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Introduction and General Information

  • In rearing birds, one maxim should be kept in mind at all stages: all young animals are suicidal; the ones that survive are merely the ones that were unsuccessful.
  • In the wild, survival rates of many species are low, particularly for species which produce large numbers of chicks, while high survival rates are looked for in aviculture.

(B105.13.w4, B106, V.w5)

Waterfowl Consideration
  • Some duckling species are very active and good climbers, able to climb wire netting; a covered run should be used if these are broody- or hand-reared.
  • In the wild, downies would consume a large amount of animal food; small water insects and crustaceans should be provided if possible in addition to rearing meal designed for waterfowl, plus minced green foods or duckweed. Grain such as wheat should not be given for at least the first two weeks.
  • Many species, particularly geese, become imprinted at an early age. In the wild, or with parent-reared birds in captivity, they will become imprinted on their mother or parents. Broody-reared or hand-reared birds may become imprinted on the wrong species, with attendant problems in pair formation at a later stage.

(B97, B139, V.w5)

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Parent Rearing

  • Parent rearing gives the chicks the most natural rearing environment and behavioural cues which may be important for later successful pairing, nest building, parenting and other behaviours.
  • In general, parent-rearing requires less time and effort from the human caretakers than other forms of rearing, as the parents provide warmth, encourage feeding etc.
  • Parent birds generally provide a higher level of care than even the best aviculturist.
  • Many species of birds appear to be poor parents in captive conditions. This may be related to a wide variety of factors including the general environment, climatic differences, lack of appropriate food items and stresses such as disturbance both by other individuals within an aviary or enclosure and by humans.

(B7, B105.15.w2, B139)

Waterfowl Consideration
  • In allowing waterfowl to sit, hatch and rear their own offspring consideration should be made as to the likelihood of predation of the downies, whether or not suitable food will be available or can be provided, and the ease or otherwise of catching the downies to pinion them, if this is required. Leaving non-native species full-winged in open enclosures may be detrimental to local species and may also be illegal if the birds escape into the surrounding countryside.
  • Parent rearing is ideal if a suitable environment can be provided. Swans are generally able to parent-rear, being capable of protecting the cygnets and also being less vulnerable to most predators, due to spending most of the time on the water. Geese are more vulnerable because they spend more time on land, but are also generally good parents and able to rear their offspring if given sufficient space and seclusion.
  • Many duck species are incompetent parents in captivity, particularly in a mixed enclosure, with interference from other birds. Ducklings are also difficult to catch up and pinion on a large lake, and the parents may take the ducklings away to "safety" when a human appears, making provision of additional food difficult. Success may be greater with ducks isolated and undisturbed in a small pen, in which appropriate food can be made available at all times.
  • Aerial predators such as magpies, crows and jays are a serious threat to downies for about the first seven to ten days of life. Netting-covered vermin-proof pens are important for parent rearing geese and ducks, for the first three to four weeks for geese, longer for ducks as they are smaller.
  • Parents may eat the food provided for the ducklings. Small feeding platforms may be provided containing food for the young birds, surrounded by large-mesh netting which allow ducklings to enter but not adults. Feeding traps may also be designed allowing juveniles to be caught for pinioning.
  • Parent-reared waterfowl may be more nervous of humans. This may be advantageous if the birds are intended for release into the wild, but may be less useful if unstressed birds are required for breeding and/or display.
  • Geese and swans show a prolonged period of parental care and it may be advantageous to leave the juveniles with the adults for the same length of time as they would normally be associated in the wild. However, parents may also show aggression to their offspring, for example if they re-nest or at the start of the following breeding season. At this time it is important to ensure the juveniles are removed from their parents' enclosure.

(B7, B29, B37.x.w1, B40, B41, B95, B97, B105.15.w2, B106, N1.69.w1, V.w5).

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Broody / Foster Rearing

  • Broody hens have been used as foster-mothers for various species for many years. They are used mainly for gallinaceous birds such as pheasants and to a lesser extent waterfowl, although they have also been used for birds such as cranes.
  • Hens will brood chicks, providing warmth, and will usually encourage feeding by example. Care should be taken to match the temperament of the hen with the temperament of the intended fostered chicks, as a very active hen may accidentally harm chicks which are rather slow in their movements.
  • Using a broody to rear chicks carries an attendant risk of disease transmission from the hen.

(J8.17.w1, B42, B106, B139).

