As a relatively new homesteader, I have only recently hit the “benchmark” of starting to breed my own animals. This spring, our Muscovy duck flock went from 3 to 20 in the span of a few very exciting days. We learned a lot of lessons from our broody ducks along the way, both practical and metaphorical, that have truly helped us along our homesteading journey. If you’re raising ducks now, or you’re thinking of adding ducks to your homestead, maybe they can help you along your way as well.
Broody Duck Behavior
This first point is for those who, like us, want to have their ducks hatch their own eggs. Having never gone through this process before, there were a lot of things I just didn’t know about bird behavior; maybe you’re in the same place. Hopefully, this first section will help you understand some of the huge changes in your Momma-ducks-to-be that can clue you into her intentions.
The first clue that a Muscovy duck may be in a mood to sit on eggs (a.k.a. a broody duck) is that she’ll make a nest. Many other domesticated duck breeds have had the motherly instinct bred out of their mentalities, promoting a higher rate of egg production. My runner ducks, for example, would lay eggs “on the go” in the morning, literally leaving them lay where they popped out! Not the Mothers of the Year, by any stretch. Muscovies, however, are much closer to their wild counterparts and still retain the majority of their natural behaviors, including the ability to build solid nests and the desire to incubate eggs. In the spring, if you pile a lot of clean straw in a quiet corner of the duck house, it won’t be long before a female will carefully start arranging materials into a warm nest. If it’s only eggs you’re after, this makes collection super-easy and clean as she’ll often lay them in a predictable place early in the morning.
If you allow her to start piling up eggs, however, you might trigger her desire to brood. Sure signs that she intends to hatch them include lining the eggs with soft down from her own breast. She won’t start to sit on the eggs until she’s ready, though—usually once she’s piled up anywhere from 8-13 in the nest. A broody duck, like many wild birds, leaves the eggs in “waiting” until she starts incubation, ensuring that they’ll all start developing at the same rate and will hatch on the same day.
Once she’s satisfied that there are enough eggs, your next clue that babies are on the way is auditory. Muscovy ducks are typically quiet birds, often even referred to as “quackless”, though they are certainly not silent. Typical male sounds are a raspy huffing and puffing; typical female sounds are quiet, musical trills. None of them are really audible beyond line-of-sight with your birds, however, making them ideal for homesteaders who don’t want their neighbors to be woken up by the typical cacophony of all the other breeds of domesticated ducks.
That’s a different story when it comes to broody ducks. When our females started going broody, they made new sounds that I’d never heard before—peeping and cheeping, almost like a dog’s squeaky toy. They typically did this when our big drake approached them to lavish more of his springtime “affections”. Clearly, they’d had enough, for now. They also cheeped at me anytime I approached them on the nest—maybe it was meant to be a turn-off, but I just found it adorable.
The third sign of incoming chicks is that the mother will start her Long Sit. Rather than browsing and waddling around the homestead, a broody duck will sit on her eggs for about 23 hours a day, only leaving for occasional 10-20 minute increments to eat a quick meal, drink water, and maybe take a brief bath in the pond. Depending on the ambient temperature, she will cover her eggs with a protective blanket of down, and once she has gobbled down a few mouthfuls of grass, she will always be quick to scurry back to her eggs. Don’t be alarmed by the fact that she’s usually coming back to the nest wet… that’s on purpose. The eggs need a certain level of moisture to develop properly, and she’s supplying that with her warm, damp feathers.
There is another activity that she’ll always do during these brief nest recesses and it’s nothing pleasant. The female is very careful to not soil her nest with droppings, which means that as soon as she is off, the mother of all duck poops will be soon to be ejected. I mention these poops because they’re not like the duck poop you’re used to. They’re monsters. They’re huge, greasy-black, and smell about ten times worse than normal poo. Just be prepared for it, watch your step, and never say I didn’t warn you! Thankfully, once the eggs hatch, she’ll go back to normal-sized (and normal smelling) droppings.
These are among the physical observations you may make, but for many of us, the act of raising animals also becomes a deeply personal, psychological, and even spiritual experience. This leads me to the next point:
Trusting the Process of Hatching Duck Eggs Naturally
Ducks really know what they’re doing. If you allow a broody duck to go through her natural programming to lay and hatch her eggs, she doesn’t really need much input from you.
This may be a surprisingly hard fact to accept. As homesteaders, many of us like to be intimately involved in the processes on our land, fertilizing the soil, removing weeds, building fences, cleaning animal stalls, clipping hooves, and so on. It may be tempting for you to want to “help” somehow. In such a circumstance, however, it may do more harm than good—the mother knows when and how to rotate the eggs, how damp they need to be, and how warm they need to be in response to the day’s temperature. I believe the best thing you can do is take a hands-off approach and let her do what she knows how to do. Provide fresh water like usual, give her a bit of feed nearby, and take a deep breath.
