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Ducks in Backyard Permaculture (Alaska)

Here in the northernmost tip of North America’s temperate rainforest, Alaska’s infamous cold meets some of the wettest weather in the world. Our hometown of Cordova, Alaska, receives an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year — more than 13 feet of water.

In addition to the intense rainfall, we also see some very cool summer temperatures, with an average high of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13°C). As you might logically deduce, we don’t see a whole lot of that big yellow thing in the sky that makes gardens grow. This land is dominated by evergreen trees, moss, and mushrooms. Also, we grow some pretty epic slugs.

I have been trying to garden in this ridiculously inappropriate climate for six years. If you can find a crop that will mature in three months of cold rain, get the seed planted between storm fronts, and manage to germinate it, the slugs will come in like a cloud of locusts and mow the tender seedlings to the ground.

When I read Bill Mollison’s much quoted “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency,” I took it to heart. I have kept laying hens for a few years, and greatly enjoy the way they benefit my garden. But the possibility of a resident slug hunter was just too alluring.

I began my research in the middle of last winter. On paper, ducks appeared to be superior in every way to chickens. The traditional meat breed ducks grow almost as fast as hybrid chickens, and much faster than any traditional breed chickens. Laying duck breeds surpass even the best hens, both in quantity and size of eggs. Ducks tend to have fewer health problems than chickens. Ducks are hardier to cold and need less elaborate shelter. They can be contained by lower fences and can even be herded around from pen to pen. But most importantly for my setting, whereas chickens hate rain and are prone to lung problems in damp conditions, ducks love rain and are perfectly suited to a wet climate.

And yes, according to my research, full sized ducks would be able to eat even the largest slugs!

Quite excited, I ordered an array of ducklings from the Holderread Waterfowl Farm — the heavy Silver Appleyards for meat, Welsh Harlequins for eggs, and Bantam Appleyards to provide mothering services for next year’s flock (the large breeds are unreliable mothers).

From the moment I moved my batch of chicks out to the coop, and moved the new batch of ducklings into the brooder, the important caveat to all that duck awesomeness became apparent. I had read about it, several times, but it just couldn’t sink in until I was faced with it. Ducks are unbelievably messy. Truly, you cannot imagine it until you see it.

Ducks don’t just drink water, they frolic in it. The books recommend that you set their waterer up on a grate over a catchment basin, which I did. What I couldn’t have foreseen was that the catch basin would fill up with nasty water every day, and that the bedding throughout the brooder would still be completely soaked.

Furthermore, duck poop is much wetter than chicken poop, and rather than continually managing their own bedding by scratching, as chickens so conveniently do, ducks’ webbed feet just pack it down into one big poopslick.

Standard duck care involves cleaning the coop out every few days, then composting it in a separate space. But as a permaculturist, I seek to minimize work by following nature’s lead. Also, I’m lazy. I had already been spoiled by years of keeping hens on deep bedding. When you add enough carbon to a chicken coop, you hardly ever have to see, smell or even think about poop. Once a year you harvest beautiful compost by cleaning out the coop, and that is the extent of the work involved.

If you are seeking to emulate a natural system, then ducks need to be kept on a large pond. That would be the end of the heartache and hard work right there. Poop goes straight into the water where it fertilizes aquatic plants, which in turn feed the ducks. Brilliant and simple — if you have a very large pond. The recommended stocking rate is just 8-15 ducks/acre of pond to maintain healthy conditions. Obviously not appropriate for a backyard.

Through creative thinking and a lot of work, I am sure that a filtering system could substantially increase the stocking density. I envision something like a natural swimming pool meets aquaponics — a very small pond which feeds into a series of living filters, harvesting all the nutrients to feed aquatic plant foods (such as duckweed) along the way. There is a small group of folks experimenting with what is sometimes called quaquaponics, and it is very inspiring.

Nevertheless, I fear that ducks just don’t fit into backyard permaculture as easily as chickens. Note that I did not say they don’t fit! Just that working ducks into a small-scale system takes a bit more effort.

Ducks are worth it though — they really do offer a splendor of benefits in return for that work. Everything that I had read, the many advantages I listed above, has turned out to be true. Beyond their high productivity, low input needs and voracious slug hunting, ducks are an incredibly pleasant animal to be around. They’re gentle and curious and their intense flocking behavior is downright heartwarming. They go everywhere together, quack loudly with alarm when they get separated, and then chatter happily when they are reunited, as if to say, “Where were you? Oh, I’m so glad you’re back. You’ll never believe what happened!”

Ducks are devoted foragers, snuzzling into the greenery in a most charming way. They don’t tear anything up, scratching like chickens — an important quality in a small space. And, being able to herd the flock in and out of the pen is an incredibly useful thing, particularly in a backyard setting.

The good news is, we don’t have to choose between ducks and chickens — maximize diversity, and keep them both! In my next article I will explain: the benefits I have found in keeping ducks and chickens together in the same coop, a few tricks for ducks on deep litter, and a full report on my experiment with creating a worm farm right in the bedding of my coop!

Duck Resources

Dave Holderread’s first book, Raising the Home Duck Flock, is available for free viewing online, and is a fantastic introduction. His next book is still in print, and is an expansion of the first. If you have decided to bite the bullet and get ducks, you will want to have Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks on hand for reference.

Harvey Ussary, although not a professed permaculturist, is at the forefront of integrating poultry into the homestead system. He is also a huge proponent of deep litter. His website is an amazing resource, full of free articles of the highest quality. His book The Small Scale Poultry Flock is well worth the money, though it is predominantly about chickens.

