Monday, March 21, 2011

What Do I Know About Raising Ducks and Geese?

The Duck Girl
Oh boy, where do I start?  Ducks and geese....ducks and geese...well, I would talk about them both because they are nearly the same in raising.  There are differences in the way they act as babies, but they're not major.  They eat the same types of food, and they need the same sorts of brooder temperatures.  If you want a great resource for this type of information, I can recommend David Holderread's books, Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks and The Book of Geese.  They will tell you what to feed when, what sort of shelters you might provide, what can go wrong, etc.  I can also recommend books by Chris Ashton, who writes from Britain, and has great insights as well.  The place I find a lot of these books lacking in is the behavior aspect.  For instance, not one book I've ever so far read mentions that goslings make a sleeping song when they are tired.  They grow out of it in a few weeks, and that growing out of it is a huge signal that they are maturing.  No one tells you this, but they do it.  I spend a lot of time with my animals.  I love them, and I find them fascinating, so maybe I have a little insight that I can share.

So what can I tell you?  Chickens are homebodies and will always go back to the roost.  They don't really mind people, and they are dependant for meals and shelter.  They are easy to handle.  They very much do their own thing, but are always going to be around people and tolerate people, because they are dependent on people.  Waterfowl are totally different in that respect.  They want nothing to do with humans innately.  They can scrounge their own food from grass, weeds, and bugs.  They can roost wherever they choose, as they sleep on the ground and don't need a perch.  They can reproduce themselves on land or water, brood their own eggs (depends on the type of duck or goose--like chickens, not all ducks and geese are mommy-material), raise their own young.  They don't need people for anything.  So how do we change that?  We make them become dependent.

Ducky Discussions
This is not done by force or coersion.  We do this by setting ourselves up as "mommy".  There's a beautiful thing that waterfowl do (geese better than ducks) which ensures that they live, and that is the act of imprinting.  To get the duck or goose to imprint on you, you do the easiest, most pleasant thing in the world--you spend time with them.  You handle them.  You stroke them (they see it as grooming), you talk to them constantly (like mama would--ducks especially have a constant dialog with one another), you pick them up and let them hide in your elbow or in your hair.  You make them safe.  It is crucial during the first few weeks of their lives that this is done, because then you ensure they are tame for the rest of their lives.  Then you will never have a problem with getting them to come feed, you'll never have a problem getting them to sleep in their designated house, and if need be, you'll never have a problem treating them should they become ill or get wounded.

Eating and sharing lunch
In our house, my daughter handles the ducks.  They are small and easy to manage.  They will stay small and probably will not give her much-if any-"attitude" when they grow up.  If they do, she's bigger, and can handle it.  I handle the geese.  They won't give me attitude when they grow because I am bigger than they are, and when I have them imprint on me, they may challenge me, but will NEVER go that far.  For example, Ferdinand is a male American Buff.  He is nearly a year old.  It's mating season, and as geese are wont to do, he's all stupid right now.  All hormones and no brains.  He will hiss at me.  He will flail his neck at me.  He will extend his neck towards me as a challenge.  He will never bite me, and to get him to stop all his macho stupidity, all I have to do is bend down towards him, put my face directly in his (an answering challenge) and say no.  I don't yell.  I don't scream.  I have never hit him.  I use a low toned voice in a normal volume.  He will turn his head away and go yell at someone else.  He will not rechallenge.  Why?  Because I'm the momma, that's why.  That's why it's so worth it to get waterfowl to imprint on you.  Because then you set yourself up like the alpha duck, goose, whatever, and you will always be in charge, no matter how large everyone gets.

