For many duck owners, one of the most exciting and precious times in their lives is raising newly hatched ducklings and keeping them warm.
These precocious and adorable little fuzzballs are highly vulnerable though, because if they get too cold, they can get gravely sick or even die.
Luckily, people long ago figured out how best to keep them warm using a brooder box and heat lamp arrangement.
Tried and trusted, heat lamps nonetheless have quite a few problems, specifically the fact that they use a lot of power and can be very dangerous, causing fires.
And, sometimes, the bulbs just go out. That’s bad news for your ducklings!
Luckily, if you need to deal with an accident or just want a safer alternative there are several ways to keep your ducklings warm without using the old standby. I’ll tell you what they are in this article.
Table of Contents
Do Ducklings Need a Heat Lamp?
No, ducklings don’t have to have a heat lamp, particularly. But they do need heat! Specifically, they need a particular temperature range to be comfortable and thrive. Talk more about that in just a couple of sections.
How Long Do Ducklings Need a Heat Lamp?
Ducklings need a heat lamp, or rather supplementary heat, at least until they are 5 weeks old, typically.
Depending on the breed of duck and even the individual, they might be done with supplementary heat and as little as two weeks or as late as 6 or 7 weeks, but anything beyond either of those two extremes is quite rare.
Keep in mind that ambient conditions also play a big part in this. Warmer areas mean that ducklings will be away from supplemental heat earlier, but in colder areas they will need it longer.
Can Baby Ducks Live if They Don’t Have a Heat Lamp?
Yes, baby ducks can of course live without a heat lamp. Looking at nature, how would any baby duck survive to adulthood otherwise?
But to answer the intention rather than the strict wording of the question, it is possible that baby ducks can survive without a heat lamp or other source but only in the most ideal climates; otherwise this will imperil their survival.
Why Do Ducklings Need External Heat Early in Life?
Baby ducks need external heat because they don’t have the ability to heat themselves adequately during the first couple of weeks they are alive, and lack the excellent insulation provided by fully developed feathers that they will have later.
They are extremely vulnerable to cold during this time.
Here are Some Workable Alternatives to a Heat Lamp
You don’t have to rely on heat lamps if you don’t want to. The following are viable alternatives or supplements for duckling heat…
1. Heat pad
Pros: Heat pads can provide a consistent, constant, steady and adjustable heat source for ducklings. They are also energy-efficient and safer than heat lamps concerning fire hazard.
Cons: Heat pads are often too hot on anything but low, have auto-off functions and you’ll need to ensure ducklings cannot contact the pad directly to prevent burns, i.e. cover with a towel.
2. Heating mat
Pros: Terrarium or livestock-specific heat pads are energy-efficient and safe like heating pads, and usually more controllable.
Cons: Similar to heat pads, there is a risk of ducklings contacting the pad directly. The temperature may not be as variable as with heat pads.
3. Hot water bottle
Pros: Hot water bottles are a simple, reusable and cost-effective solution. They can be wrapped in towels to protect the ducklings from direct contact with the hot surface and are very safe otherwise. No risk of fire.
Cons: The temperature is not easily adjustable, and the warmth provided by hot water bottles doesn’t last very long, requiring constant changing or reheating.
Best for quarantine or supplemental, short-term brooders when other methods are not practical or available.
4. Warm towels
Pros: Warm towels are an easy and quick way to provide some warmth for ducklings. They can be heated in a dryer or towel heater and placed around the ducklings or in their brooder box.
Cons: Very short-lived. Best for extra protection against drafts or when removing ducks from the primary brooder temporarily.
5. Electrical brooder
Pros: The ideal. Electrical brooders are specifically designed to keep ducks and other birds warm and most can provide consistent and accurate adjustable temperatures.
Nicer models have built-in redundant thermometers and hygrometers. Safer than heat lamps.
Cons: Electrical brooders can be very expensive and require a constant power source nearby. There is also a risk of fire.