Waterfowl Consideration
  • Waterfowl may be reared by a foster hen. The hen will provide warmth and if given free run of the pen with her charges, will encourage the downies to start feeding. In addition, a tame broody will encourage the young birds to be tame. In general, it is easier to keep close watch on broodies and their charges than on waterfowl rearing their own young. However, some hens may accidentally crush the youngsters as they are hatching or in the first few days, and a few apparently kill them deliberately.
  • There is a risk of disease transmission from broodies to the young birds which they rear. In particular, broody hens should be tested for tuberculosis before being used (J8.17.w1).
  • A brooding area with a solid wooden floor should be provided, attached to a run with solid walls (to exclude draughts) and a netting top. The design should exclude vermin, including mice. Additional warmth may be required using a heat lamp, at least in the first days and early in the breeding season (or in later cold wet weather). Downies and broody should be moved to this from the broody coop in which the hen sat on the eggs once they are dry.
  • The run should be placed within a light, well-ventilated building or, ideally, on a sheltered lawn of short grass. Long grass should be avoided and the run moved frequently to avoid the ground becoming poached.
  • In general it is considered safest to provide only shallow water initially, with stones in the bowl to discourage swimming and decrease the risk of downies becoming soaked.
  • Protection should also be given from rain, particularly in the first few days. Outdoor runs should always be covered at night in case of a sudden downpour. Hens may not always encourage their charges to be brooded in cold and/or wet weather, and some downies may choose not to be brooded, with resultant chilling if the pen is not sufficiently sheltered and warmed.
  • Rearing pens for very young waterfowl, including broody-reared birds, should be designed to exclude mice and should be covered with netting to prevent ducklings from climbing out.
  • Waterfowl may also be fostered by other waterfowl. It is important to place the egg under the foster before hatching to reduce the risk of rejection. Fostering to another species involves the risk of imprinting. Behavioural differences (e.g. in brooding pattern) must also be considered. For example, avoid cross-fostering between species with different habits, e.g. cygnets of Cygnus cygnus - Whooper swan onto adults of Cygnus olor - Mute swan, as the Whooper cygnets will move to land to be brooded, while the parent (a species which frequently broods its cygnets on its back on the water) may stay on the water.

(J23.16.w2, B29, B37.x.w1, B41, B95, B97).

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Artificial Rearing

  • Many birds bred in captivity are hand-reared. Hand-rearing allows a greater number of birds to be reared (initial clutches may be removed and hand-reared, with the birds re-laying). The abnormal rearing environment may, however adversely affect later behaviour. One potential problem is that birds reared in an abnormal environment may not themselves exhibit normal parental behaviour as adults.
  • A well-recognised problem, of more concern in some species than in others, is that hand-reared birds may become imprinted on humans and not later recognise their conspecifics as appropriate mates. This is less likely to occur if the birds are reared alongside others of their own species. If reared together with chicks of another species, they may preferentially mate with that species.
  • Hand-reared birds may be less wary than parent-reared birds. This may be useful or detrimental depending on the circumstances. It may increase vulnerability to predation in birds intended for release, but may be useful in producing birds which are less stressed in a captive situation, and therefore more likely to breed: this may be very important in breeding endangered species.
  • Hand-rearing also requires suitable equipment in the form of brooder boxes, runs, heat lamps etc. and requires a considerable input of time and effort. Not all species are easy to hand-rear and some require considerable experience and expertise.
  • Hand rearing has the advantages of allowing good control over temperature and food availability.

(B105.15.w2, B139, V.w5,).

Waterfowl Consideration General considerations:
  • Success with rearing, particularly of duck species, may be greatly increased with hand-rearing. Losses due to predation and abandonment, in particular, may be decreased.
  • Once downies have hatched and dried, they should be transferred from the hatching incubator to a heated broody box. Broody boxes should have solid sides and a mesh top to prevent active birds from jumping or climbing out.


  • The most common method of providing heat is by an infra-red heat lamp. This is usually suspended over the brooder box by means of a chain, allowing the lamp to be raised or lowered as required to adjust the temperature inside the box. Incandescent bulbs may also be used to provide heat, but are more vulnerable if knocked or splashed with water (and may shatter), and do not allow for a period of darkness, which is important for all except Arctic-breeding waterfowl.
  • A thermal gradient should be present from directly under the lamp (warmest) to the far end of the box, allowing the downies to chose for themselves the most comfortable area. A sturdy thermometer may be placed inside the box to monitor the temperature, which should initially be about 90-99F (32.2-37.2C) directly under the lamp, reducing to 65-70F (18.3-21.1C) (or ambient temperature if higher) by about three weeks old.
  • N.B. thermometer temperatures are a useful guide, but behavioural monitoring should be used also: if the downies are all underneath the lamp and huddling together, they are too cold and the lamp needs to be lowered. If they are staying in the far corners of the box, as far away from the lamp as possible, panting and appearing stressed, they are too hot and the lamp needs to be raised.

