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Safe Cohabitation Considerations For Ducks

duck in the grass
It’s important to understand who ducks are and what they need when considering living arrangements and social groupings. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of November 3, 2021

Because every resident is a unique individual, it’s difficult to offer specific guidance regarding safe cohabitation with members of other species. However, there are certain species who may be more likely to safely cohabitate than others, and in some cases, there are species combinations that are best avoided entirely due to potential safety risks or care needs that are too different. In order to make responsible, informed decisions about living arrangements and social groupings for any species at your sanctuary, it’s important to consider who they are, generally, as a species; what their needs and preferences are; and also to consider who they are as an individual. Additionally, you’ll want to think about any safety risks they could potentially pose to another species and vice versa. Below we’ll discuss important things to keep in mind when considering living arrangements and social groupings involving ducks. In addition to the information below, you’ll need to consider the specific needs of the individuals you are considering housing them with.

Social Considerations

Ducks are very social animals who tend to live in pairs or groups and may become anxious or distressed when living in isolation. As prey animals, being with other ducks offers a sense of safety and protection. However, while ducks often do best when living with other ducks, there are some important things to keep in mind. Male and female ducks can safely live together, generally, but you must watch for signs of overmounting or males who are too big or too enthusiastic for certain females to live with. This is especially important during the spring when testosterone levels are high. While a ratio of one drake (male duck) to four duck hens is often recommended, there really isn’t a set male to female ratio that is guaranteed to work every time. A lot will depend on personalities, and you may find that certain flock arrangements work for some parts of the year, but result in overmounting come spring. Because of this, it is not uncommon for sanctuaries to make changes to flock arrangements during the spring and summer in order to protect females from overmounting.

Flock arrangements consisting of more drakes than duck hens should typically be avoided since this makes overmounting of females much more likely. While it’s usually a good idea for a drake to live with multiple duck hens, sometimes a male/ female pair will do well together. It’s safest to avoid housing female ducks with drakes who are significantly bigger than them to avoid injury associated with mounting. In addition to watching for mounting behavior, also watch your female duck residents for feather loss on the back of the head and neck, as this is often due to overmounting, and watch their general demeanor. If they are constantly hiding or running away, or if male residents are mounting them while they are trying to swim, you should look into other living arrangements. Sadly, there have been reports of female ducks being drowned while being mounted on the water.

Just as you must be aware of seasonal changes in social dynamics between males and females, you must also pay attention to interactions between males. You may find that the dynamics between drakes change seasonally, especially with younger males. According to Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary, altercations between drakes typically decrease by the ducks’ third spring, and some drakes may get along better if they live only with other drakes rather than in mixed-sex flocks. Be aware that mounting behavior could be an issue in drake flocks as well, so you’ll want to watch interactions carefully. Regardless of your flock arrangements, we always recommend being prepared to make alterations so that if individuals are not getting along you can separate them, temporarily or permanently. 

In addition to seasonal considerations, also make sure you are providing your duck residents with enough space, resources, and enrichment as a lack of these will have a negative impact on flock dynamics.

As flock animals, isolation can cause significant stress, so if a duck resident is unable to live with other ducks, it will be important to give them the opportunity to bond with a companion(s) of a different species while ensuring everyone’s safety. Similarly, if due to spatial constraints you are considering housing your duck residents with residents of another species, you will need to do so thoughtfully.

Further Reading
Sometimes you need to consider separating an individual from their companions due to a health issue. You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements due to a health concern here. Also, be sure to check out Creating An Enriching Life For Ducks for enrichment ideas to utilize during times when someone must be away from their companions.

Dietary Considerations

If you are considering housing your duck residents with another species, be sure to consider their dietary needs and whether or not these can be met if they are living with non-duck residents. If other bird residents at your sanctuary are on the same diet, this will make cohabitation easier than housing ducks with individuals who have vastly different diets. For example, food formulated for ducks would not be healthy or safe for your ruminant residents to regularly ingest, and food or mineral supplements for mammals may not be healthy or safe for ducks to consume. There are various reasons why housing ducks with mammalian residents may not be advisable- the significant difference in dietary needs is just one such reason.

