When I say my first hatch of the year was a “disaster”, I mean of the “makes you question if you should even be doing this” kind. It prompted a whole lot of research, a bit of soul-searching, and a completely different approach to my next few hatches. I’ve had a few successes since then and finally feel like I have learned enough to offer some of my personal insights for public consumption. So, here goes.
Everything is relative – especially temperature, humidity, and diet when trying to hatch duck eggs in winter.
My first losses happened in a Little Giant (LG) incubator that a nice neighbor had given me. The LG is a manual control model that requires miniscule turns to a narrow knob to maintain temperatures. My normal model, the Hova Bator Genesis (HBG), has a digital thermostat that self-adjusts to maintain the temperature setting. Relative to my HBG, the LG turned out to be a lot more work than I was expecting.
The modifications I made to my incubation/brooder/seedling starting shed helped regulate air temperatures around the incubators, though not to the level of a fully insulated, heated/air-conditioned house. This meant I had to make lots of small adjustments to the LG manual incubator. I was diligent about it initially and even got quite good at judging exactly how much to turn the knob to stabilize the temperature inside the incubator relative to the temperatures in the shed. Unfortunately, I also had a lot of other projects going on.
On a particularly busy day, I flat-out-forgot to adjust the LG knob as external temperatures rose and ended up cooking the eggs in the incubator. The eggs were about two weeks along. The state of the embryos at that point doesn’t really make you think “duckling”. This loss was a let down following my excitement over lucking into a free incubator, but I chalked it up to the learning curve and pinned my hopes on my trusty HBG incubator.
- Lesson No. 1 in Relativity – Use equipment that is right for your incubation environment. The LG works great in my shed in spring and summer, but it’s just not adequate for winter use in a partially insulated shed.
After my failure with the LG, I dutifully refilled the humidity trays in my HBG and kept it warm enough in the shed to maintain incubator temperatures of at 99.5º F. All was well until three days before hatch-time when the humidity levels in the incubator plummeted.
My incubation shed is also my seed starting shed. For most of the incubation period, I had trays of seedlings on the shelf below the incubator. I watered them twice daily and the run-off also watered my worm beds below. This acted like a humidifier inside the shed, making it easy to keep up humidity up inside the incubator as well. Unfortunately, when I took the seedlings to the greenhouse to start to harden them off, I also took all that bonus humidity with them.
My previously self-contained HBG became as high-maintenance as a the LG had been. Because relative humidity in the winter air is so low, the shed was dry as a desert without plants growing inside. Even though I quickly realized what had happened, I assumed I could just add more water to the humidity trays in the HBG to solve the problem.
When that didn’t work, I added some sopping sponges. When the sponges weren’t sufficient, I finally put some new plant trays in the shed and watered the worm bed. Humidity went back up and it seemed like my hatch was back on track.
- Lesson 2 in Relativity – Relative humidity is…well, relative to the time of year, air pressure, and air temperatures. It tends to be a lot lower in winter than in mid-spring to summer in my area and even to vary significantly from morning to night. For my HBG incubator to stay at 70% humidity (my optimal rate for good hatches), the relative humidity around the incubator needs to be at least 50%.
- As a bonus lesson, I was also reminded that technology only works as well as the user using it does. Since I had only thought about maintaining adequate ambient temperature in the shed and not about maintaining humidity, as with many technology problems, this one was definitely the result of user error.
Sadly, there was one more factor I had not considered. There’s a big difference in egg quality between winter and warm months. In winter, there are fewer insects and only a little greenery. Ducks also tend to conserve energy by foraging less frequently.
My own taste buds tell me that winter eggs aren’t nearly as nourishing when our ducks’ diets consist primarily of chicken layer feed and kitchen scraps, as in the spring when the ducks are gorging on tadpoles and grubs. Somehow this knowledge didn’t translate into an understanding that the lack of nutrition inside the egg would have an impact on hatch rates and duckling health.
On hatch day, four ducklings pipped, only two hatched, and both had deformities that resulted in early death. Ten mostly formed ducklings never pipped.
