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Waterfowl incubation and brooding

By Dan Cowell

The goal of every waterfowl breeder is to have a successful breeding season. Many breeders allow the birds to raise their ducklings naturally, but others depend on artificial means of rearing captive waterfowl. Some breeders also use foster hens such as bantams or Muscovy Ducks to hatch and rear ducklings, this has been the most successful way for me.

For the incubation period and natural rearing by the mother, please visit the individual care sheets for the desired species.


Collecting and storing the eggs

When the hen begins her clutch, she will often lay an egg every other day or so. When you collect the eggs, leave a chicken or "dummy" egg behind so the hen will continue to lay in the nest. Never force the hen off the nest, she may not return to finish the clutch. Most hens will not sit until the entire clutch is complete and will cover the eggs with down while away.

After you have brought the eggs out of the aviary, mark the egg in such a way that it can be identified. The example to the right shows "WD" for Wood Duck, "N5" for the nest box where the egg was found and "4-25" is date laid. You an use a pencil and write anything that will help you to remember where the egg came from, etc.

Most breeders set their eggs weekly or every other day, depending on how many eggs you have and what you are using to incubate them. Eggs should be stored in a cool room, with a temperature of about 59 to 65 degrees F. Eggs should be stored small end down and if kept in a carton, the carton should be slanted and rotated a few times each day. It is a good idea to not store waterfowl eggs for more than a week.


Natural incubation (Foster hens)

Some of the best foster hens are silkie and cochin bantams. Their small size makes them ideal for the smaller species such as teal and wood ducks. When using bantams, keep the sitting hens seperated from the rest of the flock. It is a good idea to keep the hen in small coop all by herself. This prevents any disruptions to the nest. For the larger species, breeds such as Orpingtons and Plymouth Rocks make good mothers. Despite the incubation period of 21 days in chickens, I have seen these hens set and hatch waterfowl eggs with incubation periods of 28 days or more. When the chicken leaves the nest to feed, it is good practice to mist the eggs with a spray bottle since most ducks will carry water back to the nest on their feathers, and chickens will not.

Call ducks are fairly reliable sitters and can be used to as foster hens. Like the bantams, be sure to seperate the hens from the rest of the flock. We have also used domestic Muscovy Ducks for the larger species such as geese and shelducks. Muscovies are one of the best mothers of all domestic ducks and highly recommended.

When using foster hens, make sure all the eggs you place under the hen are of the same size and of the same incubation period. For example, don't place teal eggs in the same nest as mallard or pochard eggs, the larger eggs will crack the smaller eggs when the hen rolls them.


Artificial incubation

There are many incubators on the market and every breeder has his or her favorite brand or model, so I won't get into the specs of each model, although it is best to choose an incubator that has a build in automatic turner. Whatever incubator you choose, it is best to keep it in a room where the temperature will not vary more than 5 degrees F. The ideal room temp should be about 65 to 70 degrees f.

The temperature during incubation should be 99 degees F with about 70% relative humidity. During hatching, the temp should drop a degree and you need to boost the humidity up to about 95%. While most cabinet style incubators have a hatching tray, it is a good idea to keep a seperate incubator for hatching so that the temperature and humidity changes won't affect the eggs still being incubated.


Brooding young waterfowl

Much like incubators, different breeders prefer different means of brooding their young birds. Brooders can range from expensive metal brooders to cardboard boxes wtih a 60 watt bulb. Many of the brooders I use are homemade, and perhaps I will add more information about them on a later page.

After the duckling, gosling or cygnet has dried after hatching, you can place it in the brooder. For the first week, the temperature of the brooder should be about 90 to 95 degrees F. After the first week, the temp can be dropped ten degrees each week and by the time the young birds are a month old (depending on the species), usually no heat is needed.

Waterfowl are very messy in the brooder, and the floor needs to be made of wire or of an absorbent that will need to be cleaned often. Feeding the young waterfowl will be included on the page Feeding Waterfowl.

Waterfowl hatched in an incubator or by chickens lack the water repellent provided by the mother and should not be allowed to swim untilt they are at least three weeks old, when they have produced enough oil from their glands to cover their plumage.


Just the basics

This page is designed to give the beginner the basics of incubating and brooding waterfowl. Everyone has their own methods that work for them and it is a good idea to talk with others to learn from their experiences. Space prevents me from going in as depth as I would like on the subject, and if you would like more information, feel free to e-mail me.


Dan Cowell

The Game Birds and Waterfowl Pages

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