Raising Young Waterfowl

Ducklings and Goslings

Photo courtesy of Marshall Clinton

Without Their Mom

You can get some ideas about raising young birds from my page on Raising Chicks, but young waterfowl need somewhat different care. Some of this material is a repeat of what is on that page.

If you have any questions that aren't covered here, contact me at FeatherSite -- questions and comments and I'll be glad to try and answer them. I'll also post that information here to help the next person.


A basic brooder can be as simple as a large cardboard box with a lightbulb for heat.


Waterfowl need somewhat less heat than chicks. The first week they should have 90 degrees. You can lower this in 5 degree increments each week through the fifth week. After this they are usually ready to do without supplemental heat.

If you don't have a formal brooder, your heat source is usually a lightbulb or heat-lamp. Be careful with these not to leave them low enough for the babies to burn themselves. Also, especially with heat-lamps, be careful that the bedding can't catch fire.

Photo courtesy of Stonegate Waterfowl


I never use wood shavings for birds under 2 weeks. Too much chance they'll accidentally eat them and get blocked up.

A slick surface like newspaper is a real no-no for newly hatched waterfowl. If you must use newspapers, for the first few days spread paper towels over them.

My favorite surface is wire! I take a piece of hardware cloth or an old window screen and cut it to the dimensions of the brooder. Then I put down a layer of newspaper and lay the wire on it. At cleaning time I just lift out the wire and hose it down, replacing a clean layer of newspaper beneath it. Be careful to make sure there are no sharp wires to hurt their feet. Either bend the edges under or tape them up.

If you can anchor the edges, old bath towels also make great brooder floors. Just shake 'em, wash 'em, and use 'em again.

It is very important for goslings to have good footing right after they hatch. They are prone to a condition called splay-leg, or spraddle legs, as they are quite unsteady for the first couple of days. If this does occur, you can lightly bind the legs together above the hock for a few days, using a rubber band or light cord to make the hobbles. If the weather is warm, a short time walking on the lawn each day is very good for their legs, plus they'll start right in on eating some grass.

Feed and Water


A constant supply of fresh water is necessary to ducklings and goslings. For the first week, a chick waterer will work well. After that they get too large to submerge their heads and clean their faces in the water. All waterfowl need to be able to do this. But you can't just give them a bowl of water. There are two problems with this. First, you don't want them walking in their drinking water or leaving droppings in it. Second, if they stay wet, they'll catch cold and could die of it.

You may have to be inventive to figure out how to put together a waterer that lets older ducklings and goslings submerge their heads, but not get in it or tip it over. (If it tips over you will have a mess of wet litter and chilled babies.) Commercial brooders for waterfowl have a water trough outside of the brooding area which the youngsters reach by sticking their heads between wire bars. These bars are adjustable to allow for growth. One home-style method to take a flat pan and get some wire that the birds can reach through. You bend the wire into a cylinder that just fits in the pan and attach it so that the youngsters can't move it. This creates a small "pond" that they can't get in, but they can reach their heads into it. A heavy rock in the center will keep it from tipping over.

Just remember that the nature of waterfowl is to play in the water, and as the surrogate parent, you have to control this for the first few weeks. And be aware that you'll go through lots of soggy cardboard boxes, even with the best watering situations.

Swimming: A mother duck or goose knows just how long to let her kids swim and when to take them out of the water and warm them and let them dry. But we don't really know this. If you really want to see them swimming, set up a "swimming hole" away from their brooder in a warm place and let them swim, always supervised, for a short time daily. (Be very sure there is a ramp with good traction so they can easily get out of the water or they may tire and drown.) Then dry them and return them to a warm and draft-free brooder. You can start doing this after they're a couple days old. It's best if the water is room temperature while they're little.

Ducks have an oil gland on their back, near the tail. This produces the oil that waterproofs them, but it only becomes active after they've had some exposure to water. The earlier the exposure, the more likely the gland will function correctly. So some early, supervised, swimming is a good idea, if you follow the rules above.


Waterfowl often fill their mouths with feed and then hurry to the waterer to get a big drink and wash it down. Therefore, you don't want the water too far from the feeder, or they'll drop all the feed on their way there. Also you don't want it too close as you want to prevent the feed from getting too wet and developing molds (which can kill). Try to set your feeder up in a way that the youngsters can't climb into it, either.

Feed should be available at all times. I never feed mash to young waterfowl. I use crumbles or pelleted feeds. You may be lucky and have a supplier available who can get you a duck starter feed. Otherwise, David Holderread, probably the foremost waterfowl guy in the US, recommends using broiler starter or a 50/50 mix of chick starter and turkey/game starter. Be careful not to let the protein level get too high or you may have a problem with angel wing. It is good to supplement the diet of goslings with fresh grass clippings or lettuce (and great if you can give them a short run daily--if it's warm out--to pick their own). If they get greens they should have grit available.
Warning: Never give young waterfowl medicated chick feed. Ducklings are voracious eaters and can overdose themselves and die from a medication that is correctly proportioned for chickens.

Photo courtesy of Jason Chambers

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