One of the two ducklings that made it out of the shell survived for a few days. As a lone duckling, I felt compelled to take her under wing. I set up a brooder next to my desk so I could keep her company. Of course… she imprinted on me. Whenever she saw me, she hopped up and down to get me to pick her up. When I did, she would scramble up into the hair at my neckline and snuggle.
At birth, she had something that looked like “foamy eye”. I washed her eyes out several times with fresh water and they cleared up. In the meantime, I noticed she wasn’t feathering around her auricular (cheek area). At first that area was black, then it began to turn white. I kept the area clean with hydrogen peroxide. However, after a couple of days of care, it was obvious she wasn’t going to make it. In her final moments, I picked her up to cuddle her and she died in my hands.
Certainly the humidity played a huge part in my adopted ducklings health challenges and in the lack of pipping by the other potential ducklings. But, when I did the eggtopsy on all those other unhatched eggs, I found evidence of malformation that seemed to relate more to poor nutrition than humidity issues.
Eggs are literally an external womb. When you put them in the incubator, they must contain everything that little embryo needs to become a healthy duckling. Anything less than adequate nutrition and you will end up with failed hatches or under-nourished ducklings replete with health challenges.
- Lesson 3 in Relativity – Since winter diets aren’t as complete as warm weather diets, in the future, I need to give my ducks higher protein feed, supplemental insects, and more greens if I want hatch-worthy off-season eggs.
Becoming attached to a duckling, trying to nurse her to health, and failing was probably the worst part of this experience. But, as a working farmer banking on duck meat sales to cover some of our fixed expenses, this also meant I had to buy my first round of ducklings from a hatchery. My preferred hatcheries had already sold out on ducks for that time period, so Metzer Farms, the largest duck hatchery, was my only option.
My purchased ducklings had a three-day trip by post from California and arrived shell-shocked and lethargic. I got them into the brooder right away and made sure they ate and drank and I kept a close eye on them. Two days after arrival they all began to show signs of niacin deficiency.
I have only had one niacin deficient duck ever, so having 15 show signs of deficiency at once felt catastrophic. I managed to treat and save most of the afflicted ducks, but I lost a couple and the survivors grew slower than usual. As a result, I spent more on feed and it took several extra weeks to raise them to size.
I suspect the long transport time and temperature variations in the box en route were the main culprits in the deficiencies. In retrospect, I should have dosed them with supplements when they arrived. In all my blog-combing though, I’d never come across anyone else having this magnitude of problem with a hatchery shipment, so it just hadn’t occurred to me that it might be possible.
Then, a few weeks ago, I met a large-scale duck farmer who had the exact same issue. Working with hundreds of ducks at a time, that farmer didn’t have the luxury of being able to individually dose each duckling using a dropper loaded with dissolved niacin. And his losses were in the hundreds. After that experience, the farmer took a more proactive role in the formulation of their feed.
On our farm, I had come to similar conclusions. I decided to add my own niacin supplement of 500 mg per 8 pounds of feed, even though the feed I purchase includes a niacin supplement that is theoretically sufficient for ducklings.
Additionally, for hatchery ducks sent by mail, I plan to lace duck water with dissolved niacin for the first few days after arrival as a precaution. Niacin is so critical to duck development that a reasonable preventative dose just seems like a good idea. Ducklings also eat so little, but drink so much in those first few days, that doubling-down by adding niacin to feed and drinking water seems like a good way to ensure they get a sufficient dose. You can read more about niacin supplements in this post from Metzer.
- Lesson 4 in Relativity – Mail order ducklings should come from relatively close hatcheries with shipping times of 48 hours or less. And a little Niacin-water seems like a good idea to give ducks a post-travel boost.
All these issues, bad as they were, did not trigger the soul-searching about whether I should even be trying to hatch and raise ducks. That didn’t happen until I started finding ways to solve the issues and realized that all of my mistakes occurred because I was behaving like a machine-loading automaton rather than an active participant in this process.