6. Natural sunlight
Pros: Natural sunlight is free and provides steady, natural warmth for the ducklings. It also helps them maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
Cons: Sunlight is not available at all times- night or during cloudy days are a bust- and it may not provide enough warmth during colder seasons or in colder areas. Best as a tertiary supplemental source to other methods.
7. More ducklings!
Pros: Adding more ducklings to the brooder adds more heat via body heat, helping to keep all ducklings warmer without the need for any external heat source. And you get more ducks!
Cons: This method is insufficient in cold areas, for those with limited space or resources, and could lead to overcrowding which necessitates a bigger brooder, offsetting advantage. And you get more ducks…
8. Feather dusters
Pros: Feather dusters simulate the warmth and comfort of a mother duck’s feathers, providing a cozy environment for the ducklings.
Surprisingly good insulator used in conjunction with other methods like water bottles, hot towels, heat pads, etc.
Cons: Feather dusters alone likely won’t provide enough warmth, especially in colder environments. They’re also a secondary fire hazard.
How Long Can Baby Ducks Go Without Heat, Generally?
Not very long in cooler climates. During the first couple of weeks of life, if the temperature is in the mid to low 70s, your ducklings are going to be too cold and will quickly become sick.
In genuinely cold conditions, say anything below 50 °F, your ducklings can die in a matter of hours, if that.
A momentary draft or a slight dip in the temperature because you are moving or replacing the heat source is generally not a problem, but you must always take pains to protect your ducklings from true cold and prolonged the warmth until they’re ready to be on their own.
How Can You Be Sure the Temp is Right and Safe for Ducklings?
Using visual verification, check for any signs of stress or discomfort in your ducklings as outlined in the next sections.
But the very best way you can verify the temperature is safe and right for your ducklings is through the use of a good thermometer.
Checking the warmth of the floor of the brooder box and also the air temperature will tell you everything you need to know.
But as always, don’t ignore your ducklings in favor of these readings…
If the temperature is seen as correct according to the statistics I will share in a moment, but your ducklings seem unhappy and stressed out, make an adjustment until they’re content and comfortable – but do so gradually!
Signs of Heat Stress in Ducklings
Heat stress is a serious issue, and one they aren’t immune from just because they are inside your home. Excessive heat can lead to dehydration, exhaustion, and even death for the poor things.
It’s crucial to keep an eye on your ducklings for signs of heat stress, particularly when using any artificial electric heat sources.
One of the first indicators of heat stress is panting, which helps them release excess heat through their mouths.
You may also notice that the ducklings are holding their wings away from their bodies, attempting to cool themselves down.
Other signs of heat stress include sluggishness, loss of appetite, and a decrease in overall activity.
In more severe cases, the ducklings may appear unable to stand, disoriented, or unresponsive. As always, listen for loud, sharp, insistent peeping.
If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s essential to take immediate action to reduce the heat and remove them from direct exposure. Do not move them to a cool or cold place as this can shock and kill them.
Signs of Cold Stress in Ducklings
Cold stress can be just as harmful to ducklings as heat, and can kill even quicker. It’s vital to monitor your ducklings for any signs of cold stress, especially during colder months, in drafty places or when using inadequate heat sources on an interim basis.
One of the most apparent signs of cold stress in ducklings is huddling together for warmth, combined with more loud peeping.
While some huddling is normal for little ducklings, excessive huddling and shivering indicates that they are struggling to maintain their body temperature.
Furthermore, ducklings experiencing severe cold stress will become less active, show decreased appetite, and exhibit weakness and unresponsiveness.
If you suspect that your ducklings are suffering from cold stress, provide them with additional warmth but do so gently and gradually.
This can be done by adding or adjusting heat sources, providing extra insulation in their living space, or cupping them in your hands or in a warm towel.
These are the Ideal Temperature Ranges for Ducklings at Different Stages of Development
Generally speaking, you can rely on the following guidelines for keeping your ducklings warm as they grow.
Remember, use common sense here: your ducklings won’t need extra heat nearly as long and warm environments, and they will need it longer in cold environments. These are guidelines only!
