Let's Rear a Few Ducks
How to rear mallard ducks at home with minimum equipment
Wildfowling and conservation have long been linked with each other and one way that every fowler can make a small contribution to conserving his quarry species is by rearing a few mallard ducklings at this time of year.
Raising duck is virtually foolproof and the beginner will rapidly gain confidence. A hatch rate of 100% is easily obtained and, provided they are kept warm, dry and well fed, mallard ducklings almost rear themselves.
My first attempts at incubating duck eggs, almost 30 years ago, were made with the help of an ancient "ironclad" incubator which I bought for 10 shillings (50p) at a farm auction. Maintaining a constant temperature was more a matter of luck than judgement and there were only two humidity settings - wet or dry!
Fortunately, today's small incubators are both inexpensive and highly reliable. Modern microchip technology looks after the temperature and there should be no problems in this department provided the apparatus is sited in a reasonably draught-free room. Some very small electronic incubators are available but, even if you intend to start with only a dozen eggs or so, it is hardly worth buying a machine with a capacity of less than 60. In future years you are likely to become more ambitious and it would be a pity to have invested in too small an incubator.
Follow the instructions carefully and pay particular attention to maintaining the correct humidity level. Often this will be achieved by simply keeping a water container topped up but the instructions may vary towards the last few days of the incubation period.
Assuming that you have not splashed out on an incubator with automatic egg turning, you will need to turn the eggs three times daily by hand. A useful tip is to mark each egg with a pencil cross and turn so that the crosses on all the eggs are uppermost and lowermost for alternate periods.
The best times to turn are first thing in the morning, tea-time and last thing at night. Normally you should not turn during the last three days of incubation but, once again, follow the instructions for your particular model.
For a few weeks after hatching, all young birds require to be kept warm. Normally this is done by the mother but, when rearing artificially, we need to supply a source of warmth. Fortunately young wildfowl can walk and feed themselves within a few hours of breaking out of the egg, so their care is really very simple.
Once your chicks have hatched, leave them in the incubator for a couple of hours to dry off and then transfer them to a brooding pen or hutch. The simplest arrangement is a small rectangle with wooden walls laid over newspaper on the floor of a garage or shed. The walls need only be twelve inches high and a wire mesh top will prevent the little birds jumping out.
As mentioned previously, a source of heat must be provided. For mallard ducklings, an ordinary 100-watt light bulb will be perfectly adequate for up to 20 chicks. Use additional bulbs for extra units of 20 birds. Start with the bulb positioned about seven inches from the floor and adjust the height by observing the behaviour of the wee ducklings. If they huddle together beneath the bulb, it requires to be lowered while, on the other hand, if they stay at the perimeter of their pen, the bulb needs to be raised.
Keep the bulb on constantly for the first two weeks, raising it an inch every three days. During week three, turn it off for an hour on day one, two hours on day two and so on and then, at the start of the fourth week, provide heat only during the hours of darkness. If weather conditions are normal for the time of year, you should be able to dispense with artificial heat by the end of that week.
After a week indoors without heat, the young birds can be transferred to an outdoor pen which is best constructed with wire mesh in a suitable corner of the garden. Do, however, provide a hutch or covered area so that the birds can obtain shelter from heavy rain.
Food and Drink
Feeding mallard ducklings presents no problems at all. For the first four weeks, feed them on ordinary chick crumbs which you can buy in small quantities from any good pet shop. Ducklings will eat those crumbs immediately upon hatching.
From four weeks of age until release, the young birds should be fed grower's pellets which, once again, can be obtained from a pet shop or agricultural supplier.
At all stages, simply feed ad-lib, leaving a constant supply of food with the birds and allowing them to eat as much and as often as they want. Sometimes they appreciate a few greens to augment their diet and the easy way of providing these is to hang a shot lettuce in their pen for them to peck at.
Clean water must be available constantly but it must be provided in a manner which prevents the little birds taking a bath in it. Although day old ducklings will swim in the wild, they are able to do this because they are waterproofed by a film of oil which they get from their mother's plumage. Your hand-reared ducklings will not have this protection and will chill if they become wet.
The best type of drinker is the inverted jam jar model which suppliers like Eltex can provide very cheaply. A larger model will be useful after the first week or so but be sure to put some small stones around the exposed area so that the birds cannot clamber in for a swim!
Eventually, at the age of seven or eight weeks, the great day will come when you can release your birds into the wild.
Mallard ducklings can go straight out to a suitable pond and you will be amazed how much truth they give to the phrase "taking like a duck to water". Provided there is sufficient plant life in the pond (to harbour insects), you need only scatter a few scoops of barley around the margins to supplement the natural feeding which will be available.
It is wise to avoid hand-feeding duck any more than is absolutely necessary as they tend to become over-tame and fall east prey to predators.
The sheer satisfaction which can be enjoyed from rearing mallard is incredible. Looking after those birds over the spring and summer takes very little time and effort but the knowledge that one has aided nature to maintain a supply of quarry adds immeasurably to the pleasure which will be experienced by the fowler. The same basic principles can be used for rearing game birds such as pheasants and partridges but a dull emitter brooder will be better than ordinary light bulbs as game bird chicks can become stressed by constant bright illumination.
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