Ducks are called water fowl for good reason, being completely adapted to open water for all aspects of behaviour including feeding and breeding. Domestic duck breeds are traditionally reared outside as free range or in semi-intensive systems where the flock has access to water for swimming. To meet demand for meat and eggs, in both traditional Asian markets and new European markets, ducks are increasingly raised intensively indoors.

Ducks have a well established role in the spread of H5N1 HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) which has made some Asian countries like Vietnam re-think on traditional free range duck production systems and convert to indoor production. This is taking place on an increasing scale in the Mekong Delta provinces of southern Vietnam, where most of the country’s duck production is concentrated.

Many texts suggest that as long as ducks have sufficient water to immerse their heads, to help avoid an otherwise high risk of eye infection, then this is enough.

Research shows open water enhances well being 

Relatively little work has been carried out to assess how lack of open water may affect  duck welfare, but recent research conducted at the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) by graduate student Rhonda-Lynn Graham for her Master of Science degree in Applied Poultry Science, has thrown some new and extra light on the situation. Rhonda’s work, which was reported in Poultry World, shows how provision of open water troughs for indoor laying ducks markedly enhances well-being.

In their natural aquatic environment, wild ducks use open water for feeding (dabbling and diving), preening, and cleaning their faces, but most domestic flocks reared indoors are deprived of this facility.  Prime need of the commercial duck farmer is to reduce disease risk, enhance productivity, provide protection against predators, and reduce exposure of the ducks to parasites.

Rhonda Graham compared the effects of two different water delivery systems on the welfare of indoor ducks to find out whether a new design of trough drinker could benefit ducks’ behaviour and condition, compared with a small bell drinker. Work was carried out under the supervision of Victoria Sandilands in the Avian Science Research Centre at SAC Auchincruive (Scotland) on an MSc project entitled "Comparison of Drinking Delivery Systems for Laying Ducks and Their Effects on Welfare and Litter Quality."

Twenty four 15-week old Khaki Campbell ducks were transferred from a free-range rearing farm to a purpose-built shed. Half were given access to trough drinkers along the outside of the shed, via small slatted openings, and the other half provided with chicken bell drinkers.



The amount of time each group spent at the drinkers was monitored and their behaviour, together with eye, face, bill, nostril, and feather condition, recorded. Graham also measured litter moisture content every 7 days.

Those ducks with access to water troughs spent 52 percent of their time at the drinker, compared with 33 percent for ducks with bell drinkers. In addition, they performed more water-related activities like dabbling and tip-up drinking (32 percent and 1 percent of their time, respectively) compared with 17 percent and 0.1 percent for those provided with bell drinkers. Ducks provided with bell drinkers spent more time resting and preening (40 percent and 21 percent, respectively) compared with 30 percent and 15 percent in the water trough group.

Graham said there was evidence of frustration in bell drinker birds housed next to water trough birds, based on time spent pacing and extending their necks through the pen barrier. In addition, ducks within the bell drinker group exhibited inferior eye, face, bill, and nasal condition, recorded during weeks 4 to 8, and a dirtier plumage recorded during week 4. When ranked using a scoring system of 1 to 4 for increasingly poor condition, ducks within the water trough group recorded mean scores of 1.2 to 1.5 compared to the poorer condition of bell drinker birds with a mean score of 1.9 to 2.1. Litter sampled from pens with the water troughs were consistently drier than samples taken from bell drinker birds.

Graham and Sandilands said their work showed there were distinct benefits in providing ducks with access to water troughs located on the outside of the building.  Benefits included superior eye, face, bill and nasal condition, compared with bell-drinker ducks, as well as enhanced litter quality. They went on to conclude that the ducks were able grow and develop in ways more consistent and close to natural behaviour, and consequently exhibited less frustration.

Some setbacks 

However, results of this trial revealed how introduction of open water (as trough drinkers) to commercial duck layer sheds is unlikely to be all plain sailing when it comes to working practice and economics. The researchers reported that use of the system is very “water expensive” and would require modification by, for example, provision of a slatted area near the trough. Another significant problem would lie in scaling up from a small pen to commercial size shed. The ducks would have to move to the edge of the building to access the troughs, which has implications for crowding, they say.

Last but not least, ducks, which are notoriously messy birds, managed to transfer significant amounts of feed into the water troughs, which therefore require even more frequent cleaning to minimise obvious raised risks of disease.

An extension of the work is required to see if the improved body condition and behavioural fulfilment, gained from access to water troughs, impacts positively on overall egg production in commercial flocks, say the researchers.