Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Ducks vs. chickens

Billing ducks

New homesteaders may be wondering which type of bird would be better on their homestead --- chickens, or ducks?  I recommend that readers first check out this post on the pros and cons of ducks and chickens, then come back here for my own thoughts now that I've enjoyed ducks for all of a month.  (Yes, I don't pretend to be an expert on waterfowl although I do know a lot more about chickens.)

In this post, I mostly want to cover two duck myths --- that it's safe to let waterfowl roam through your garden, and that your feed bill will be lower if you choose ducks.  Both factoids have a kernel of truth, but neither are quite factual when you look at the bigger picture.

Dirty duck beaksEven though our ducklings got kicked out of the garden for bad behavior at a younger age than our chicks usually do, I do understand why so many books say that you can let ducks have free run of a garden.  Unlike chickens, who scratch away mulch and then peck up the little critters they expose, ducks prefer to hunt by billing (see the top photo).  The waterfowl bend down, stick their beaks under the mulch, and feel around until they find a tasty morsel.  The mulch stays put and the gardener is happy (until the ducks start eating their strawberries, of course).  Which is all a long way of saying that, while I wouldn't let ducks into a vegetable garden unattended, I'd definitely be more likely to follow Carol Deppe's advice with ducks than with chickens, allowing a waterfowl flock to spend half an hour picking off bugs on the broccoli.  If you're a serious gardener, though, neither type of poultry is going to live in your garden unattended after they reach three to six weeks old.

Happy ducks

Another factoid with only a hint of truth refers to ducks' foraging prowess.  Various authors will tell you that you don't have to feed ducks as much as chickens because the ducks are better foragers, but my own data negates that hypothesis.  Our 9, month-old ducklings eat about twelve cups of chick feed per day, while our 10, ten-and-a-half-week-old Australorp pullets and cockerels only consume about seven cups of chick feed per day (even though you'd think they the chickens would eat more since they're bigger, older, and more numerous).  Both types of birds are on rotational pastures, and the ducks' pasture is higher quality since it contains both fields of clover and an extensive mulched area.

Ancona ducklingSo, where's the kernel of truth in the foraging department?  Ducks do love to run after insects in the air, so they're much more visible foragers than chickens are.  And, maybe, if allowed to free range over a much larger area, ducks might beat ducks --- I don't have enough data to tell you one way or another on that point yet.

Where do I think ducks beat chickens?  The waterfowl are definitely cuter and more amusing to watch!  And if you have a pond or wetland, ducks will take advantage of the wet ground in ways chickens won't. 

I'd love to hear from others who have tried out both types of poultry and prefer one or the other.  If you were a new homesteader and wanted to add a bird to your menagerie, which one would you choose?

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I started with chickens (as chicks), but now I have both ducks and chickens. For people new to raising fowl, I'd most definitely recommend starting with chickens. In my experience, ducks (to keep them healthy/happy) are about three times more work than chickens. This is due to their requirement (not an option!) for water both for drinking and for bathing. Water, water everywhere if you've got ducks!

One issue with the water thing is that ducks cannot drink out of the traditional shallow/narrow chicken waterers. They MUST be able to dunk their entire bill into water to clean their nostrils. This is particularly important if you're feeding them dry chicken feed. They seem to do all right with this feed, but think about it. Ducks normal diet are things with high water content: slugs, bugs found in and around ponds, small fish, water plants, and they wash all these down with plenty of water.

So the first order of business is to make sure you have a large enough waterer. I use open gallon buckets for the adults. Ducklings can drink out of a chicken waterer when small, but they grow fast and you must think about what you will use for water as they grow. Graduated sizes of waterers in which they can dunk their heads, but not get into and be unable to get out, are necessary. They can swim when small, but until they get their oily adult feathers they can get waterlogged and drown. I've found shallow trays or pans good for this. Naturally these must be cleaned out several times a day as they will climb in!

The water thing also extends to keeping the coop clean. This is more difficult than with chickens, as ducks will spread water all over and also their poo is more watery than chickens'. It's not an option to lock them in the coop without water, though, even just for a little while. They can find a tasty morsel in the litter, snap it up, then be unable to wash it down and can choke.

All that being said, I do love having my ducks. They eat tons of slugs, bugs, and even snap flies out of the air around the property. They're very entertaining in their wading pool (changed every day) with all the splashing. If you don't feel like dealing with the pool, they will do okay just running sprinklers, too. They are also way more predator-aware than chickens, too, with always an "eye on the sky". They don't fly nearly as well as chickens, thus are easier to contain.

Ducks eggs are an acquired taste eaten plain, but there is nothing better for baking. French bakeries ONLY use duck eggs. I also have a customer that buys my eggs as she is sensitive/allergic to chicken eggs, but not duck eggs.

All in all, I love keeping ducks (and chickens). They room together nicely in the coop as the chickens perch up high and the ducks take up the floor space. They have been a welcome addition to my little flock. For beginners, though, I'd recommend starting out with chickens. Chickens are the gateway drug to ducks, I guarantee!

Comment by Rebecca Joyce Sunday afternoon, November 8th, 2015
Rebecca --- Thanks so much for taking the time to share such a good, in-depth description of duck care!
Comment by anna at lunch time on Monday, November 9th, 2015

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