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  1. Great article, i too am having less chickens and more ducks. They are just nicer animals. I use a series of small containers to large buckets with different size holes drilled into the side at different heights as they grow for their water supply. Ducks need to submerse their bills up to their nostrils and eyes. They also prefer their feed wet. It is unnatural for my ducks to learn to stick there heads into the side of buckets but it does greatly reduce water splashing in the coop. My ducks have laid more eggs than any chicken I’ve ever owned. They are also creatures of habit and like a daily routine. I don’t have a pond but use large shallow plastic tubs that are filled and emptied every day under fruit trees. I agree that ducks need more time than chickens but they are so much more rewarding in every way. Come join us, buy some ducks and become a duck herder.

  2. ” Ducks are unbelievably messy. Truly, you cannot imagine it until you see it.”
    Yes! They are also ninjas when it comes to hiding nests if you give up and free-range them 24-7. I love them though, and unlike chickens they can forage almost 100% of their food (in dampish climates) while still producing massive amounts of eggs. The slugs in my yard are small and nervous ;)

  3. I had two ducks in a garden,dustbin lid for paddling. They had a secure house! A friend lost one of his pair, so my ducks went to live with him. We now have a large garden, but our Border Collie rounds ducks up, so may be stressful for the ducks!

  4. I like the bucket waterer that they have to stick their heads into, David. Is that like the one from the “Poo-Free Waterer” post a few months ago? (
    From my observation it seems like they trail water out behind them though as they go back and forth from food to water (I notice in the photo from that post that the ground around the waterer is still a muck pit). I even tried a nipple waterer, which ducks can use as long as you provide deeper water for the face washing outside during the day, but so much water fell back out of their bills as they washed the food down that the bedding underneath was still wet. I ended up building a separate section to my coop with a mesh floor, and setting a plain plastic old wash tub in it. It’s no real solution, the water still makes the ground underneath soggy, but it’s slightly better than wet bedding inside the coop.

    1. yes, the Cascadia Bioregion extends all the way up through the Alaskan panhandle and ends in South-Central.
      not only do we get torrential downpours, we also get hurricane force winds frequently in the fall. it’s quite a special place ;)

  5. We have 10 ducks on a 13 foot round pond 30 inches deep that filters through gravel grow beds once used for aquaponics. Its really a great way to keep the duck pond clean. Even with to many ducks and green water the gravel and plants clean up a lot. Dark green water occors in spring after a period of winter non plant growthwater, the water goes in and only slightly light green water comes out of the 24″ deep grow beds. The surface of the gravel beds build up the most beautiful soil you could imagine, which must be cleaned out once or twice a year. Not all plants thrive in duck water, but peppers, greens, cereal rye rice, kangkong, and cattail grow great.

    Ducks love their pond so much the joy they show in infectious! I have a liner in the pond which extends out a couple feet. The ducks love to sit on the peak of the sun warmed liner and preen their feathers. Mostly the pen stays dry and clean. I find that they will not even use their shelter and prefer to play in the rain and make mud puddles anywhere the bedding is missing or shallow. This is the only time the pen gets nasty. When my kitchen garden needs some fertility I pump the pond water over and it greup or ger the rotor stuck. up quickly. The gravel grow beds have bacteria which convert amonia to nitrates which plants love. Duckaponics seems to be a great solution!

    I must add, don’t skimp on a pump as it must be able to pull feathers through it and not get stopped up or the rotor stuck. Also, when ducks hit the water they also hit the eject button and poo in the water almost exclusively and often young ducks get so happy they pop eggs out into the pond. Yearly I clean out the pond of eggs and other build up.

    1. Tammie I am very interested in your duckponic system I have 2 Indian Runners and I am trying to design a system. What type of pump do you use?

      1. We have been through a lot of pumps; waterfall and sump pumps. A commercial grinder pump would be perfect for feathers, leaves, and sticks. However, we are just using cheap harbor freight dirty water sump pumps. The big issue with pump life seems to be weather the pump is run continuously or is switched off and on frequently. We had a $300 life time guarantee pump that lasted only 3 months when switched every 15 minuets. The cheap-o pump we have now has lasted 2 years now running continuously. I suggest getting a 3/way pool valve with a timer and actuator to send water to a grow bed and then back to the pond for aeration without ever turning the pump off. A $100 timer and a $50 valves seems expensive until you replace a pump 3 times in a year.

        All the standard aquaponics rules of thumb seem to work fine for duckaponics like have twice the volume of gravel as you have in water, the more oxygenated the water the better, ect ect..

        As for the minimum size system you can calculate the filter needed based on the pounds of ducks you will have. Like for every pound of animalchabe 10 gallons of water and 20 gallons of 3/8″ to 1/2″ gravel. With ducks I reccomend doubling the rules of thumb. 2 ducks weighing 16 pounds total would need no less than 100 gallons of water and a grow/filter bed of 23100 cubic inches doubled to 46,000 cubic inches. The gravel seems to work very well at 18-24 inches deep. More shallow grow beds seems to not be able to remove the algae in one pass during a spring flush of growth. After the gravel mucks up a bit add red worms or earth worms to digest the poo. Once a season you will have rich worm casting “soil” to remove and put in the garden. Place your pimp at the lowest point. Ducks get a lot of dirt in a pond when they come back from foraging to wash their beaks out as they filter for bugs.

  6. In the Northwest coast we get almost as much rain. We put our duck coop on wheels and move it around with electric fencing. We hose out the wire bottom once a week. We happen to have a seasonal swale in fall/winter. Yes, they are slightly messy, but so are all our mud puddles, moss, leaves and mold. Ours are incredible foragers and spend most days, swimming, napping or foraging.

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