Reasons for Raising Ducks

Raising ducks makes perfect sense for the homestead, from helping in the garden to reducing insects and producing eggs and more. 

January/February 2015

By Dave Holderread

Flock of Muscovy Ducklings

The popularity of ducks — often described as the happiest animals in the barnyard — is increasing in many areas of the world. It appears that the rest of us are beginning to understand what many in Asia and Europe have known for centuries: Ducks are one of the most versatile and useful of all domestic fowl. For many circumstances, it is difficult to find a better all-purpose bird than the duck.

Duck attributes

There are many reasons why people raise ducks. These amazingly adaptable fowl produce meat and eggs efficiently; in many situations require a minimum of shelter from inclement weather; are active foragers; consume large quantities of flies, mosquito larvae, and a wide variety of garden pests (such as slugs, snails and grubs) and weed seeds; produce useful feathers; and are exceptionally healthy and hardy. A wonderful bonus to their myriad practical qualities is the entertaining antics and beauty they add to our lives.

Easy to raise

People who have kept all types of poultry generally agree that ducks are among the easiest domestic birds to raise. Along with guinea fowl and geese, ducks are incredibly resistant to disease. Even when kept under less-than-ideal conditions, small duck flocks are seldom bothered by sickness or parasites.

Temperature resistance

Mature waterfowl are practically immune to wet or cold weather and are much better adapted to cope with these conditions than are chickens, turkeys, guineas or quail. Thanks to their thick coats of well-oiled feathers, ducks of most breeds can remain outside in the wettest weather. Muscovies (which tend to have less water repellency than other breeds) and any duck that has poor water repellency due to infirmity should have easy access to dry shelter during cold, wet weather.

While chickens have protruding combs and wattles that must be protected from frostbite, as well as bare faces that allow the escape of valuable body heat, ducks are much more heavily feathered and are able to remain comfortable — if they are provided dry bedding and protection from wind — even when the temperatures fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit. When people express concern about mature, healthy ducks being cold, I remind them that these waterfowl have the original and best down coats on the market. Because ducks have the ability to regulate how much down they grow depending on weather conditions, they also thrive in hot climates if they have access to plenty of shade and cool drinking water. During torrid weather, bathing water or misters can be beneficial.

BREED PROFILES

 Weight Class
 Breed Male/Female
Pounds
Yearly Egg
Production

Egg Size
Per Dozen
Ounces
Mothering
Ability

Foraging
Ability

Status
 Bantam Australian Spotted
Call
East Indie
Mallard
Mini Silver
    Appleyard
Silkie
2, 2, 2
1.6, 1.4
1.8, 1.5
2.5, 2.2
2.2, 2

2.2, 2.0
50-125
25-75
25-75
25-100
50-125

50-125
20-24
16-20
18-24
24-28
20-24

20-28
Excellent
Fair-Excellent
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent

Excellent
Excellent
Poor-Fair
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent

Excellent
Endangered
Common
Fairly Common
Abundant
Endangered

Endangered
 Light Bali
Campbell
Harlequin
Hook Bill
Magpie
Runner
5, 4.5
4.5, 4
5.5, 5
4, 3.5
6, 5.5
4.5, 4
120-250
250-340
240-330
100-225
220-290
150-300
28-36
28-34
29-34
24-32
30-38
28-36
Poor-Fair
Poor-Fair
Poor-Good
Fair-Good
Fair-Good
Poor-Fair
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent
Excellent
Endangered
Fairly Common
Rare
Endangered
Rare
Common
 Medium Ancona
Cayuga
Crested
Orpington
Swedish
6.5, 6
8, 7
7, 6
8, 7
8, 7
210-280
100-150
100-150
150-220
100-150
30-38
30-38
30-38
30-36
30-38
Fair-Good
Fair-Good
Fair-Good
Fair-Good
Fair-Good
Excellent
Good
Good
Good
Good
Endangered
Common
Common
Fairly Common
Fairly Common
 Heavy Appleyard
Aylesbury
Muscovy
Pekin
Rouen
Saxony
9, 8
10, 9
12, 7
10, 9
10, 9
9,8
200-270
35-125
50-125
125-225
35-125
190-240
34-40
38-44
38-50
36-46
36-44
36-46
Fair-Good
Poor-Fair
Fair-Excellent
Poor-Fair
Poor-Good
Fair-Good

