We asked duck parents who live in some of the coldest climates in North America how they care for their ducks in the winter. This article is a summary of their tips and advice for how they get their backyard or small farm ducks through the coldest winter months.
We live in Greenville, SC (Zone 7b), so our winters are fairly mild. During the typical winter, our temperatures might dip into the teens a few times, but the daytime temperatures very rarely stay below freezing.
Frozen precipitation is a similarly rare event. For instance, our single snow storm this winter was a total of 2″ which melted by afternoon.
What does this mean for our ducks? Meh.
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Generally, the colder and wetter it is outside, the happier our ducks are. They’re decidedly less enthused by our scorching hot humid summers. (Read: 10 summer care tips for your backyard ducks.)
Given our relatively mild winters, we decided to reach out to people who raise ducks in REALLY cold climates. How cold?
Think Canada. Zones 4-5. Basically, conditions similar to those seen beyond the Ice Wall in Game of Thrones. Conditions so cold they turn Justin Trudeau’s beard hair white.
We asked these three duck enthusiasts how they get their ducks through their harsh winters so that other backyard or small farm duck parents (like you) can be better prepared for frigid winters or cold snaps where you live.
Keep on reading to find out what tips and advice they have to offer — and get our 6-point winter care tips for ducks summary at the end of this article!
Introduction to cold climate duck parents:
In no particular order, we’d like to introduce you to the three people interviewed for this article (please give them a follow on Instagram)!
1. Brittany Morin | Insta: @BrittMorin
- Location: L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, Québec, Canada | Ag Zone: 4 | Setup: 5.5 acre homestead
- Flock breakdown: 2 Silver Appleyards, 4 Cayugas, 1 Buff Orpington, 1 White Layer, 1 Blue Magpie
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2. Naomi Hart | Insta: @_naomi2014
- Location: Central Michigan | Ag Zone: 5B | Setup: Urban backyard ducks
- Flock Breakdown: 2 Welsh Harlequins | 3 Saxonies
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3. Tally K. | Insta: @abejahivehoneyfarm
- Location: Falcon, CO | Ag Zone: 5b, but I normally follow planting suggestions for Zone 4 due to high prairie winds and cooler temps | Setup: Small farm
- Flock Breakdown: 5 Anconas (6 Anconca ducklings scheduled for March 24), 5 Cayugas, 5 Runners, 2 Silver Appleyards, 4 Welsh Harlequins, 1 Crested, 3 Pekins, 1 Buff, 4 Khakis, 3 Unknown
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Winter care tips for ducks
We asked the three cold-climate quackheads above (Brittany, Naomi, and Tally) questions about caring for their ducks in their frigid winter climates. Here’s what they had to say:
1. What’s the coldest temperature your ducks have gone through?
-40°C (which is also -40°F).
The first week of February (2021) was brutal! -6°F (-21°C) some nights with wind chills reaching -17°F.
-17°F (-8°C) which was just this month; February 14th, 2021.
2. How do you prepare your ducks’ living environment for the winter under each category below:
A. duck’s daytime living area and/or run
I use clear poly tarp around their entire run to act as a wind barrier as well as to trap the warmth of the sun and heat lamp like a greenhouse.
The run always has fresh dry bedding – a mixture of wood shavings and straw. I’ve also divided off a section for their water bowls with good drainage as well as to prevent, as best as possible, the bedding from getting wet.
Since this was our first winter, I already know what I would like to improve for next year… First off, their run. I made it 4 feet tall thinking “ahh, they’re free range… they won’t need their run *that* often.” Wrong.
I am 5’4″ and it is an absolute pain to climb in there to clean or lay straw or shavings. Oof.
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Second, I’d like their house to be off the ground and a little bigger since we plan on adding 4 more ducks in the spring.
In November when it started cooling off (it was a warm fall here), we laid down a full bale of straw in their run and house (house is 5’x5′ and run is 8’x12′). Every few days we would top it up with more straw. As it’s gotten colder, we’ve started using pine shavings on top of the straw. I go through once a week to rake off the top stinky layer and freshen up with new shavings.
We also wrap their run in heavy duty painting plastic covers to protect from the wind on really chilly days. It gets dark around 5 pm EST in December/January, so from sunset until 9 pm or so | run a red heat lamp. This does NOT run all day or all night as it poses a fire hazard and it is NOT inside of their house, only their run.
The ducks have access to a secure outdoor run and the interior of a mini barn during the day. I provide 6-8” of straw in their run for them to bed down in during the day.
Ducks are extremely cold-hardy and can tolerate very cold temperatures. My ducks will spend the majority of the day outside even when it is very cold (20°F or below). They normally put themselves to bed in the barn at night when the temps are very cold, but would stay out all night during warmer weather if I let them.
While they can tolerate cold temps, they do not like the wind. I have a solid wall on the north end of my duck run to protect them from cold north winds.
I provide cracked corn or scratch grains in addition to their regular duck layer feed when the temps will be super cold. Heated water bowls keep their water from freezing so they have access to drinking water at all times.
