When you’re thinking about backyard birds, the obvious choice for many is chickens. But maybe you’re also considering ducks. Both birds can be fun, beneficial and productive backyard companions.
Which one is right for you will depend on several factors, though you might also consider keeping both.
For the Garden
If you want working birds for your gardens, both types can be beneficial in similar but different ways. Ducks are excellent eaters of slugs and grasshoppers, while chickens will keep the tick population down and snatch up Japanese beetles with a vengeance.
Ducks create ready-to-use fertilizer for your garden. Their manure can be instantly applied to the garden safely, as its waterlike consistency quickly breaks down and is absorbed by the soil. Chicken excrement is also fantastic for your plants, but it needs to be kept composting for about 6 months to a year before it can safely be added to a vegetable bed or flowerpot.
In these ways, both birds can be beneficial in flower and veggie beds. But chickens may do more damage than they’re worth, depending on what you are growing. While ducks’ flat feet and tendency to sit on everything can be a danger to small seedlings in spring, they’re relatively harmless to mature plants.
Chickens, however, will scratch everything, dust bathe everywhere and can often be caught jumping and flapping to reach the very best tomatoes on the vine. Where chickens excel is in the aeration of compost piles and garden cleanup at the end of the season, when they can clear unwanted seeds and scraps from the soil.
If eggs are what you’re after, both can be excellent providers. When I say egg, you think chicken. But ducks are great, reliable egg producers as well. Some breeds even outlay their chicken counterparts.
Duck eggs are highly nutritious and better for baking than chicken eggs. They also keep longer and, because of their unique protein makeup, can be eaten by many who otherwise have egg allergies. Duck eggs are also bigger, richer and creamier than those of a chicken. And if you intend to sell them, duck eggs will go for a higher price. If you really love eggs, keep both to take full advantage of what each has to offer.
Or maybe you simply want to keep birds because you love the birds. In which case, both ducks and chickens can be fabulous companions with their own weird little personalities and behavioral characteristics. Both can be extremely friendly pets when handled often and are always fun to watch.
Whatever your reason for wanting birds there are a few things you should know about keeping chickens and ducks and their specific needs, before choosing one, the other or both.
One of the main differences between ducks and chickens that you need to consider is their space and how they occupy it. Chickens (some breeds more so than others and especially bantam breeds) tend to acclimate well to being penned in smaller spaces. Ducks, for the most part, enjoy a degree of freedom.
While I always recommend free-ranging any type of farm bird you keep, if space is an issue and free-ranging isn’t a viable option, chickens are probably the better choice. If you have even a small yard for your birds to forage in, ducks may be back on the table.
Ducks love green grass and dandelion leaves and will appreciate any natural space you allow them to wander. Chickens, on the other hand, can happily occupy themselves scratching in the dirt for days.
That said, if you’re able to free-range, it’s worth noting that while most chickens will stick relatively close to home, even when let free, many duck breeds tend to travel farther to forage. If you’re surrounded by woodland or open fields, your ducks will enjoy little adventures. If you have close neighbors who don’t appreciate feathered pets as much as you do, you may want to reconsider or consider fencing.
Regardless, both birds can be easily trained to return home at the end of the day so that they can be safely locked away for the night. Both types of birds will also enjoy and appreciate small structures or brushy areas under which to hide and relax in relative safety as well as to escape extreme heat, snow or wind.
Health & Behavior
By and large ducks tend to be healthier than chickens, more resistant to disease, hardier and less fragile. Chickens are susceptible to a wide range of issues from mites to internal parasites to crop issues. They are also much more likely to become egg bound or fall victim to the aggression of their own flock.
While ducks aren’t immune to these ailments, they tend to fare better than their chicken friends. Though with both species, if you keep males in your flock, it’s essential to maintain healthy ratios to avoid mating injuries.
Both ducks and chickens have a pecking order, but you’ll notice infighting much more in chickens than in ducks, and the injuries can be worse. Roosters have spurs, sharp beaks and long toenails. Duck squabbles look much more like an innocent round of neck wrestling.
And while I have known a few chickens to eat their own, I have never seen such behavior in ducks.
Read more: Ducks can bring real value to the backyard!
The feeding situation for ducks and chickens isn’t much different. Each can be fed with generic pelleted feed along with fresh veggies, dried bug treats and various kitchen scraps. While each has their own, slightly differing, specific nutritional needs, proper formulated food for ducks and chickens is easily found at any feed-supply store.