We use a lot of permaculture practices on our farm. Observing and working with nature are two of the concepts that we aim to adhere to in all that we do. Yet, when it came to incubating duck eggs, everything I knew came from the internet and books, not nature. I’d never even seen a duck sit a nest or raise ducklings before I tried hatching and raising my own. I read a few blogs on how to incubate, followed other people’s instructions (people who were hatching in optimal conditions), and otherwise pretended it was no big deal.
The truth is incubating eggs makes me uncomfortable. The fact that I can shove some eggs into a machine and end up with living beings is pretty creepy to me. And so, I took the coward’s route, leaned on other people’s knowledge, and otherwise avoided thinking too much about the process.
When I realized this, I knew I had to decide if using machines to incubate eggs was even a practice I found acceptable. I have no problem facilitating goat births by keeping bucks, timing buck/doe encounters with heat cycles, and assisting with labor complications when they occur. It’s not my favorite, but I accept that male-castration (wethering) and disbudding are important for population control and injury prevention.
Though, I wish I didn’t have to separate kids from their doe-mamas, I also know that my does make their own kind of peace with the cycles of life necessary to support milk production. The sadness when a goat is weaned is brief and mother goats quickly find solace in our farm routines and their relationships with the rest of our herd. Goats are incredibly forgiving and loving.
In other words, even though there are less than fun parts to keeping a dairy goat-herd, I don’t shy away from the ugly aspects of that process as I had been doing with duck egg incubation. And the central difference, for me, seems to be that act of cutting the mother out of the process by using artificial incubation and a brooder to raise ducklings.
This spring, I finally got my chance to watch a mother duck incubate and hatch eggs. One of my Muscovy layers sat a nest of 13 eggs for 36 days. For a few minutes each day she would leave her nest to eat, drink, and bathe. But before leaving her eggs unattended she pulled fine feathers from her breast area and used them to cover the eggs. She also only left when the weather was warm and the humidity at its peak for the day. She always came back sopping wet, adding humidity to her nest on her return.
For most of that time period, she was a nervous-wreck. It was, in fact, hard to watch. I couldn’t help but think how much more stressful it must be on wild duck mothers – in less protected circumstances than what we offer here – to endure an act that often proves futile or suicidal.
Sometimes, I detect a kind of cruelty in nature that makes me think my role as farmer, even when raising animals for meat, is to improve the odds in a rigged game. For all the harm I do in my other choices, here, on the farm, I am the protector and the perpetuator of life, even when I am the executioner. There is a built-in perpetuity for domestic livestock that nature herself will not guarantee.
In the few moments when the mama left her nest, she we would frantically scour small areas for scraps of food. If I happened to be out when she was, she raced up to me and pleaded for food. I obliged and watched her eat with ravenous hunger. Her feathers lost their glossy and her eyes appeared half-manic, as her gaze darted back and forth between her forage and her unprotected nest.
Of course, I may be anthropomorphizing. Or perhaps I am just relating. I don’t sit a nest for over a month as a Muscovy mother does. But after my hatch failure, I now monitor my incubators with a similar frenzy – checking too often, worrying whether or not I’ve checked enough even when I know that I have.
After all this, the mother hatched 10 ducklings over a two-day period on the 35th and 36th day of sitting. For the first two days the ducklings stayed extremely close to her. Whenever I approached, she puffed up her wings, to the shape of a teapot, and her babies disappeared under her feathers until she gave the all clear signal.
I watched from a distance as these ducklings, small enough to fit three at a time in the palm of my hand, foraged and took their first short forays into the pond. For about three days, they acted as a cohesive family unit, moving in unison. As their confidence and size increased, the ducklings took further jaunts away from their mama.
On day 5, the duckling count was down to 9. I don’t know what happened to the first lost duckling. But after that, I noticed three ducklings off on their own, well away from the protective range of their mama and siblings. For a couple of days they stayed near but never with their family. Then, they were just gone.
I am sure without the protection of their mother, those little ducklings simply didn’t have the experience to avoid predation. Perhaps they also didn’t eat well without guidance from their mother. I don’t know why they ventured away from the family unit or why their mama made no efforts to rein them in and keep them safe. But even as she left them to their fate, she exerted extreme influence over her other six ducklings who obediently came when called and followed her every command.