Week 1, Day zero through day 7: 90° to 95°F. Newly hatched ducklings are brutally vulnerable to cold, so these high temperatures are needed.
Week 2, days 8 through 14: 85° to 90°F. Ducklings mature quickly, and as they mature their resistance increases meaning you can lower the temperature of the brooder box slightly.
Really fast growing breeds in warm climates might be ready to be done with supplemental heat at the end of this week.
Week 3, days 15 through 21: 80° to 85°F. Ducklings are definitely showing signs of maturation in this phase, and have made significant gains on keeping themselves warm.
Week 4, days 22 through 28: 75° to 80°F. Ducklings will typically begin at feathering proper at this stage, and with the growth of those feathers and their increased mass comes greater warmth.
Week 5, days 23 through 29: 70° to 75°F. Ducklings are really starting to come into their own by this time unless their growth has been retarded somehow.
Most are truly ready to be on their own in mild conditions by now, but in colder climates they may need another week or two of supplemental heat for safety.
If you do need to give your ducklings more heat over a longer period of time, simply reduce the heat week to week as outlined above.
Brooder Temp Should Be Reduced Gradually as Ducklings Grow
If you paid attention reading the data above, you saw that the brooder temperature was reduced incrementally each week over the course of the week.
This isn’t to say you pick one of those temperature ranges and call it good: chances are your baby ducks will be fine even if you do that, but a better plan is to slowly but surely reduce the heat over time.
This will help your ducks adapt better and with less stress, but it also takes into account their own increasing ability to keep themselves warm.
So for instance, if we are starting the week out with the brooder temperature at 90°F, I would take it down a degree every other day if you have precise control over the heat.
This isn’t anything to go too crazy over, but if you have the ability to fine-tune the heat in your brooder box your ducklings will thrive.
Beware of Drafts
One of the single biggest things that will sabotage your efforts to keep your ducks warm are drafts.
A draft can come up from an open door or window, a gust of cold air from a nearby refrigerator, an air conditioner, a ceiling fan or floor fan, leaky fittings or just that cold air that seems to creep into certain parts of your house.
This is no joke, you must protect your brooder from these drafts and don’t locate it in any room that experiences drafts.
This can easily strip the accumulated heat out of a brooder, and if it is a really cold gust that might shock the ducklings which can make them sick.
Use these Materials to Insulate the Brooder Box
Whatever alternate heat source you decide on for your ducklings, or even if you’re still using a heat lamp, you’ve got to pick the right bedding too.
Bedding is important to maintain sanitary conditions in the brooder, of course, but it’s also critical for insulation, both to help keep ducks comfortably warm and, in some cases like with a heat pad, to help keep them from being indirect contact with the heat source.
Some of the very best bedding materials are natural, soft and naturally absorbent. These things can make your life easier when it’s time to clean up and they are comfortable for ducks to walk and rest on.
Wood shavings are a good option, but not sawdust because it is too fine and easily inhaled.
You might try it shredded paper as a cheap alternative, but be sure it does not contain any ink which will easily rub off on your ducks. Straw is another good standby.
Additionally, you might consider using a sort of underlayment beneath the bedding to make things even more sanitary or give you more standoff from your heat source.
A few layers of paper towels work wonders for absorbing messes, but this can get expensive. Folded towels, layered newspaper or sheets torn from old magazines are another good and cheaper option.
Also, you might consider purchasing commercially available duckling or chicken bedding from your local retailer.
They’re bound to have all sorts that are just great for your little ducklings, and this can prove to be the most convenient and safest if not the most economical option.
When are Ducklings Ready to Sleep Outside?
That depends. Most breeds of ducklings are ready to start heading outside by around week five, spending at least some of their time there. But they might not be ready to stay out there full-time.
This is especially dependent upon your climate and weather, of course, and also how quickly your ducks develop: some will be ready to stay outside sooner, others later.
If in doubt, keep them in the brooder longer so long as they have plenty of room and seem comfortable. It won’t be too long before your ducks are definitely ready to live outside on their own.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.