Have you ever wondered how you can tell how old a duckling is? Ducklings are vulnerable creatures when they don’t have their mother nearby to protect them. If you recently brought home some duck eggs or some baby ducks to raise yourself, knowing a duckling’s age and stage of development can help you learn how to best care for these animals.
In this article, we will discuss a duck’s stages of development, including key physical characteristics that will discover a duckling’s approximate age, as well as tips for how to care for it.
What Are the Stages of Growth for Ducks?
Of course, a duck’s life begins in the egg. Once a mother duck lays her fertilized eggs, she will sit on them in order to provide them with body heat. Heat is essential to the process of egg development because it begins the process of embryonic cell division.
If you are incubating duck eggs without the help of a mother duck, you will need an egg incubator. An incubator is an apparatus that simulates duck or chicken incubation by keeping eggs within a particular temperature and humidity range to promote hatching. They typically come with a fan to help distribute heat and a mechanism for turning the eggs, which is an essential part of a chick’s development. When choosing an incubator, look for a device that turns the eggs automatically; otherwise, you’ll be turning the eggs by hand at least four times a day.
Most duck eggs typically hatch in 28 days. For the first 25 days, the incubator should be set to 99.5°F with a relative humidity of 55 percent. After 25 days, you can transfer the eggs to hatching trays, or if you have one, you can move them to a hatcher. During the hatching period, the temperature should be set to 99°F.
While the eggs are incubating, there are several different processes taking place within the shell that are helping to develop the embryo into a duckling. The very first cells develop into the duckling’s spine and nervous system. The next step is the heart, blood cells, and arterial veins. The final step of the process is the development of the feathers, beak, and feet.
The process of hatching takes place over a relatively long period of time. Keep in mind that not all eggs will hatch at once. You may be tempted to intervene and help any last ducks trying to make it out of their shells, but you should resist that temptation; during hatching, the duckling’s blood vessels are still drying. If you try to assist with hatching too early, you could cause the duckling to bleed, potentially fatally. You should wait until about 48 hours after the external pip, when the duckling makes an initial crack in its shell, to assist in hatching if needed.
Newborn ducklings do not yet have their feathers; instead, they have a fuzzy down covering. They will get their feathers eventually, but until they do, they cannot swim or fly on their own. Ducklings don’t need to be fed for the first 24 hours of life because they are still receiving sustenance from the remaining yolk. You should move them to a well-insulated enclosure where they can stay warm. You can use a cardboard box lined with towels as long as there aren’t too many holes in the box. Avoid using newspaper as it does not insulate very well and ducklings can easily slip on it. Use a brooding lamp to keep your ducklings warm, but make sure the lightbulb isn’t too close to your ducklings. Your ducklings will need the heating lamp for the first few weeks of their lives, but you can gradually reduce the heat as they get older. Once they develop their feathers, your ducklings no longer need extra heat.
For the first few weeks of your ducklings’ lives, you will likely see them grow at a remarkable rate; baby ducks can grow about an ounce per day. During the first few days of their lives, you will notice that they are wobbly on their feet, but by the third day or so they should be able to stand confidently.
After the first 24 hours, you can start feeding the ducklings formula. For the first 3 weeks of life, their starter formula should be high in protein at about 18 to 20 percent. Ducklings also need lots of water. As ducklings also love to play in their water, you will likely find that you need to change the water very frequently unless you have a duck waterer. Remember that your ducklings do not have their feathers at this stage. Ducks also produce a type of oil referred to as preen oil that helps keep them on top of the water, but young ducklings have not yet developed the uropygial gland, or preen gland. They are susceptible to drowning at this age, so you should make sure that your ducks can easily get back out of any water you provide for swimming.
At around 2 weeks, you might notice your ducklings are beginning to quack. It may not sound like an adult quack, but perhaps more of a blend between a peep and a quack. They likely won’t need a heating lamp at this stage, but they still need to be kept warm. If you introduce them to the outdoors at all, you should pay attention to the weather and bring them indoors at night to prevent them from being too chilled. By week three, you’ll begin to see your ducklings’ feathers begin to develop, but they are in no way fully mature at this age.
Between 4 and 6 weeks, your ducks will continue to grow their feathers. You might notice that they still have some remaining fuzzy down here and there, but they should have all of their feathers by the end of week six. With all of their feathers, your ducks can live fully outdoors. You will also notice that they sound like adult ducks—no more peeping or in-between quacking. At 4 weeks, you can switch their diets to a maintenance level of protein, or about 14 percent.
Between 5 and 8 weeks old, your ducks are likely to start flying. It is around this time that ducks are considered to be fully grown, though they can’t lay eggs until they are about 4 months old. In the wild, ducks leave their mothers and become independent once they are confident flyers. Of course, domesticated ducks will likely still rely on you for food and water.
Related Read: What Do Baby Ducks Eat in the Wild & As Pets?
While it isn’t always easy to tell exactly how old a duckling is, physical and behavioral traits lend clues as to its approximate age. Generally speaking, a duckling covered in fuzzy down with no sign of feathers is less than 3 weeks old. Ducklings with partially grown-in feathers are likely 3–5 weeks old, and fully feathered ducks are about 6 weeks old. Whether or not a duck can fly also helps provide context; if a duck is fully feathered but not yet flying, it is probably on the younger side, perhaps 5–7 weeks.
As you can see, ducklings grow very quickly and have different needs at different stages of their development. Understanding your ducklings’ developmental stage is an important step to providing them with the best care possible.
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