Just because ducks are fowl doesn’t mean they have to be foul. How you set up and maintain your ducks’ living areas makes a huge difference as to whether or not your ducks are dirty.
Most people are accustomed to the notion of owning a cat or dog and have a general idea of what’s involved with the upkeep of those animals. Now imagine a scenario in which a friend of yours kept their cat or dog permanently confined to a small space in their yard that was never cleaned or maintained.
That spot would get pretty disgusting pretty fast, right? Upon seeing this scenario unfold, would you then say that “dogs are dirty” or “cats are dirty”? Or would you avoid disparaging the animals and instead tell your friend “maybe you should figure out a different setup and maintenance approach for your animal’s living area.”
Well, the same thing is true of ducks… Ducks can be absolutely disgusting (or not), depending on the setup and maintenance practices their human caregivers employ.
What makes ducks dirty?
Here are four traits that can make ducks seem dirty:
Like other birds, ducks poop a lot.
For clarity: ducks’ digestive systems are much different than ours, so they technically poop and pee at the same time. And when we say “a lot,” we mean that ducks have a watery poop-pee about every 15 minutes or so.
Ducks love to swim and dip their heads in water to keep their feathers healthy and their nostrils clean. This means they can quickly make things wet and muddy.
And if you have a small kiddy pool for your ducks that you have to dump every day or two, you’ll soon end up with a stinky duck swamp in your back yard.
Ducks “molt” (shed and replace) their feathers yearly. When they molt, their living areas soon look like a war took place between ninjas armed with down pillows.
4. Hostility towards small plants
With rare exception, no small plant will survive the continuous presence of ducks for very long. If a duck can’t eat a small plant, they’ll soon trample it to death.
Plants that we grow in our duck areas are all larger perennials like fruit and nut trees or thornless cane berries (thornless because we don’t want to hurt those flippers!).
These four “dirty duck” factors mean that an inexperienced or ill-prepared backyard duck owner might quickly be overwhelmed by how absurdly dirty their duck areas become. And the more ducks you have in a small, unplanned setup over a long period of time, the dirtier things get.
Next thing you know, ducks get a dirty reputation.
Tips for keeping your duck areas clean – or at least not too disgusting
Before diving into how to keep your duck areas clean, three caveats:
1. Duck age
Ducklings are hilariously messy creatures. Nevertheless, their small size means they can’t make quite the scale of mess that a full-sized adult duck makes.
When raising ducklings, you can either hatch your own duck eggs in an incubator, let a good momma duck hatch eggs, or buy ducklings from a professional hatchery (preferably not a farm supply store, which incentivizes impulse purchases).
Depending on which option you choose, your ducklings may be outside all day with momma, which means no indoor mess for you. However, if you’re raising ducklings yourself, you’ll need to have an indoor brooder system, which means the mess will be your joy and responsibility.
2. Duck breeds
Different duck breeds vary significantly in size. As such, a 1 pound Call duck will be a lot less messy than a 9 pound Silver Appleyard — not for lack of effort but for lack of ability.
Much to their chagrin, a smaller breed simply can’t produce as much poop, feathers, and muck as a larger breed.
3. Duck setup
You might have a multi-acre rural pasture and a mobile tractor to house your ducks. As such, keeping your duck areas clean will be fairly easy.
Or you might have a small suburban yard with a coop and run where your ducks spend all their time. This setup will be more difficult to keep clean.
Likewise, your climate makes a big difference when it comes to keeping things clean. Someone in Maine is going to have a different approach to keeping their duck areas clean in the winter than someone in Southern California.
Since every situation and setup is a little different, we’ll do our best to provide general tips and tricks for keeping your duck areas clean that are nearly universal in their applicability.
A. Tips to keep DUCKLING areas clean
If you’re raising ducklings indoors in a brooder, here are six tips to keep their brooder area as clean and odor-free as possible:
1. Don’t get too many ducklings or ducks until you have more experience.
Start small. You might want to get 10 ducklings your first time out of the gate, but we’d instead recommend starting with fewer animals. Once you have the benefit of experience, get more ducklings or ducks as you see fit.
Starting small will reduce mess. More importantly, it will reduce the likelihood of you becoming overwhelmed and abandoning the whole project (and abandoning your ducks). It will also allow you to really pay careful attention to the needs and wellbeing of each duckling.
Since ducklings are highly social animals, the absolute minimum number of ducklings you should get is two. We recommend at least three, to better ensure there’s still a pair if one dies.
We recommend starting with an all-female flock, not a mixed-sex flock. See: Should I get male or female ducks or both? for a deeper dive on this topic.
2. Use low-dust aspen flakes as brooder bedding.
There are lots of types of bedding to choose from when it comes to a duckling brooder, but our preference is low-dust ASPEN wood shavings. These shavings are odor-free, soft on flippers, highly absorbent, and contain no dangerous contaminants like pesticides.
Since they’re low-dust, they also don’t make a dusty film on everything around your brooder. More importantly, you and your duckling won’t be breathing in wood dust. For reference, many people and animals (especially young animals) can have severe allergic reactions or even develop chronic health problems if they continuously inhale wood dust, especially from red cedar dust.