I would like to say that I at least protected my broodies by safely closing them in the duck house at night, but even that was outside of my control. I have read that some broody ducks share sitting duty and don’t mind being around each other, but it wasn’t so with my two females. One dutifully set up shop in the duck house making it easy to close her in for the night. Even so, she refused to tolerate the presence of our poor drake, viciously chasing him out of the house anytime he even came for a sip of water. He spent the nights in the pond.
And the other one, my white Muscovy who has always had what I’ll nicely call an “independent” streak, refused to be contained. Her nest was secreted away under a storage area in the garage (of all places), so tucked away that I couldn’t even see how many eggs she had laid. I stood in the doorway, barely able to see her tail in the shadows, and battled thoughts. What if a rat snake steals her eggs? What if a raccoon somehow breaks in and hurts her? How could I know the garage was going to be warm or damp or cool or dry enough? Once I calmed down, I could tell that this was a “learning moment” and decided to trust the process that she had already, naturally, initiated.
And you know what happened? Ducklings. The eggs began to hatch because the process was a well-designed one that I had no input in. I was just blessed to be able to watch it run its course.
Welcoming New Life
Some people candle the developing eggs during the mother’s “recess” to make sure they’re developing normally, but I can’t justify tampering with the ducks’ orderly nests. I don’t even know if they’d let me in if they saw me approaching—broody Muscovy ducks, despite how cute their warning squeaks may seem, can actually be fierce little hellions if you mess with them!
If you were able to write down when the mother began her Long Sit, you can expect ducklings around 35-37 days later. You may not be able to tell when they’re hatching at first, but suddenly a broken shell will be visible, and you may notice Momma shifting more often than normal. Then a tell-tale peep signals new life has just arrived. As before, the best thing you can do is just take it all in and not get in the way. The ducklings don’t need your help coming out—and if they do, there may be something wrong with them anyway. Just watch and marvel as those ten or twelve eggs suddenly become a clutch of fuzzy, bright-eyed ducklings who have a huge, new world to explore.
Some eggs may not hatch. That’s alright. When all the hatching has finally run its course, Momma may nibble on the broken eggshells and then push those unhatched eggs out of the nest. Remove these eggs and dispose of them far away from the duck area—hopefully any predators they draw will be far enough away to not mess with the new babies!
I don’t know about you, but this part of the process was pure joy for us. Maybe you felt that when your goats kidded for the first time, or when that first sun-ripe tomato came from the new garden. So much hard work, blood, sacrifices, and occasional tears go in to homesteading, but the exchange is the opportunity to interact with pure, unadulterated life in a way that money can’t buy or simulate.
Accepting Things You Can’t Control
Part of sharing life with livestock—and really homesteading in general—is finding out just how much you can and can’t control.
If you free-range your ducks, you’re probably well aware of how much feed it saves and how healthy it makes the birds. And honestly, there are few nicer sights than a group of ducks happily pushing through tall grasses, chasing after a grasshopper in a burst of speed, and then plunking down for a sudden nap. But, if you free-range your birds, you’re probably also aware of the risks involved with releasing some delicious meat-on-the-wing to roam your property. Because ducklings, as cute as they are, are very edible. Foxes, hawks, badgers, or stray dogs may help themselves to the sudden feast, and once that happens, there’s no undoing it.
Or maybe a tragically adorable runt is emerging in the flock, half the size of her brothers and sisters. If you’re breeding your own animals, you know that that bird shouldn’t go on to spread its weak genetics, if it even reaches adulthood in the first place. That doesn’t make culling it or watching it struggle to thrive any easier.
You may also face the bittersweet feeling of watching the growing flock reveal who is male and who is female. Though the females can produce eggs next spring, responsible homesteaders know that the males can’t stay past maturity—not unless you want to start an ill-advised inbreeding program on your homestead or have endless fights between brothers. Once that funny duckling with the yellow toes develops the thick legs and male hiss, he’s declaring his roast-hood. Or, at least, the fact that he could be traded to another homestead.
If I had my way, when I was a brand-new homesteader without a few years of experience under my belt, I would have interfered with the whole hatching process to make sure things were “okay”, I would be able to force vitality on runts, reclaim my ducklings from the bellies of foxes, make all the males that I grew fond of get along forever… and I would have learned nothing. Sometimes, being an observer to these beautifully-designed processes is humbling to the point you realize just how little you have control over.
I saw this in motion during a sudden cloudburst that thundered over our land in the early summer, right after the ducklings had hatched. I ran around the house, trying to find them to make sure they weren’t drowning in a puddle (I never said I was a logical person). I was stopped in my tracks as I saw our grey-backed female, calmly standing in the middle of the field, serene as the rain and thunder pounded around her. With her wings gently spread, all ten tiny ducklings were perfectly safe beneath her wings, as warm and dry as they could possibly be. I was humbled and thankful for her good design, and how she knew what to do far better than I did.
That reality-check is precisely what makes the beautiful moments of life, when a hoard of ducklings tumbles head-over-tail over your feet, peeping up a storm, all the more beautiful for being able to exist in the face of it all. And hopefully, without sounding too saccharine, it can make you realize just what a gift your own life is as well.