Big news in the bird world this week: ducklings are now being seen in parks across the front range! How do ducks stay dry in water? Ducks and other waterfowl have an oil gland at the top of their tails, from which they spread oil around all their feathers. Ducklings, however, are not born with a functional oil gland. The mother duck will spread her own oil on her ducklings so that they can safely swim right away without getting waterlogged.
If you are raising ducklings without a mother duck, they will not have their own oils at first and will be unable to swim safely. Even a shallow dish of water can be fatal to a baby duck. Whenever they get wet and have no oils, they will get cold and maybe even die if they are not kept warm enough and helped to dry off.
But when is it safe to give your ducklings water to play in? They love to play in water even when they are too young for it, and it is tempting to give them some even right away. There is no standard age that has been agreed upon for when it is safe. Some people say at 4 weeks old they have a functional oil gland. Some people say wait until 8-12 weeks old, because their oil gland does not function well until they have their adult feathers mostly or fully grown in. One duck farmer even says to give them supervised water play time every day from the time they are 3 days old, and then put them under a heat lamp and help them dry off until they can do it themselves: this farmer claims that the regular early exposure to water encourages early and healthy oil gland development.
In my own professional opinion, it is first of all very difficult to keep the ducklings from playing in their drinking water – even if you get or make a special water container to keep them out. They will get wet. It is safest to monitor their drinking time for the first few days to a week, and give them water at regular intervals through the day, taking it away after they’ve all had a good drink. That way, they don’t get all wet and cold while you’re not watching, and they have a chance to dry off in between drinking times.
Second, you will know just by watching your ducklings when they start to repel water from their feathers. Before they can stay dry, they will look and feel very wet whenever they’ve been playing in the water. After a certain age they will not look soggy. For my ducklings, this was at around 3 or 4 weeks of age. At this point, I let them have drinking water without supervision. However, to be safe, I would not let them swim until they began to get their adult feathers significantly growing in, at around 8 weeks.