Winter Care For Waterfowl

Help your ducks and geese weather the bitter cold of winter by giving them some additional attention when the temperatures drop.

by Kirsten Lie-Nielsen
PHOTO: Kirsten Lie-Nielsen

Geese and ducks are cold hardy and resilient birds that make a great addition to a farm, but they have some special needs once winter rolls around. Covered in feathers with an interior lining of thick, fluffy down—the kind that we use to stuff our bed pillows, comforters and duvets—geese and ducks can resist the coldest temperatures as long as they are given proper care.

Provide Proper Shelter

An enclosed shelter is important for any farm animal to keep them healthy through winter. Walls help to keep out cold and blowing wind, and keeping birds close together within an enclosed space increases heat from shared body warmth. Even when you’ve let your fowl out in the open weather for the day, it’s a good idea to leave the access to the shelter open so that they can get in out of the wind if they so choose.

A shelter needs proper ventilation so that condensation from body heat and breath doesn’t build up. While it might seem like you want your coop airtight, trapped moisture is actually more dangerous for birds in winter than colder, drier air. You can achieve a well-ventilated shelter without allowing it to be drafty by putting small air holes at the top of the coop. This will still allow your birds to stay out of the wind and the bitter cold of winter nights.

Clean Their Bedding

Deep bedding helps to keep their bare feet warm, so freshening the bedding is paramount, especially in winter. Soiled bedding is not only messy, but droppings will turn into ice cubes and prevent your birds from being able to stay warm enough on long winter nights.

Allow Room To Roam

Waterfowl, especially geese, naturally won’t want to stay cooped up during the winter days. They prefer wandering around in open space. In winter, they will even pretend to bathe in drifts of snow, as if the white powder was actually water.

Give Winter Treats

Geese and ducks will munch on crumble or pellets for the majority of their fat and protein, but birds used to pasture appreciate any additional greens you can give them. Foraging for green grass is impossible in snow, but a duck or goose can be kept amused by a handful of lettuce or spinach. They’ll often nibble on hay if that is your preferred bedding and can be fed treats, such as mealworms, for extra protein. Keep in mind that anything you feed geese as a winter treat, they might discover and gorge on in your garden when warmer weather comes.

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Provide Access To Water

The key with waterfowl is making sure they always have access to open water. Ducks and geese have trouble swallowing without water: Their nostrils can become plugged with feed if they can’t rinse them thoroughly while feeding, so even if your feed trough is full, it won’t help them if they don’t have fresh, unfrozen water to swallow with their meal.

Rubber water trays are easy to empty when the water freezes over and are deep enough for wading. They’re ideal if you’re going to be around most of the time, but if you’ll be away for more than a few hours a day, it’s a great idea to invest in a large, heated dog water bowl for your feathered friends.

Waterfowl don’t just need open water to eat, however. Enough liquid to splash about in is key to them staying healthy in winter. Their preening spreads sealing oils across their feathers, which help keep them buoyant in water and lock heat in when it’s cold. Being able to bathe in open water allows for the most complete preen possible, but as long as your birds can submerge their faces and work the water through their bills, they can create enough oil to keep themselves comfy.

While watering your fowl is a must, keep in mind that any splashing indoors will soak your bird’s bedding, which in turn will become icy. Whenever possible, provide water outdoors in a cleared area so that the mess your birds make is manageable.

Watch For Frostbite

If it’s bitter cold, geese will often warm themselves by sitting with their feet tucked in to their thick stomach down and their bills under their wings. Some varieties are especially prone to frostbite, such as a the Chinese and African geese. These breeds have large, fleshy knobs at the tops of their beaks that can be damaged by frost. You’ll be able to tell if African or Chinese geese have been frostbitten because there will be orange spots on their otherwise black beaks and knobs. To prevent frostbite, these breeds of geese need to be kept within the shelter on particularly cold or windy days. Applying petroleum jelly to their beaks can protect against frostbite and can be used to treat a case that has already developed.

Geese and ducks don’t need as much attention in the winter as some other poultry varieties, but they still need special care when the days get cold. With plenty of fresh water and food and shelter from the wind, they should have a happy winter and be excited for the fresh grass that heralds spring.

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