If housing ducks with other farmed bird species, be aware that some medicated foods and water treatments that are recommended for other species may not be safe for ducks. For more information on your residents’ dietary needs, check out our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements resources.

Housing Considerations

Ducks are vulnerable to predation both during the day and at night, and therefore require robust predator-proofing to keep them safe. Their outdoor space must include proper fencing (both to keep duck residents inside their living space and to keep other animals out), and the addition of aviary netting will protect against aerial predators. Larger mammals have different fencing needs, and you may find it challenging to create an outdoor space that accommodates what a larger resident needs while also providing the predator protection a duck needs. 

Overnight, ducks must be closed into completely predator-proof housing to keep them safe. Some duck predators (like weasels) can fit through spaces as small as a quarter, and others (like raccoons) can reach through small spaces to get to ducks or can open latches to get into duck houses. Because geese, chickens, turkeys, and many other sanctuary bird residents have similar housing requirements in terms of predator-proofing, housing them with ducks will be easier than housing them with larger mammals who, even if they require some degree of predator-protection, do not require the same overnight accommodations- not to mention the potential safety issues that could come with having your duck residents locked inside with larger residents overnight.

Won’t Larger Residents Act As Deterrents Or Protectors Against Predators?
It’s not uncommon to hear about certain species being housed with others in an attempt to protect more vulnerable species from predators. In some cases, this simply entails housing larger species with smaller species, but other times it involves specific species who have been designated by humans as “livestock guardians” such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas. Unfortunately, this practice of relying on other residents to act as deterrents or protectors is not universally reliable and, therefore, is not something we recommend. While you can certainly find folks who advocate strongly for this solution (especially individuals from the farming community), you can also find heartbreaking stories of predator attacks. In addition to the “protected” residents being harmed despite the inclusion of a “guardian” in their living space, in some cases, the “guardian” has been injured or killed by a predator because they were not properly protected either. There have also been reports of “guardian” residents going after the individuals they live with, sometimes with little to no forewarning. We believe that there is simply no substitute for proper housing and fencing when it comes to predator protection, and living arrangements should be informed by the needs of each individual resident, not the role we feel they should play.

Another important feature of duck housing is access to swimming water. Depending on how you provide this, housing ducks with other residents who require swimming water, such as geese, may be safer than housing ducks with non-waterfowl species. While any open water source can be a potential drowning risk, some setups pose more significant risks than others. For example, a gradually sloping pond will be much safer than a water source that has a steep drop-off, which could result in a resident accidentally falling into deep water and not being able to get out. Sadly, there have been reports of chickens and turkeys falling into ponds and deep tubs and drowning.

With large mammalian residents, swimming water may not pose a drowning risk, but mammalian residents may contaminate swimming water with their feces. Some species may wade into swimming water in order to cool off, and could quickly contaminate these water sources with urine and feces. Even if they do not physically get into the water, their feces could still contaminate the water making bacteria or algae growth more likely

For more information on your residents’ housing needs, check out our species-specific Creating A Good Home resources.

Safety Considerations

When considering mixed-species social groups, it’s important to consider any potential safety risks. Safety considerations for ducks include:

Safety Concerns Associated With Larger Mammalian Species

Any time a smaller species is housed with a significantly bigger one, there is the risk of injury, but pigs tend to pose a more significant risk to ducks than some other mammalian species. There have been reports of birds being killed in a sanctuary environment by pigs. While you may think that the risk to birds is directly linked to the pig’s size, this is not the only concern. It’s true that large pigs could accidentally trample a smaller bird resident, but piglets can pose a potentially greater risk to birds. Some of the reports of bird residents being killed by pigs involved piglets who were trying to play with a bird resident who entered their living space. Feral pigs also pose a significant risk to birds. While adult domesticated pigs may pose less of a risk to birds, you should always exercise caution where possible when it comes to protecting resident lives and be mindful of the potential consequences of species cohabitation. For these reasons, we do not recommend housing ducks with pigs, especially feral pigs or piglets.