(I once experienced an acute allergic reaction to red cedar dust from our outdoor duck bedding when we were first raising ducks and have never used it since.)
3. Top up brooder bedding regularly before doing 48-72 hour clean-outs.
No matter what kind of bedding you use in your brooder, your ducklings will make it disgusting with poop, food, and water. Thus, you’ll want to top up the bedding in their brooder multiple times per day to keep things hygienic and reduce unpleasant odors.
Depending on how big your brooder is and how many ducklings are in it, you’ll still need to completely change out the bedding periodically. We usually change our brooder bedding out every 48-72 hours; the older your ducklings get the more frequent the changes should be.
Don’t throw out that bedding! It makes great compost or mulch.
4. Use small no-tip water bowls.
Ducklings need to drink a lot of water. Unlike chickens and chicks, ducklings don’t do very well with water nipples. Plus, water nipples don’t allow ducklings to clean out their nostrils/nares, which is very important.
Thus, our duckling brooder always has two small no-tip water bowls inside. The ducklings will inevitably jump into the bowls, but they can also easily get out, ensuring that they don’t drown.
Why two bowls? If one water bowl gets emptied, they have a backup.
You could also use water bowls (or food bowls) that snap or screw to the side of your brooder.
5. Don’t put a swimming bowl in the brooder.
Ducklings do NOT have to swim. And if you give them unfettered access to a swimming bowl in their brooder, they can easily drown or become hypothermic since they’re not feathered or waterproof. (In the wild, momma duck shares her feather oil and warmth with the little ones.)
So never put a swimming bowl in your brooder. Not only will it make things messy, it’s a high risk for your ducklings.
For reference, we do allow our ducklings human-supervised swims in mild water in our tub or sink 1-2 times per day. Then we get them back into a heated brooder to dry and warm. Swimming helps with their happiness and development, but you have to mitigate the potential risks in the process.
As they begin to feather in and gain swimming experience, these risks diminish.
6. Don’t use air fresheners – use a plate of baking soda OUTSIDE the brooder.
What to do about those unpleasant duckling brooder smells? First, what NOT to do… Don’t use air fresheners (sprays, candles, incense, diffusers, etc).
Air fresheners are chock full of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and can cause a host of health problems. Just as with little humans, ducklings are growing so rapidly that they’re especially susceptible to environmental pollutants.
Instead, to help reduce odors, place a plate covered with baking soda nearby but outside of the brooder (you certainly don’t want your ducklings to eat it!). Why a plate? This increases the surface area of the baking soda and maximizes its odor-fighting ability.
B. Tips to keep ADULT DUCK areas clean
The nice thing about having your ducks outdoors is you can now start to use nature to assist in the cleaning and maintenance process. Here are our top tips for keeping your outdoor duck areas clean:
1. Don’t get too many ducks until you gain more experience.
Start small. Yes, this tip applies whether you’re starting with ducklings or acquiring adult ducks.
The last thing you want to do is get overwhelmed by too many ducks and end up providing poor care and/or getting rid of them. Also, the fewer ducks you start with, the cleaner you’ll be able to keep things.
Once you have the confidence and knowledge that comes from experience, you can scale up and get more ducks as you see fit. Again, our recommendation is to start with 3-4 female ducks if you’re a new or intending backyard duck parent.
2. Use pelletized feed.
There are three broad types of feed you can give to backyard chickens or ducks: mash, crumble, or pellets. The differences:
- Mash is a relatively unprocessed feed that often contains whole or cracked grains.
- Crumble is typically made from pulverized pellets and is more powdery in texture.
- Pellets are steam-heated and dried feed formed into bite-sized kibble.
When it comes to reducing food waste AND mess, we’ve found that pellets are by far the best option for our ducks. (We use Mazuri Waterfowl feed.)
3. Use no-tip food & water bowls or similar no-spill watering devices.
Ducks need near-constant access to clean drinking water. Ducks can also put pigs to shame when it comes to being sloppy drinkers.
Since their eyes are on the sides of their head, they can’t easily see what’s right in front of them. Thus, when they walk, it’s not uncommon for them to run into and topple over a smaller food or water bowl.
Thus, using no-tip food and water bowls will really help reduce duck messiness. Similar DIY or store bought watering devices exist. For instance, we’ve seen pictures of large food grade plastic buckets with large holes drilled into the sides to allow duck heads in for a drink.
Do ducks need water and food at night?
We live in a mild climate where water bowls don’t often risk freezing over, so we supply our girls with both food and water at night throughout the year. However, your ducks will be fine if they don’t have food at night. If they do have access to food, they also need water so they don’t choke or damage their throats.
4. Separate your duck food and water bowls by a few feet or more.
If you put your ducks’ food and water bowls side-by-side, both bowls and the surrounding areas will quickly turn disgusting. Instead, keep their feed and water bowls several feet apart so less food goes into their water bowls and less water goes into their food bowls.
