Ducks are basically like chickens. I think this misconception, very common among poultry keepers, is the greatest obstacle to keeping ducks. All poultry books I’ve read (except one) are about chickens, then they tack on ducks, geese, and turkeys at the end like some afterthought, and most of the time the author(s) never kept any of the other species, or only one or two of them.
Here you see the ducks demonstrating their great enthusiasm for their shelter. When grass is not actively growing, the area under the shelter is deeply bedded with hay or straw, and it stays in place. During the warm season it moves around the pond.
This being said, the differences between ducks and chickens revolves mostly around behavior and physiology. They are similar birds, but obviously ducks are adapted to semi-aquatic habitats and chickens to semi-arboreal. Ducks seem unable to swallow dry feed. Either they have no saliva, or little of it, and if you feed them dry feed (and most people do) they will need to access water in order to get it down. This is why ducks are so “messy” and foul prodigious amounts of water almost instantaneously. Ten chicks can be reared with a one quart upright waterer. Ten ducklings will foul a 2 gallon dog bowl and all their bedding two or three times a day. Ducks, in many ways, are harder to keep than chickens for this reason alone. I think that ducks really need to be kept near a large body of water that they cannot completely foul (a pond, permanent creek, etc.) and outside where their bedding is alive and can restore itself.
I like ducks better than chickens though, and for a few reasons. One is that ducks are just a more pleasant animal. They can be herded around like sheep. They can also become very friendly, and seem to have more personality. Practically speaking, they have much better cold-hardiness and their feathers are waterproof. They require little in the way of shelter, which along with feed, are the most expensive parts of keeping poultry. They are also more herbivorous than chickens. They DO actively forage in tender grass and clover, and seem to eat less because of it. They also can be herded through a garden and will snap up slugs and bugs with their bills, but will not scratch and will not attack the fruits or flowers of the garden plants. They also are fastidious preeners, constantly cleaning themselves. We were given a big Peking duck by a neighbor (that didn’t want to feed her anymore and didn’t have the gumption to slaughter, pluck, and cook her) that must have been kept without much water and was absolutely filthy. As soon as she saw our pond she went straight for it and spend an hour cleaning herself. She came out perfectly clean and white, from a miserable looking thing to a show duck. Never seen a chicken do this.
They also have a superlative built in defense mechanism. Ducks are the only animal I know of that can fly, walk, swim, and DIVE. Even with our intelligence, we’ve never made a vehicle that can competently do all those things. A flying-submarine-truck is something I think will never exist. We’ve never had any predator problems with ducks so far. Though we keep them inside an electric net, which is a very effective defense, they are wary and will go right into a pond if they detect danger. Few critters that can catch a duck on land can catch one in the water, and few that can catch on in the water can catch one on land. Ducks also seem to see much better than chickens (particularly at night) at watching for airborne predators, and will scoot right under a low tree or shrub if they see one.
This being said, they do need something to shelter in through the cold seasons. Unlike chickens, ducks are at home on the ground, preferably in straw or hay bedding, and they like to bunch up with each other to stay warm (they are much more gregarious than chickens in this regard). Because ducks don’t roost above ground, their shelters can made LOW and lightweight and yet be wind resistant. Chickens roost above ground at night (unless you force them to do otherwise), and it is their only (quite poor) defense. It is effective against skunks, but raccoons, opossums, and foxes all can climb and/or jump. And chicken shelter will be taller and heavier and less wind-strong because of this. This is one of the reasons why I favor static shelters for chickens and portable shelters for ducks.
Here’s our Duckingham Palace, a term coined by Elliot Coleman, who also favored ducks to chickens. It is the typical A-frame type duck shelter commonly found, and I’ve carefully worked out dimensions and construction details to save you the trouble of designing your own. I sincerely doubt it can be improved upon, but I am all ears if you can.
two 1/2″ 4 or 5 ply plywood sheets (I use CDX economy grade, because I am cheap).
two CCA treated 2″x4″x12′ boards (these will be cut down to 6′, so you can sub four 2″x4″x8’s if you can’t manage the twelve footers.
one pound box of 3″ deck screws with a 1 inch more long non-threaded shank
one pound box of 1.5″ deck screws
two or three 2″x4″x8′ studs
Four cheap hinges and two cheap barrel bolts
Two 6″ long deck screws (optional)
Three 1″ roof metal screws and a strip of scrap roof metal 6′ long.
One gallon of latex barn paint (white is probably best) and a cheap brush
About 16′ of thick rope (for for carrying it around) or an old garden hose.
Some D-rings and corner braces help tote it around, but are optional.
This costs under a hundred dollars and is quite sturdy and durable and can be built in a Saturday afternoon. It will require a contractor sized table saw, a circular saw, and a cordless drill/driver, pencil, tape measure, safety glasses, and straight edge (can be a 2″x4″) to put together.
The rough dimensions are 6′ long by ~5’6″ wide. This is ~33 square feet under cover, so good for a maximum of 16 ducks, but is probably better for about a dozen, which is way more duck eggs than most people will want anyway.
It is important to keep it as close to a right triangle as possible, this is because this will result in the other angles being roughly 45 degrees, which are much easier to cut.
There are quite a few details to notice. One is that the ridge beam is cut from a 2″x4″x6′ that had its corners removed at a 45 degree angle. These two removed corners then form the triangles that rest on top of the base–treated 2″x4″s. The long deck screws go from the bottom of the treated base board up into the vertical 2″x4″. Make sure to leave a little drip edge (about 1/2″) on the long sides.
Close up of the details of the door jamb, a ripped 2″x4″ and the ridge beam, and the ridge cap (a strip cut from a scrap of metal roofing fastened with some roof metal screws. We leave the other end open, and should face East in most of North America.
The recessed jamb protected the rough edge of the plywood doors and helps prevent drafts. Notice how only treated wood comes in contact with the ground, and non-treated wood is used everywhere else.
With the shelter being 6′ long, the two cut-off ends can be used as the doors. There are only a few little triangle scraps of plywood left after this job. Make it any longer than 6′ and you will need three sheets of plywood, and it will be getting too heavy to be moved easily. The screws are put on about 18″ centers. Since there is no framing (lateral bracing is provided by the plywood roof), there is no need to measure screw spacing. Less than half the screws purchased were used.