Showers, Troughs as Good as Ponds for Duck Welfare

Duck welfare is related to the nature and extent of their access to water, according to a paper published by University of Oxford researchers, Tracey Jones, Corri Waitt and Professor Marian Dawkins. Growth was not affected by treatment but the eyes, nostrils and feathers were in better condition when water was provided in addition to nipple drinkers. Troughs and overhead showers were found to be good alternatives to ponds. Jackie Linden summarises the results for ThePoultrySite.
calendar icon 3 June 2009
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The impact of production systems on the welfare of ducks grown for meat is becoming increasingly controversial, according to Professor Marian Stamp Dawkins. In the UK, approximately 18 million ducks were reared for meat in 2006 (British Poultry Council).

She highlighted that despite the association between ducks and water in the wild, there are no legal requirements for them to have water for bathing or swimming. Some have troughs in which they dip their heads and splash water onto their bodies but for some, their only contact with water is drinking water from ball-bearing nipple drinkers. The Council of Europe recommends that ducks should be able to dip their heads in water and spread water over their feathers.

In a separate communication, Professor Dawkins pointed out that most duck producers recognise that welfare would be improved if bathing water were provided but their dilemma is that open water could pose a hygiene risk in the form of the food-borne bacteria, Campylobacter, and the straw bedding provided must not become sodden.

The latest research from Oxford University – carried out at the Food Animal Initiative – provides clear evidence that duck welfare is related to the nature and extent of their access to water, according to Professor Dawkins. The researchers recorded body and plumage condition and undertook three behavioural techniques to assess the effect of water source on the welfare of ducks.

Ducks were reared with access to one of five water sources: a bath (small pond), a trough, an overhead shower, nipple drinkers only or nipple drinkers until five weeks of age and a bath thereafter. The baths and troughs were self-filling, controlled by ballcocks, and were emptied, cleaned and refilled with clean water each day. The shower jets delivered spray over a large area and were left on continuously.

The behaviour of the birds was assessed by recording:

  • the time spent with a single resource
  • rebound in water related behaviour when given access to a bath and
  • their preference for water source when given a four-way choice of all resources.

Professor Dawkins and co-workers explain that their results show that without the opportunity to at least dip their heads and splash their feathers with water, ducks were unable to keep their eyes, nostrils and feathers fully clean. Importantly, they found that there was no difference in the time spent bathing from the bath, trough or shower, indicating resources were equivalent in their provision of bathing water.

The effect of rearing ducks with different types of, or no access to bathing water on the incidence of clean eyes, nostrils and feathers, and walking ability in week 6 of life, and on average weight and growth rate to 53 days
Measure Bath
Nipple only
Treatment effects
Clean eye (%) 100 a 100 a 100 a 54.2 b (15) 100 a F2,24=9.0; p=0.0001
Clean nostril (%) 100 a 100 a 100 a 37.5 b (18.0) 100 a F2,24=14.1; p=0.0001
Clean feather (%) 95.8 a
66.7 ab
91.7 a
16.7 b
95.8 a
F2,24=6.9; p=0.001
Best posture (%) 100 100 100 95.8 95.8 F2,24=0.7; p=0.587
Best walking (%) 91.7
100 100 100 91.7
F2,24=1.9; p=0.144
Weight (kg; 53 days) 4.59
F2,24=0.2; p=0.927
Growth rate
(g/d; 24–53 days)
F2,24=0.04; p=0.996

In contrast, they observed the ducks spending very little time showing bathing movements at the nipple drinkers. Only ducks in the nipple-only group showed 'compensatory rebound' when finally given access to water in a bath, indicating previous bathing deprivation. There was no rebound in groups reared with a trough or shower, again indicating that the trough and shower were equivalent to the bath in its provision of bathing water.

When given choice, the ducks preferred to rest and drink-dabble with the shower, and bathe with the bath. The shower was intermediate to the trough. Little time was spent with the nipples when the ducks were given access to other water sources and little time was spent swimming in the bath.

Professor Dawkins and her co-workers conclude, "The results suggest that commercial farmers may be able to improve duck welfare as much by providing water in troughs or from overhead showers – which are both clean and economical of water – as from actual ponds (baths)."


Jones T.A., C.D. Waitt and M.S. Dawkins. 2009. Water off a duck's back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116, (1), 52-57.

Further Reading

- You can view the provisional version of the full report by clicking here.

Further Reading

- Go to our news item on this story, including comments by Professor Dawkins on media coverage of the research by clicking here.

June 2009
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