So how do you do it?  Here are some easy guidelines:
  1. Always greet the duckling/gosling in the same way.  Use the same phrase and tone of voice.  Then the duckling/gosling will know it's you even if they can't see you (for example, say over the brooder box edge).  They will learn your voice quickly and respond to you. 
  2. Pick them up and handle them.  SLOWLY.  Nothing makes waterfowl more edgy than someone's hand swooping out of "nowhere" to grab them.  Try to come pick them up from underneath and always make sure you've got their legs securely--they are the weakest part of the bird.
  3. Hold them.  I have heard that the less you handle waterfowl the better, and I would agree with that if you were raising show birds or breeders or meat birds and you wanted geese that were geese and ducks that were ducks.  But most people, if they own a duck or goose, want to be able to go near them, manage them, work with them--maybe see them as pets.  On a small farm situation, you're not leaving them to their own devices. You usually need to go in and gather eggs and clean the house, quarters may be tighter, and you don't want them freaking out or trying to peck you to death.  So, hold them.  Let them sleep on you.  You will get pooped on, I guarantee--take it with a grain of salt.  Build up trust.
  4. Play gently with their beaks.  They understand this.  It's a game of sorts. Don't grab it and hold it, but let them nibble you.  It won't hurt (untill they get bigger).  They will nibble, and you can stroke their beaks in return.  Wiggle your fingers around and see if they try to get you.  It's all in fun.  One of the neat things about geese and ducks are that they can judge how much pressure they are putting on you with their beaks.  When they want to hurt you, they will.  When they don't, they will be much lighter in their touch.  They adjust accordingly.  The more you play with their beaks, the more they will realize that it's a game and they will try not to hurt you, even when they get carried away. 
  5. Touch their feet and wings.  This is the ultimate in trust, because waterfowl don't like when you touch their feet and wings.  Start early with this one.  The reason I do this is because when you touch feet and beaks and wings, you break down "barriers" that there may have been.  You're essentially telling the animal, "I can do what I want, you won't argue, and I won't hurt you".  This is key.  When Ginger was injured back in November, her wing was in a bad way.  Had I never been so involved with her upbringing, there would have been no treating her.  But as it was, because I raised her this way, I was able to repeatedly stretch that wing out while she lay on her back, and treat her by cleaning, poking and prodding.  With a goose that wasn't acclimated that way, it would have been impossible.  We worked for months on that wing.  She never gave me a hard time.
  6. Talk to them a lot.  They like constant communication.  When you hold them, talk to them.  When you stop by the brooder on your way to somewhere else, make sure you greet them and talk for a minute.  Let them know that even though you go away, you come back.  Goslings will cry for you when you go.  Ducklings not as much.  Be prepared. Make sure you see them at least once a day, and make sure you can handle them at least once a day.  The more, the better.
  7. Get them to follow you around.  Put them on the ground and take a slow walk outside.  If you're doing this right, they will follow you in a line as goslings, or a little pack as ducklings.  They will peep with worry the entire way.  Talk to insure them, say things like "come on".  Don't yell and WALK SLOWLY--make sure they are all keeping up.  They have little legs.  Have them follow you to a nice spot and then sit with them.  Let them browse and graze.  Pick them up and put them back down a few times.  When they are really little, you can pick them up and let them take a nap between explorations.  When they are 3 or 4 weeks old, they probably won't want that as much (though sometimes you can still get away with it, if the baby is really docile), so they will lie next to you.  One of the nicest things is sitting in the grass on a nice day surrounded by your babies.  They will walk around and nibble and explore, but they should always come back to you to lie right next to your legs or arms or whatever part of you is on the ground.  They will always lie down touching you in some way.  It is reassuring to them.  If they lie down by themselves, don't pick them up, but stroke them and talk to them.  Be assured that if they wander off, they won't go far at all.  I don't think I've ever had one wander more than a few feet.  Once they go off, if they think they've gone to far, they'll come streaking back, I guarantee.  I would recommend moving a couple of times as well.  Get up and walk.  Make sure they see and hear you.  Find another spot near the first.  Make sure they all have to walk to it, and that they follow you.  The big bonus here is that you can get them to go back to the brooder now, and later back to the house you set up for them, over to a new feeding station, wherever. 
Following Duck Girl back to the brooder

The object of all of this is to gain their trust and break down their barriers.  It's a huge thing, so don't abuse it and never be cruel.  It's probably one of my favorite things about raising waterfowl.  Such a pleasant job!  Now get on out there and try it!

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  1. All this info is wonderful! Thank you! Been doing a lot of research from Metzer Hatchery out of California. Lot's of good info. Funds limit us, and after your gracious information sharing, I will allow us more time to prepare before adopting ducklings! Until then, we really would like to get those Guineas for their snake and foraging expertise! Thanks for sharing again!

  2. Good to know for when I get that farm I want :-)

    Thanks for posting!


  3. 5 Rouens just arrived...thanks so much for sharing your experience. My daughter will be very happy!

  4. Thanks for all the stories and tips. Have you ever raised Muscovy Ducks? Our lagoon had one for years, and he just passed away, with a loving neighborhood and vet treatment. We wonder what it would take to get another Muscovy duck.

  5. Hi Susie, I haven't tried Muscovy ducks, but people sing their praises for the bug control they do. I'm not sure how to get some. I would Google it?


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