B. duck coop
My coops are placed inside the wrapped run for the winter.
*See comments above included with duck run.
My ducks share a mini barn with my chickens, however they each have separate sleeping areas. I will provide 6-8” of straw in the barn for the ducks to bed down in during the night. I do not provide any additional heat in the barn.
Ducks have down and an extra layer of fat to keep them warm so they are very cold-hardy. By not providing artificial heat the ducks acclimate to the colder weather on their own and can regulate their body temperature accordingly.
Proper ventilation is key as ducks expel moisture in both their breath and droppings. Clean, dry bedding and good ventilation are important.
C. duck pond or other swimming area
The pond does freeze over in the winter. However, I have a section of the run separated with a log that they can walk over for their heated water dishes.
I use the log separator to help keep the bedding dry in the run. The water bowls are large and deep enough for them to submerge their entire upper body (some even jump in the bowls to splash around). This section of the run represents approximately 1/4 of the entire space and I keep it at the entrance to make it easier to fill the water twice a day.
I use 2-3 inches of poultry grit in this section. This prevents it from getting all muddy, is excellent for draining, can be easily raked clean, and also is good for the ducks! [Note: Ducks that don’t have outdoor access for days at a time benefit from having access to grit to aid in digestion.]
We have two 5-gallon black rubber buckets for water. One has a de-icer that runs from 8am until 9pm or so when I put them to bed and shut off the light. The other just gets filled with water and they usually drink and play in this one before the one with the de-icer.
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I have four Little Tikes turtle sandboxes that serve as pools for the ducks. I fill the pools when it is above 40°F (4°C) and allow the ducks to have a pool party.
I do not fill their pools every day. During the winter the ducks have access to their pools 1-2 times per week if temperatures allow. If not, they make do with splashing in their water bowls.
3. What specific tools and technologies have you found to be most helpful for your ducks in the winter?
Keeping ducks happy and healthy in the winter months does not have to cost a fortune! Here is how I do it. I use:
- 2 Farm Innovators Premium Heated Pet Bowls (60-Watt) purchased at my feed store;
- 1 roll of Super-six Polytarp Vapour Barrier or Heavy-duty Poly Drop Sheet purchased at Home Depot;
- 1 Ener-G+ HEA-21538 Hanging Electric Infrared Heater purchased on Amazon.
As far as technology is concerned, the best things I’ve found so far are our de-icer and our basic heat lamps. But our ducks prefer the snow over their run annnny day!
4. Have your ducks ever gotten injured or sick due to cold temps or harsh winter weather – and if so, what did you learn to do differently to prevent that from happening again?
No, mine have not gotten sick from the cold. I did have one duck develop a case of bumblefoot last year. This was before I used the log to divide the dry bedding from the water bowl area. This change has made a huge difference in keeping everything clean and dry for the ducks during the winter.
Thankfully, our ducks haven’t been injured or frostbitten by the cold and they all seem to enjoy it, which I did not expect!
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Thankfully, I have not had any ducks become sick or injured due to the cold weather.
5. Have you noticed any difference by breed in their relative hardiness in dealing with winter weather?
All of mine are doing very well. I have not noticed a difference by breed.
I have definitely noticed some slight differences between the winter hardiness in our breeds. The Welsh Harlequins tend to sit around a little more and tend not to play in their water as much as our Saxonies. They all love to forage in the snow very much, even though I can’t imagine they’re finding anything – haha!
From what I’ve read online, Anconas are very cold-hardy and that is one of the reasons I selected that breed when I first starting keeping ducks. However, when it is raining or snowing, or just plain cold I have a mixed group of ducks outside in the elements.
Even my oldest ducks don’t mind being out in the cold. My youngest ducks (Silver Appleyard, Welsh Harlequin, and Pekin) seem to prefer staying in the barn when the weather is really cold. In the past, I have had Pekins out in the snow.
6. Have there been winter weather events so extreme that they caused you to bring your ducks indoors or into a garage?
I only bring the ducklings into the garage under a heat lamp once they hatch (we allow our interested ducks to go broody in March for an April hatch when weather is warmer). Once they are fully feathered adults, they do perfectly well outside in their coop.
Thankfully, nothing too serious. We did have one incident recently where one of my Saxonies was playing in their water dish and then laid down in some snow/straw/pine shaving/poop mush that froze to her feathers on her belly! I had to bring her inside to the bathtub to thaw the mass off of her.
No. This month had the coldest freeze any of my livestock have ever experienced. While I was tempted to bring in my oldest rabbit, all of my animals stayed in their respective shelters and made it through the extreme cold just fine.
The ducks were still laying eggs the day it was -15°F (-26°C)! Not to mention, there was no way I could bring 30+ ducks in the house. Ha!
7. What advice do you wish you’d have gotten about taking care of ducks in the winter BEFORE you got ducks? E.g. is there something (or multiple things) you wish you’d known upfront that you instead had to learn the hard way?
