Using broody hens to hatch ducklings
some pros and cons

First published in the IRDA Newsletter Spring 2003

As spring approaches, thoughts turn to hatching out ducklings. But how to go about it? I use both an incubator and broody hens. On the whole I get more reliable results from the broodies, usually 100% without the early death or dead in shell I sometimes get with the incubator (from which I never get the same result twice). I've found setting two batches, one artificially and one under a hen has been a help in calibrating the temperature of my very basic still-air incubator, and identifying problems with humidity which I might otherwise have attributed to disease.

However, setting duck eggs under hens is not without it's problems. Although many hens will 'go broody ', relatively few will do so reliably. The first time one of my marans went broody I was overjoyed. I'd read that heavy breeds had a reputation for being good broodies, so I put some fertile eggs under her. She incubated them very well, but as soon as they hatched she became visibly disturbed at the cheeping, and started attacking the chicks. I whipped them out very quickly and reared them under a lamp. I've found this to be the case with most large fowl; they will sit well on a clutch of eggs but have absolutely no idea what to do once they start hatching, and will sometimes attack the chicks as soon as they start to pip. They are particularly vulnerable just after they first break through the shell, when the hen can peck off the end of the emerging beak.

Bantams and Silkies make much better mothers, but also have their disadvantages. As duck eggs are much larger than bantam eggs, you can only set a very few under a small hen (don't be tempted to put too many under, as extra eggs will be cast aside and will chill, resulting in all the eggs developing at low or irregular temperatures). Check every couple of hours after setting the eggs, and remove any that have been cast aside.

          

 

 
 

Silkies are excellent incubation machines, but again have their problems. I can fit upto 6 under my smallish ones, but although they are the gentlest of creatures I always remove the eggs at the pipping stage and place them in an incubator (and carry on under artificial heat). I did once leave them only to lose the whole hatch. I found the newly hatched chicks dead, with silkie fluff stuck to their bills. When ducklings hatch, they are rather damp, especially their bills which have a rather larger surface area in comparison with those of chicks for feathers to stick to. The down had adhered to the wet bills as readily as if they'd been covered with glue and they had suffocated.

To sum up:

  • use a hen that you know to be reliable, don't just assume they will all do what 'comes naturally'. If possible use a cross with a breed known for it's good mothering qualities, but large enough to incubate a reasonable brood.

  • Keep a close eye on the eggs around the time you expect them to start pipping, especially with an untried hen. Have an incubator/brooder ready, even if you want to try them with the hen. If there are any problems you won't have to panic finding something to do with any rejected hatchlings.
  • Observe the usual rules that apply to hens, such as de-lousing the broody before hand and using a coop free from red-mite. Also make sure she is in good general health, as brooding is quite taxing; micro-organisms can easily multiply in the bird's sluggish alimentary system resulting in digestive disorders and sour-crop (and consequently some very dirty/contaminated hatching eggs).

 

 

 

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