Were those three rebel ducklings just too independent-minded or troublesome for mama to bother? Did they have genetic flaws that made them outcasts? Or perhaps they simply didn’t have the instincts for survival and were compelled by some natural imperative to distance themselves so that the others might survive. I honestly can’t account for what appeared as blatant recklessness to me. All I know with certainty is that Mama didn’t seem upset about losing four of ten ducklings in short order.
Another Muscovy female, who had unsuccessfully sat a nest of 14 eggs, for 41 days and hatched none, joined the duck family. I believe she would have gone on sitting her failed nest indefinitely if I not stolen her eggs while she was out for a minute.
When I candled her eggs to figure out what went wrong, I found them all to be unfertilized and some half-rotten. Out of curiosity, I also checked the three unhatched eggs from the other nest. They too were infertile. I have read many postings that point to mama ducks rolling out bad eggs from the nest. But, my nest sitters sat on infertile eggs with the same tenacity as they sat growing embryos.
After the loss of hope, when I emptied her nest, my poor, distraught, duckling-less mama began to go everywhere with those surviving six ducklings and their hatching-mother. She called to them and kept them in line just as their hatch-mother did and they listened with the kind of reverence human children have for favorite aunties.
Those ducklings are six weeks old now. They spend most of their time near their “moms”, but they also do a lot of independent foraging. They come running when they see me, knowing me to be a good source of easy forage. I obligingly pour them bowls of feed and toss them tasty treat greens, cut from the garden. If I am still, they sit down contentedly beneath my feet. If I attempt to touch them, they waddle away. I would be offended, but this is how they treat their two duck moms now too. The ducklings will no longer tolerate physical contact from their mothers, even though the six of them can often be found piled in a heap together.
After all of these careful observations, and realizing that these duck-raised ducklings have come to treat me with the same respect they extend to their adopted duck mama, I began to think that incubating duck eggs might not be as unnatural as I initially thought. Or, at least it doesn’t have to be.
In fact, the original mama didn’t even lay all those eggs in the nest she sat. I saw three different Muscovy ducks using that nest before she started sitting in earnest. And the mama who joined the family, her nest was full of eggs laid by Pekin ducks which are an entirely different species than Muscovy. I also know that it is not uncommon for homesteaders to put preferred eggs under their best nest-sitters for strategic incubation. Surrogate mothers, among domesticated poultry, seem to be a normal occurrence.
With goats, if a doe is unable to nurse a baby, that baby will likely die with out human intervention. Goat mothers are not in the habit of nursing another goat’s kids. In fact, does, with their own babies, will usually knock a starving kid across the room for even trying to take a sip. Ducks, and most poultry, by contrast, don’t seem remotely concerned about genetic heritage. The fact that the embryo is developed in an external egg may be the very reason that is true.
- My final lesson in Relativity is that perspective is relative to experience.
Until I had witnessed a duck hatching and raising ducks, I had the perspective that incubation was more unnatural and interventionist than I was comfortable with. Here at the reLuxe Ranch, our goal is to work with nature, not to control nature. Having that much power of birth felt alien and wrong.
Now, through observation and using what I have learned from nature in my subsequent duck hatches, starting with the egg seems to be the most natural point for me to enter the process. It alleviates all that nest-sitting stress on ducks, ups the survival rates of the ducklings, and allows me better control of the outcomes – that is, if I am working with nature and not being an automaton.
Nearly all of nature is exploitative if you see it through the eyes of the exploited. Just ask the frog who laid the eggs that became the tadpoles my ducks devoured in early spring. Everything is food in one way or another – whether by being eaten or through decomposition which is just digestion on a less visible scale. For all I know, nature made poultry reproduction occur by way of eggs precisely so enterprising humans could exploit, domesticate, and perpetuate some kinds of poultry. If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s, The Botany of Desire, then you can at least entertain the possibility that we have been equally domesticated alongside the species we select and propagate.
I don’t have all the answers. But my hatch failure, at least, has me asking the questions again. The mindless automaton is gone. Nature’s neophyte is back. And my duck hatches are back on track.