In their natural environment ducks make great use of open water for dabbling, preening and cleaning their faces. But most commercial laying ducks are reared indoors to reduce the risk of disease, improve productivity, protect against predators and reduce exposure to parasites.

Very little research has been done on how depriving ducks of open water affects their welfare. So last year, MSc student Rhonda Graham decided to compare the effects of two different water delivery systems on the welfare of indoor ducks. She wanted to find out whether a new design of trough drinker could benefit ducks’ behaviour and condition, compared with a small bell drinker.

With the help of supervisor Victoria Sandilands at the Avian Science Research Centre, Scottish Agricultural College, Miss Graham, who was studying for an MSc in Applied Poultry Science, set up eight-week experiment.

At the age of 15 weeks, 24 Khaki Campbell ducks were transferred from a free-range rearing farm to a purpose-built shed. Half of them were given access to trough drinkers along the outside of the shed, via small slatted openings, while the other half were provided with chicken bell drinkers.

Miss Graham monitored the amount of time each group spent at the drinkers, and recorded their behaviour and eye, face, bill, nostril and feather condition. She also measured the moisture content of the litter once a week.

Ducks

Ducks with access to the troughs spent 52% of their time at the drinker, compared with 33% for ducks with bell drinkers. They also performed more water-related activities like dabbling and tip-up drinking, at 32% and 1% of their time, respectively, compared with 17% and 0.1% with the bell drinkers.

The ducks with the bell drinkers spent more time resting and preening, at 40% and 21%, respectively, compared with 30% and 15% in the trough group.

“There was evidence of frustration in bell drinker birds housed next to trough birds, based on time spent pacing and extending their necks through the pen barrier,” says Miss Graham.

The bell drinker group also had poorer eye, face, bill and nasal condition (in weeks four to eight) and a dirtier plumage (in week four) than the trough group. Marked on a score of one to four, with four the worst condition, the trough group recorded average scores of 1.2-1.5, while the bell drinker group scored 1.9-2.1.

“Litter samples taken from trough birds’ pens were consistently drier than those from bell drinker birds,” says Miss Graham.

“Overall results indicated that welfare benefits exist in providing access to water troughs located on the outside of the building. Ducks with access to troughs had better eye, face, bill and nasal condition than bell-drinking ducks in later weeks, as well as better litter quality.

“Ducks were able to perform more behaviours common to their natural behavioural repertoire and showed less frustrated behaviour,” she adds. “Further studies on the effect of trough access relative to egg production would be necessary to determine if improved body condition and behavioural fulfilment can have a positive effect on overall egg production in commercial flocks.”

However, the trial also revealed some practical concerns for introducing trough drinkers to commercial laying sheds, says Dr Sandilands. “Using this system is very water expensive. It would also need modifying – for example, a slatted area would be beneficial near the trough.”

Another problem lies in scaling up from a small pen to commercial size shed, with ducks having to move to the edge of the building to access the troughs, she adds. This has significant implications on crowding.

“Ducks also managed to get a lot of litter and feed into the trough.” Not only does this require regular cleaning, but it has disease implications.

“We are some way from implementing this in a commercial situation. But it may be possible, with significant further modification, to design a drinking system that allows ducks to dabble and preen without causing wet litter found with bell drinkers.”

In a nutshell

The Problem: Due to several reasons, including disease risk and predators, intensively reared ducks are housed indoors with no access to open water. However, this means ducks are unable to exhibit normal behaviour, such as dabbling and tip-up drinking. In this trial, a system of open water troughs was compared with standard bell drinkers on bird behaviour.

Timescale: Eight week MSc project carried out in 2007

Who carried it out?: Rhonda Lynn Graham (MSc student) under the supervision of Victoria Sandilands

Who funded it?: WPSA Summer Scholarship programme

Key findings

Ducks with access to trough drinkers had better eye, face, bill and nasal condition than bell drinking ducks, as well as better litter quality. They also displayed more natural common behaviours like dabbling and tip-up drinking, and showed less frustration than the bell drinker group.