We love our ducks, and yes, as we all know they are messy with their water so if there is any advice I can give is to separate your heated water bowls from the bedding area to prevent moisture build-up, mud and ice. Having a small down-slope toward the water end of your coop with a few inches of poultry grit as a base for fast drainage will help.
A lesson I learned is to not place the heated water dishes too close to the door as when the ducks splash around and the water spills over in the winter, it will naturally drain away but can build up under or around your coop door and freeze there making it difficult to open and shut your door. HAHA, oops…
After chipping away the ice with an ax, I moved my water dishes to the outer edges of the coop, away from the door and all has been running smoothly now.
I wish I built a taller run! That will forever be my biggest complaint. For clarification: the ducks have two access doors, and in the non-snowy months, I can use the front door to let them in/out to free range, but with the snow, it ends up in their house when I leave it open for them. So for the winter we use the bigger access door located inside their run.
I wish I would’ve believed what I read in regard to ducks being very cold-hardy. I thought I needed to go above and beyond to make sure they didn’t “suffer” during the winter, but in reality they are very low maintenance animals and don’t’ require a lot to be happy and healthy any time of year.
I chose to start keeping ducks versus chickens because ducks do so well in cold weather. They are quite easy to care for any time of year. Winter poses a challenge of frozen water, but that’s the same with all livestock; you just have to find a system that works for you and your ducks.
Summary: 6 key takeaways for winter duck care
Here are six key takeaways for caring for ducks in the winter based on the interviews above combined with our own experiences, book reading, and conversations with our avian vet:
1. Ducks can thrive in the coldest climates.
Ducks are incredibly cold-hardy creatures, so long as they’re in good overall health and have good feather health. While this trait minimizes their winter care requirements relative to other poultry species, there are still steps you should take to ensure they’re safe and comfortable throughout the winter — especially in cold climate zones.
2. Different duck breeds may be better suited to colder climates.
There may be subtle differences in cold-hardiness based on duck breed. Thus, breed selection may be an important factor for you to consider if you live in extremely cold climates (Zone 5 or lower).
Anconas and Saxonies are perhaps the most cold-hardy breeds. On the opposite end of the Mallard-derived cold-hardiness spectrum are Indian Runners, since they were bred in the tropics (although they’re still very cold-hardy).
Muscovies, which are an entirely different species of duck than Mallard-derived ducks, are also not as well-suited to the cold. Muscovies originated from (and are better adapted to) warmer regions of South and Central America, and the fleshy caruncles on their faces can become frostbitten in sub-freezing temperatures.
3. Provide extra protection in and on duck coops and runs during winter.
During winter in cold climates (Zone 5 or lower), duck coops and runs need to have additional exterior protection added to block wind and trap heat. An extra thick layer of interior bedding on the ground also helps ducks stay warm.
4. Space heating devices are not essential for over-wintering ducks. If used, make sure they don’t pose a fire hazard.
Space heaters or brooder lamps used to provide extra warmth are not necessary so long as your duck coop and run are protected from the elements and have a thick layer (4+ inches) of dry bedding. Extra heating devices can pose a fire risk if they’re not properly secured and/or located in a spot where your ducks can’t knock them over.
Related: if you have pet ducks who live primarily indoors with you, putting them outside on extremely cold days can be hazardous to their health since their bodies are not acclimated to the cold. As our avian vet relayed to us, a temperature differential of ~30 degrees is about as much as you want to push it. Example: if your duck is living in your 70°F home, putting it outside on a 20°F day is not advised.
5. Heated water bowls in coops/runs are essential in winter in colder climates.
Heated water bowls are essential to make sure your ducks have 24-7 access to drinking water in their coops & runs. To prevent bedding from freezing and sticking to your ducks, don’t put drinking bowls too close to where your ducks sleep.
If your water bowls are close to your access doors for easy refills, make sure they’re: a) on fast-draining surfaces (like grit) to prevent your doors from freezing closed, and b) on a slight slope angled away from your door. Otherwise, place your heated water bowls away from access doors.
Larger heated water bowls can also provide adequate swimming/cleaning water for ducks when duck ponds are frozen over.
6. Coops and runs should be built with ducks AND humans in mind.
Yes, the safety and comfort of your ducks is the top consideration of a duck coop/run. However, when designing and building your duck coop and run, make sure you also consider the human caregivers involved.
Is it easy for you to get in and out? How likely is it for the door to freeze closed in the winter? Is it easy for you to add/change bedding, fill water and food bowls, collect eggs, etc? If not, rebuilding may be an additional necessary expense you didn’t plan for.
We hope this winter duck care article is helpful for you and your flock. Huge thanks to Brittany, Naomi, and Tally for sharing their insights on duck care from north of the ice wall!
More helpful articles that will quack you up:
- 10 summer care tips for backyard ducks
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
- How to build a long-lasting predator-proof duck coop and run
- What to feed ducks to maximize their health and longevity
- How to make a DIY self-cleaning duck pond
… and more duck articles from Tyrant Farms.