If you choose to house them together, many feed pellet blends will meet the needs of both and can be fed communally.
The biggest difference in the feeding of ducks and chickens is in the water. While chickens simply require available fresh water, ducks will need it deep enough to fully submerge their beaks, as this is how they clean their nostrils and keep their nasal passages clear. Ducks will also muddy water much quicker than chickens, thus increasing the frequency with which you must change out their waterers.
While ducks and chickens can be housed together, there are some specific needs for each. Chickens roost at night and require perches in a well-ventilated, but draft-free coop, shed or barn. Ducks, on the other hand (except for the Muscovy), will sleep on the ground wherever they are, with little regard for weather, cover or bedding. That said, they should still be provided, at minimum, a three-sided shelter with a roof where they can hide from the elements, should they choose to.
Chickens require nesting boxes where they should reliably lay their eggs throughout the day. Ducks will lay, mostly in the morning, and wherever they happen to be, or in a communal nest if someone starts it. They’re also known to hide their eggs, so if you provide them with straw bedding, it doesn’t hurt to dig around a bit.
Ducks also require more frequent tidying. Chickens will scratch and move bedding around, rifle through their straw or wood shavings and otherwise aerate their space. Ducks have very wet poop, fling water everywhere and then sit in it, creating a stinky, mushy situation that needs to be scooped up relatively frequently.
Keeping the two together can reduce this somewhat, especially if your chicken count is higher than your duck count. But any time ducks are involved, there will be more mess and you’ll have to retain dry areas for the chickens, who greatly dislike having wet toes.
Housing the two together is relatively easy. A small coop that has perches for chickens and sufficient floor space for ducks will happily be shared. A secure attached run with 24/7 access gives the ducks the option of sleeping outdoors, too. Water should be kept in runs and not in the coop itself. This will cut down on the mess that ducks make and the humidity in the coop which can have negative effects on chickens, particularly in winter.
Neither ducks or chickens are particularly noisy creatures. However, where noise level is concerned, it’s the males that are quieter amongst ducks, while the opposite is true in chickens. If eggs aren’t a consideration for you, male ducks are the quietest of all the backyard birds. Their soft little rasps don’t reach great volumes and you can keep a flock of entirely male ducks, so long as there is no female present, as adorable lawn ornaments and outdoor companions.
When considering noise in chickens you really want to limit the number of roosters in your flock. One will crow occasionally. Add another, and he’ll want to match the other. Add a third, and you’ll hear conversations all day.
Both ducks and chickens will “chat” amongst themselves almost constantly, with the female ducks being slightly louder than all the others. This is somewhat dependent on breed, however. Muscovies, for instance, tend to be very quiet birds, while call ducks (which can also fly) tend to be louder and chattier creatures. Ducks will also occasionally chat throughout the night, especially when startled, while chickens are all but comatose once perched for the evening.
Whatever your reason for getting chickens or ducks, whichever type you choose, it’s worth looking into individual breeds to ascertain what is right for your situation. Some chickens are hardier in cold temperatures than others. Some duck breeds lay eggs more frequently. Some birds are homebodies, while others may travel a little farther.
There are also different sizes amongst breeds from bantam varieties to extra-large breeds. Some make better mothers or lay various colored eggs. Some breeds of chickens are known to be friendlier if you’re looking for pets, where others are better free-rangers because of their skittishness and heightened awareness.
At the end of the day, chickens and ducks are equally joyful creatures to have around, easy to source and relatively easy to keep. They aren’t expensive to feed, house or care for and can be a great source of delicious eggs.
In terms of their natural habitat, ducks do love water. That doesn’t, however, mean you need a pond to keep them. They’ll be happy with a kiddie pool filled fresh daily, a small meandering creek in your backyard or even just a big puddle to play in.
While they can live without water, I recommend providing water deep enough for them to float. There is nothing more joyful than a duck in a fresh pool.
Though water for swimming is good exercise, it isn’t essential for growing ducks. “Pools or small ponds can become soiled quickly, and if not flushed often, the rank water can be detrimental,” writes David R. Laatsch, an interim University of Wisconsin Extension agricultural educator, in Care of Ducks. “Ducks will stay clean and healthy with adequately adjusted drip-type watering systems and wire floors. Fresh drinking water is essential for top performance.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.