Substrate and Cleaning:

  • Suitable substrates for young waterfowl should stay dry to avoid wetting and chilling and a non-slip surface is preferred to avoid splay-leg. Newspaper is not very suitable as it quickly becomes sodden and is also slippery when dry. Towels may be used initially but quickly become soiled and wet. Hay and straw should be avoided as they may be a source of Aspergillus spp. spores. Wood shavings, hay, straw and paper might be eaten, which may lead to Impaction. Rubber mats with a stippled surface have been used successfully, as has synthetic turf. Plastic-covered weldmesh or stiff plastic mesh on a frame may be used and has the advantage that spilled feed, water and droppings can fall though to a gutter area underneath to be washed away. Good hygiene is very important and brooder boxes should be cleaned daily to avoid bacterial and fungal growth and associated diseases.


  • There are two main approaches to the provision of water for downy waterfowl. Downies may be kept with full access to water for swimming from the first or second day. In such conditions it is important to watch the birds carefully for the first few days and ensure they are kept warm and dry when out of the water, as there is a risk of the birds becoming too wet with resultant Chilling. It is particularly important for the diving ducks (especially seaducks and stifftails) to have access to water for swimming and diving from an early age (B29).
  • Alternatively, downies may be maintained with only drinking water, provided in small vessels or in shallow bowls partially filled with stones to prevent swimming; this may be safer and requires less constant watching, and is often used for dabbling ducks and geese, particularly for small delicate duck species. The amount of water is gradually increased to allow paddling, and full access to water is allowed only after the first full plumage of contour feathers has grown.
  • If full water access is provided from an early age, a constant flow with surface-level drainage should be used, and an area of stippled rubber matting or mesh must be provided under the brooder lamp.
  • If waterfowl have been reared without full access to water they must be watched carefully when first let onto water as they may become water-logged and sink (see: Drowning); they are also at greater risk of Chilling until the first plumage has become waterproof.


  • Food should be provided once the birds are out of the hatcher. For most species which normally peck at food, dry crumbs or small pellets may be provided in a bowl close to water. For species which would sieve their food, food should be finely ground and made up into a wet slurry. Initially, crumbs with a protein level of 19-20% may be given, with this being changed to pellets of about 15-16% from two to three weeks old onwards. Fine grit should also be provided.
  • Some waterfowl are difficult to get feeding initially, and may fail to gain weight and die, usually during their second week (see: Starveout). A variety of techniques have been developed to encourage waterfowl downies to feed; see: Stimulating Feeding of Downies (Waterfowl).
  • N.B. It is important to ensure that downies are actually eating, not just appearing to eat. Daily weighing is a useful indication, although weights normally decreases in the first two or three days as the yolk sac is absorbed. Careful observation is required to ensure that food is actually being ingested, and tube feeding may be required for some very difficult birds which are slow to begin to feed.
  • For goslings and other grazing species access to growing grass (i.e. turf, not just cut grass) is important.


  • The number of hours of light provided should mimic the normal daylight hours of the natural environment where the birds are reared. In the case or Arctic-breeding geese, this would be constant daylight. Tropical species may be best maintained on a cycle of 13 hours daylight, 11 hours dark, while temperate species require something in between, such as 16 hours of light, 8 hours dark. Temperate species given too many hours of daylight are prone to overfeeding, with the attendant risk of the development of Angel Wing.

Outdoor runs:

  • Young waterfowl should be given access to an outside run in suitable weather as young as possible, and may normally be moved outside at least in daytime by as early as one to two weeks old, depending on the weather. 
  • The run should be placed on clean short grass in an area not used by waterfowl (adults or juveniles) the previous year.
  • Runs should provide sunny areas (weather permitting) and shade to avoid sunstroke/heatstroke, and should be designed to exclude mice. Thought should be given to the fact that the direction of the sun moves during the day, so that a board giving adequate shade in the morning may need to be moved in order to continue to provide shade later in the day.
  • The young birds should be shut away at night until the down is being replaced by the first proper feathers. Depending on climate, some heat may be required at night at this stage.
  • Until birds are both fully feathered and waterproof it is advisable to ensure that either the birds are shut in at night or the whole run is covered at night, to avoid the risk of birds becoming soaked during a nightime downpour.
  • Once fully feathered, juveniles may be placed in larger pens, with a good-sized pool. At this stage, birds which have previously been maintained off water must be watched and may need to be dried if they become to wet; waterproofing usually develops properly within a couple of days. These pens should provide sun, dry spots for resting and shelter from rain, as well as areas in sunshine.

Mixing broods:

  • Ideally, birds are raised in broods of the same age and species. Juveniles of different species but the same age and size may be reared together also; however some birds reared with a different species may be prone to choose a bird of the wrong species as a mate when adult. Every effort should be made to avoid rearing a youngster without other waterfowl for company (except for Biziura lobata - Musk duck ducklings).

(J23.16.w2, B7, B13.46.w1, B29, B37.x.w1, B41, B95, B97, B108, P3.1987.w1, P4.1992.w1, V.w5)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Suzanne I Boardman BVMS MRCVS (V.w6)

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