklings or sometimes even do it herself.
My recommendation is to have an incubator on stand-by through out the incubation and be prepared at hatch to separate mom and the babies from the rest of the flock… or steel yourself for the possibility of lost ducklings.