Good
Fair
Excellent
Fair
Fair-Good
Good

Rare
Rare
Abundant
Abundant
Common
Rare

Note: Information presented in this profile is based on the average characteristics of each breed. Actual performance may vary considerably from the norm.

Effective exterminators

Because they nurture a special fondness for mosquito pupae, Japanese beetle larvae, potato beetles, grasshoppers, snails, slugs, flies and their larvae, fire ants and spiders, ducks are extremely effective in controlling these and other pests. In areas plagued by grasshoppers, ducks are used to reduce plant and crop damage during infestations. Where liver flukes flourish, ducks can greatly reduce the problem by consuming the snails that host this livestock parasite.

POULTRY SPECIES CHARACTERISTICS

Bird Raisability
Disease
Resistance

Special Adaptations
Coturnix Quail  Good  Good  Egg and meat production in extremely limited space.
Guinea Fowl

 Fair-good

 Excellent  Gamy-flavored meat; insect control; alarm. Thrive in hot climates.
Pigeons
 Good  Good  Message carriers; meat production in limited space. Quiet.
Chickens  Fair-good  Fair-good  Eggs; meat; natural mothers. Adapt to cages, houses, or range.
Turkeys
 Poor-fair  Poor-fair  Heavy meat production.
Geese  Excellent  Excellent  Meat; feathers; lawn mowers; "watchdogs"; aquatic plant control. Cold, wet climates.
Ducks  Excellent  Excellent  Eggs; meat; feathers. Insect, snail, slug, aquatic plant control. Cold, wet climates.

Productive

Ducks are one of the most efficient producers of animal protein. Strains that have been selected for high egg production — especially Campbells, Welsh Harlequins, and special hybrids — lay as well as or better than the best egg strains of chickens, averaging 275 to 325 eggs per hen per year. Furthermore, duck eggs are 20 to 35 percent larger than chicken eggs produced by birds of the same size. 

Meat-type ducks that are raised in confinement and fed an appropriate diet are capable of converting 2.6 to 2.8 pounds of concentrated feed into 1 pound of bird. When allowed to forage where there is a good supply of natural foods, they have been known to do even better. The only domestic land animal commonly used for food that has better feed conversion is the industrial hybrid broiler chicken, with a 1.9:1 ratio.

Garbage disposal

Ducks are omnivores and will eat most food items that come from the kitchen or root cellar. The rule of thumb is this: If humans eat it, ducks most likely will, too — as long as it’s in a form they can swallow. They relish many kinds of leafy greens (they tend to be wary of red- or purple-colored leaves, but, oddly, not fruit of these colors), garden vegetables and root crops, both temperate zone and tropical fruits (even bananas and citrus if they are peeled), canning refuse, most kinds of stale baked goods, and outdated dairy products and by-products such as cheese, whey and curdled milk (these last two are best used to moisten dry foods, such as baked goods and finely ground feeds). To make it easier for these broad-billed fowl to eat firm vegetables and fruits, place apples, beets, turnips and such on an old board and crush them with your foot or cut them into bite-size pieces.

Cooked potatoes are an excellent source of carbohydrates and protein — avoid raw, green or moldy potatoes. Other root crops are typically consumed in larger quantities if cooked rather than left raw.

Find creative ways of having your ducks utilize waste products, but avoid moldy or fermented foods and anything known to have harmful toxins, such as raw soybeans and potatoes. Keep in mind that certain sticky foods, such as milk, can compromise water repellency if allowed to splash onto the ducks’ feathers.