5. Utilize a “deep litter” method in your duck coop.
As we’ve written about elsewhere, our favorite litter for our duck coops is low-dust large-flake pine shavings that we get from our local Tractor Supply. These pine shavings are low cost, don’t contain pesticide residue, are soft on flippers, highly absorbent, and antimicrobial.
Our duck coops don’t have solid floors. Instead, they have open bottoms with buried 1/2″ wire mesh under them. This lets moisture go out and worms come in while keeping unwanted animals (mice, rats, predators, etc) from tunneling in.
We place our pine shavings on top of the wire mesh to prevent flipper scrapes/injuries. Each night before we put our ducks up, we top up their bedding where necessary with a thin layer of fresh pine shavings. After 2-3 months, the bedding is deep enough for us to remove it all and start over.
However, this spent bedding is not a waste product. It’s biological gold.
Upon removal, the bottom shavings have been broken down into rich soil that’s teeming with earthworms. Depending on the season, we place all of our ducks’ spent bedding into a compost bin to finish breaking down or we spread it around our perennial fruit and nut plants as a nutrient-rich mulch. (You wouldn’t want to use this spent bedding around low-growing annuals like lettuce or kale where potential pathogens could splash onto the leaves you’d eat.)
6. Limit your ducks’ access to “nice” areas of your yard or gardens AND impermeable surfaces.
We have backyard ducks. The only time they become side yard or front yard ducks is in the evening or on weekends when we’re with them doing garden projects or harvesting food for dinner.
This keeps our ducks from being dinner for predators while they’re out. It also allows us to minimize or prevent our ducks from making a mess or eating more duck-sensitive plants growing throughout those areas.
For a deeper dive, read 5 tips to keep your ducks from destroying your yard or garden.
Likewise, your ducks should not be living on a concrete pad or other impermeable surface. Not only is this bad for their feet, it will quickly fill up with duck waste.
7. No exposed dirt – use fine mulch or other materials to keep the soil covered.
If: a) you live somewhere where it rains, and b) you have exposed soil in your ducks’ living areas, then that exposed soil will soon become a duck-made mud pit.
Instead, keep your soil covered, whether that soil is inside a duck run or in the fenced area where they spend their days. In our fenced backyard (which technically belongs to our ducks), we use triple ground mulch from a local provider who does a great job of letting the mulch compost for a while before selling it. This means there are almost no sharp bits left which might otherwise hurt duck flippers.
If you have a duck run, you could also just use pine shavings or the bedding of your choice inside.
These high-carbon, woody materials also reduce or eliminate pollution from your ducks’ high N-P-K waste during and after rains since the woody material absorbs and locks up the waste before slowly turning into rich soil.
8. Use hardy perennial plants, not tender annuals.
Know what LOVES duck poop? Soil organisms and plants.
Instead of letting ducks’ ability to poop prolifically be a problem, turn it into a solution: soil fertility. We grow lots of perennial edibles in our ducks’ backyard: pomegranates, blueberries, yellow turmeric, persimmons, thornless cane berries, peaches, and more.
These plants (and their fruit) are too tall/large for our ducks to damage or eat, and the plants benefit enormously from all the fertilizer and pest control (especially slug and snail control) our ducks provide them. Plus, the plants help provide daytime protection from aerial predators by eliminating clear flyways into the backyard.
9. Carefully design your swimming area(s).
Ok, ok, but what about all the dirty mess ducks make with their swimming water? The mud? The stink?
Many people will say that ducks don’t technically need a pool or pond. That might be true, but ducks will be much happier and healthier if they do have water to bathe and play in. They are waterfowl, after all.
A small baby pool is usually the first option new duck parents choose. (That’s what we started with, too.) Then the ducks turn the water disgusting after 1-2 days and the pool has to be dumped. Pretty soon, there’s a stinky mud swamp in the yard. (Yes, we’re speaking from experience.)
If you have to use a small kiddy pool/plastic pond, you might want to first set it up and plumb it so that you can attach a pipe or small hose to the base allowing you to divert the dirty water elsewhere during change-outs.
During Year 2 of our duck enslavement, we decided to build something more permanent and lower-maintenance. That’s when we designed and built our self-cleaning backyard duck pond that uses a “skippy biofilter” system and natural bacteria to keep the water clean. We only have to clean our filters and pond about once per year, but we do have to unclog and clean our Laguna pond pumps when our ducks are molting and/or fall leaves fill the pond.
Still, our duck pond investment has been a HUGE time saver for us. It’s also kept our backyard clean and swamp-free while making our hard-to-please ducks infinitely more happy.
Are our ducks dirty? Is our backyard dirty? No and no. That’s due to careful planning and preparation, not luck.
Are you planning to get ducks? Do you currently have “dirty” ducks, but dream of cleaner days ahead? Good news: it is possible to have backyard ducks who don’t create a huge, stinky mess. Hopefully, the tips in this article help you get there!
Other duck articles that will quack you up:
- 10 things to know before you raise ducks
- How to diaper a duck (with video!)
- How to get your ducks to like you
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
- 9 tips and tricks for keeping indoor pet ducks