Why Are My Ducklings Dying? (5 reasons with solutions)

Keeping ducks on my homestead is something that I have enjoyed for well over 20 years. During that time I have bred many hundreds, possibly thousands of ducks.

Breeding ducks is a wonderful experience that the first-time duck breeder will never forget. It can however be heartbreaking and incredibly frustrating if your ducklings are suddenly dying for no apparent reason.

In this article, I look at the main reasons ducklings die, and what you can do to prevent your ducklings from dying.

Ducklings are incredibly vulnerable and there can be many different reasons ducklings die.

The most common reasons for ducklings dying are a lack of a proper heat source, poor-quality diet, and dehydration. Pests and diseases such as mites, diarrhea, and Duck Virus Hepatitis can be a problem. Predators also kill a lot of ducklings.

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Why are my Ducklings dying?

As mentioned above, ducklings are extremely vulnerable. They only have a very small body mass, meaning they get cold very quickly, and they have fairly specific dietary requirements, which means feeding them the wrong food can lead to their untimely deaths.

Ducklings are also highly susceptible to predators. In the wild, the duckling survival rate is very low. If a pair of ducks raised a single chick to adulthood in a given breeding season, then that season would be considered a success.

The main reasons ducklings die in captivity are

  • Lack of suitable heat source
  • Poor-quality diet
  • Dehydration
  • Diseases/Pests
  • Predators

Lack of a suitable heat source

Ducklings are incredibly small and have a tiny body mass. Compared to adult ducks, ducklings also have very few feathers covering their bodies. They are essentially unable to maintain their own body temperature.

To survive, ducklings need to be kept at a temperature of around 90°F – 95°F (32°C – 35°C).

In the wild, a mother duck would keep her ducklings at around that temperature by either sitting on them or cradling them under her wings. She instinctively knows that is the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, many of the breeds we keep in captivity have had those motherly instincts breed out of them thanks to the way we artificially create strains of ducks.

In the wild, mother ducks without motherly instincts fail to successfully raise ducklings, meaning only those with the instincts survive. With captive breeding, however, we want the maximum number of ducklings to survive, meaning many natural instincts to raising ducklings are lost by the birds.

In captivity, the best way to ensure your duckling do not get too cold is to provide them with an artificial heat source.

I tend to do this even when I am leaving the ducklings with their mother. That way, if she does not offer her ducklings the warmth they require, the ducklings can move under the heat source.

There are several different ways to provide your young ducklings with heat. The two most frequently used methods are a heat plate, as shown in the picture above that has some chicks keeping warm, or a heat lamp, which is essentially a large bulb hanging above the ducklings providing them lots of heat, but little light.

In my experience, heat plates tend to be more efficient and they do not get as hot as a heat lamp or ceramic heat bulb.

I have a number of different heat plates in my collection, but I have found the Rural365 Chick Heating Plate Brooder Plate which I ordered from Amazon.com to offer the best value for money.

Whatever method you choose, ensure your ducklings can freely move in and out of the heated area as required. If they are stuck under the heat source they might slowly cook to death.

Poor-quality diet

Ducklings have fairly specific dietary needs. You can’t simply feed them the same food as the adult ducks and expect them to grow properly, or even to survive.

For the first 2 to 3 weeks of their lives, ducklings need their food to be between 20% and 25% protein. This extra protein is essential for the healthy development of ducklings.

However, after 3 to 4 weeks they should be moved to a lower protein food, as too much protein can cause a number of medical issues, including Angel Wing (where the duck’s wings stick out to the side).

Ducklings also require the right levels of niacin in their diets. Niacin is a critical vitamin that ducklings require in comparably large quantities to allow the proper development of the legs and joints.

We feed all our ducklings on Manna Pro Duckling Food (check the current price on Amazon.com) as it provides our ducklings a balanced diet that ensures they developed properly.

Ducklings that receive a lack of niacin in their diets may be reluctant to move around. Their legs may develop a bow shape and they might even be unable to support their own body weight.

A diet that is continually low in niacin may lead to the ducklings dying within 3 to 4 weeks of hatching.

Dehydration

As mentioned above, ducklings have a very small body mass. Everything happens very quickly with ducklings. They heat up quickly, they cool down quickly and they lose moisture from their bodies quickly.

Ducklings need to have free access to fresh drinking water all the time, especially if they do not have access to a pond.

The amount of water a duckling drinks does vary depending on its age, with the amount consumed increasing each week a duckling gets older. The table below is a rough guide to how much water each duckling will drink.

Age of DucklingsDaily Water Requirements
1 Week0.075 gallons (0.28 liters)
2 Weeks0.15 gallons (0.56 liters)
3 Weeks0.20 gallons (0.75 liters)
4 Weeks0.25 gallons (0.95 liters)
5 Weeks0.30 gallons (1.14 liters)
6 Weeks0.35 gallons (1.32 liters)
7 Weeks0.45 gallons (1.70 liters)
8 Weeks0.50 gallons (1.90 liters)

Of course, these are very rough numbers, and the actual quantity of water a duckling will need each day will vary depending on many factors, including how warm the day is.

The hotter the day the more water the duckling is likely to need to consume.

In my experience it is best practice to ensure your ducklings have access to water both during the day and at night, to make sure they can drink whenever they need to.

Diseases/Pests

Generally speaking, domesticated ducks are extremely hardy and even ducklings rarely become unwell providing they have access to a good diet, fresh drinking water, and their bedding is kept clean and changed on a regular basis.

There are however a few diseases that you need to look out for that can prove fatal to ducklings, and can actually kill ducklings surprisingly quickly.

Some of the most common diseases you might come across are;

  • Wet feather
  • Duck Virus Hepatitis
  • Avian Cholera
  • Duck Plague (Duck Virus Enteritis)

Whilst going into detail about each of these diseases is beyond the scope of this article, if you are at all concerned that your ducklings may have an infectious disease, you should immediately isolate them from the rest of your flock, then consult a veterinary surgeon who has wildfowl experience.

Predators

The final reason on my list for ducklings dying is predators. Typically, if your ducklings are disappearing, predators will be the reason.

Ducklings are apparently extremely tasty to predators, which is why just about anything will eat them.

Snakes, dogs, turtles, birds of prey, bobcats, rats, and even large fish will eat a duckling given the chance.

The problem ducklings face is they are often too small to fly away from predators, and may even be too small to take to the water when in fear of attack.

If you are concerned predators may be an issue for your ducklings, you should take all available steps to protect them. Ducklings need protecting for the first 10 to 12 weeks of their lives, after which point they stand more or less the same chances of survival against predators as adult ducks do.

I keep my ducklings in fully enclosed runs until they are old enough to take to open water.

In Conclusion

It can be heartbreaking to open your duckling’s enclosure to find they have died. Unfortunately, ducklings are extremely fragile for the first few weeks of their lives.

Ducklings need the right diet, the right amount of heat, and protection from predators until they are able to fend for themselves.

If you have lost one or more of your ducklings, take some time to work through the list above and make the necessary changes to improve your ducklings’ chances of survival.

If you found this article interesting, why not check out another one I wrote recently titled ‘Do ducks eat tadpoles?’.


Aaron Homewood

Aaron Homewood is HomesteadSavvy.com‘s poultry editor. Arron has spent over 20 years keeping, breeding, and showing different poultry breeds, including chickens, ducks, geese, and quail.​
Poultry Editor

Article Sources:

  1. MORTALITY IN MUSCOVY DUCKS Journal of Wildlife Diseases
  2. Duck Nutrition Cornell University
  3. What to Feed Ducks BBC GoodFood