During a nine-month research project in Puerto Rico, we supplied a flock of 40 mature Rouen ducks that were on pasture and had access to a 5-acre pond with nothing but leftovers from the school cafeteria (and oyster shells during the laying season). These “garbage-fed” birds remained in good flesh and showed no signs of poor health, although they produced 60 percent fewer eggs than a control group that was provided concentrated laying feed along with limited quantities of institutional victuals.

Useful feathers

Down feathers come in a wide array of sizes, colors and shapes, and have both practical and artistic value. The down and contour body feathers of ducks are valuable as filler for pillows and as lining for comforters and winter clothing. Fly fishermen use duck feathers in fly tying, and artisans incorporate them into artworks. Because of their high protein content, the feathers yield valuable plant fertilizer when composted with other organic materials.

Valuable manure

A valuable by-product of ducks is manure, which is an excellent organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen. In some Asian countries, duck flocks are herded through rice fields to eat insects, snails and slugs, and to pick up stray kernels of grain. The birds are then put on ponds where their manure provides food for fish.

Ducks 

Gentle dispositions

Typically, ducks are not aggressive toward humans. Of the larger domestic birds, they are the least likely to inflict injury on children or adults. In the 50 years I have worked with ducks, the only injuries I’ve sustained have been small blood blisters on my arms and hands — received while attempting to remove eggs from under broody hens — and an occasional scratch when the foot of a held bird escaped my grasp.

There are exceptions. Factors such as the bird’s personality, the environment in which it is raised, and the temperament of its caretakers can alter the usual docility of the duck. For instance, many Muscovy ducks interact well with humans, but due to their long claws and exceptional strength, the occasional aggressive one — usually male — can inflict injury. If you do get scratched, prompt washing of the wound with hydrogen peroxide and the application of an antibiotic ointment will lessen the chance of infection.

Decorative and entertaining

Along with having many practical attributes, ducks are beautiful and fun to watch as they enthusiastically go about their daily activities. Over the years, many people have told me of the pleasure and relaxation they experience from watching their ducks. Folks have given detailed accounts of setting up lawn chairs next to their duck yards or locating their pens within sight of the house, so their ducks can be observed through a picture window. A small flock of waterfowl can transform just another yard or pond into an entertainment center that provides hours of enjoyment.

I can still remember the first ducks I had as a young boy. Because our property had no natural body of water, I fashioned a small dirt pond in the center of the duck yard. After filling it with water, I watched as my two prized ducklings jumped in and indulged in their first swim. They played and splashed with such enthusiasm that it wasn’t long before I was as wet as they were. And then they began diving, with long seconds elapsing before they popped above the surface in an unexpected place. I was hooked, and I continue to be intrigued by the playfulness, beauty and grace of swimming waterfowl.

Noise

On the flip side of things, some people find the quacking of ducks an acceptable part of nature’s choir. However, if you have close neighbors, the gabble of talkative hens may not be appreciated. Some breeds and some individuals within a breed are noisier than others. Typically, Call ducks are the noisiest, with Pekins being the second most talkative. Under many circumstances, a small flock consisting of any other breed will be reasonably quiet if not frightened or disturbed frequently. Muscovy ducks are nearly mute, making them the least noisy of all breeds. Also, drakes of all breeds have weak voices.

Pond density

Having large numbers of ducks on small ponds or creeks encourages unhealthy conditions and can result in considerable damage to bodies of water. One of the feeding habits of ducks is to probe the mud around the water’s edge for grubs, worms, roots and other buried treasures. A high density of ducks will muddy the water and hasten bank erosion. On the other hand, a reasonable number of birds (15 to 25 per acre of water) will improve conditions for fish, will control aquatic plant growth and mosquitoes, and will not significantly increase bank erosion.   

Read more: Heritage Breeds: Keeping Ducks and Geese.


Dave Holderread, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, has raised and studied ducks for 50 years. He taught applied poultry science in Puerto Rico before he and his wife established one of the largest genetic stocks of domestic waterfowl in the world on their farm in Oregon.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks.

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