We also don’t recommend housing ducks with dogs. While some dogs may do fine with ducks, a negative interaction could have devastating consequences. Additionally, as ducks are prey animals, a dog’s presence may cause them stress, even if they aren’t in immediate danger. Due to the potential risks, even if you have reason to believe a duck and dog will get along, we recommend never leaving them together unsupervised.

In addition to pigs and dogs, other bigger residents, such as ruminants, equines, or camelids, could injure a duck, especially by accidentally trampling them. A duck may have difficulty moving out of the way of a quickly moving resident who is significantly bigger than them, and ducks with mobility issues or who are broody are at an increased risk of being trampled. Furthermore, some mammalian residents may be too confrontational or playful to be able to safely cohabitate with ducks, regardless of their size. For example, even though they are smaller in stature, a young goat kid could cause serious injury to a duck resident if they are trying to play.

It’s important to note that ducklings are especially vulnerable and in addition to the considerations above, should also be kept away from cats. While cats and mature ducks tend to do fine together, cats have been known to kill ducklings. An additional consideration with cats is that ducks should not have access to their litter box as consuming litter could result in crop impaction.

Safety Concerns Associated With Other Farmed Bird Species

In general, housing ducks with other farmed bird species does not come with the same degree of risk as housing them with bigger mammals, but that doesn’t mean all of your avian residents will get along well. While ducks and geese are frequently housed together, and in some instances may form close bonds with one another, you’ll want to watch to ensure that everyone gets along safely and that male geese are not attempting to mount your duck residents, which could result in injury due to the larger size of geese. Additionally, you’ll want to watch that there are no altercations between your ducks and geese, which may be more common with males during the spring, because a goose could easily injure a smaller duck.

Similarly, if you have ducks living with other avian residents, such as chickens or turkeys, be sure to watch that everyone is getting along well and there is no inter-species mounting or fighting. A rooster or tom turkey could injure a duck with their spurs and sharper beak, and just as female ducks can be injured if a bigger drake mounts them, a bigger rooster or tom turkey could seriously injure female ducks if they were to mount them. 

Unlike some other farmed bird species, such as chickens, turkeys, and guineas, ducks have a protrusible phallus. This significant anatomical difference could result in severe injury to females of species that do not have a protrusible phallus. Therefore, male ducks should not be allowed to live with such females if they show interest in mounting them, which may be more common if a drake does not have female duck companions or if he has to compete with another drake over duck hens.

Risk Associated With Treatments Intended For Other Species

If you plan to have your duck residents live with another species, in addition to considering safety issues associated with any physical interactions between the two species, you’ll also want to consider whether or not this living arrangement will put the ducks in contact with substances that are not safe for them. There may be some treatments that are safe to use in a particular species that are not safe for others. Be sure to keep this in mind if using treatments your duck residents may come into contact with. For some treatments, it may be safest to keep your duck residents separate to prevent potential issues.

Consider The Individual

In addition to understanding who ducks are and what they need as a species, be sure to consider the specific individuals in your care- thinking about their unique personalities and preferences as well as their health care needs. For example, while it’s generally not a great idea to house female ducks with males who are significantly bigger than them, an elderly male drake may do just fine with smaller females so long as he shows no interest in mounting them. 

There’s a lot to consider when figuring out social groupings for sanctuary residents, and things can get even more complicated when you start thinking about how different species will do together. Be sure to consider the needs of all species involved and think about whether or not you can meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone safe in a mixed-species group.

SOURCES:

Ducks | Woodstock Farm Sanctuary (warning- graphic photos)

Drakes, Drakes, And More Drakes | The Majestic Monthly, Issue 7

The Dangers Of Keeping Ducks And Roosters Together | The Majestic Monthly, Issue 149

Understanding Waterfowl: Flocking Together | Scientific American (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on December 10, 2021

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