If you’re thinking about getting waterfowl for your farm, remember that a brooder for ducklings or goslings has to be set up with their particular needs in mind. Young waterfowl are more resilient than baby chicks, but they are still delicate creatures that need special attention.
A waterfowl brooder should be kept between 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week of your bird’s lives, and gradually decrease by approximately 10 degrees per week until it is the same as the outside temperature. Ducklings or goslings huddled together and peeping constantly are probably cold, while warm birds will stay far apart in the brooder and may pant with their beaks open. Pay close attention to your birds and you will be sure to notice if they seem uncomfortable.
A brooder can be kept warm, like a chick brooder, with a heat lamp or a regular light with a high watt bulb. It is best to keep a thermometer in the brooder so you have an accurate idea of the temperatures your birds are under. Heat lamps are encouraged because the red light is said to be more soothing to birds than harsher white light, but any heating element should be monitored carefully to ensure there is no risk of fire.
The key to healthy waterfowl is plenty of water. Baby ducks and geese need water to swallow their food, or they will choke to death. Use a traditional plastic chick waterer that will allow them to immerse their bills without being able to splash around or poop in the water. A wet gosling doesn’t have the ability to seal their feathers as an adult goose would, and can easily catch a chill. In nature, their mother would warm them, but in a brooder open water is not recommended.
In addition to a waterer, it is also helpful to soak the feed for new goslings and ducklings. It makes it easier for them to swallow their food when they are very young. Ducklings and goslings should be fed non-medicated feed and be provided with some grit to aid in digestion. Grit can include sand or chick grit, and should be provided when the birds are still in their brooder. Birds raised on pasture don’t need extra grit in their diet, as they will get enough from foraging.
Food, water, and warmth are the keys to healthy ducklings, but birds in a brooder love to have extra things to keep them amused. You can feed your baby birds special treats from an early age, such as lettuce or meal worms. Fresh grass clippings are a favorite of goslings, and ducklings love worms. Geese are herbivores, though they will eat dried meal worms. Fruit and vegetables are good for young birds, but stay away from bread, citrus, and spinach.
Ducks and geese are very messy birds that won’t just sip at their water like baby chicks. They splash and stamp, and their feces are messier as well. This means you should select absorbent, easy to clean bedding for them. I personally prefer straw, which can be removed easily and is inexpensive, but the key is to keep cleaning the brooder regularly. As your birds get older, this may even mean changing the bedding more than once a day.
Within a week, ducks and goslings can start trying out swimming. A well supervised swimming area should be separate from the brooder, to avoid excessive mess, and your waterfowl should never be left alone while swimming until they are older. Make sure they can easily get in and out of a swimming area, or you risk them drowning. A quick, gentle towel dry will keep them from catching a chill. Until they are several weeks old, allow them just a few minutes to bathe before taking them back to the brooder.
If you spend enough time with your waterbirds they will start to imprint on you. This delightful connection means that the ducklings and goslings will see you as their mother. Imprinted birds will continue to see their human as a caregiver and friend for the rest of their lives, and handling your birds regularly as chicks helps to ensure they will be friendly and tolerant later in life.
With the right brooder and conditions your ducklings and goslings will grow up into healthy and happy birds that will brighten your farmyard.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200 year old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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