Ducks are wonderful creatures that add value and resilience to any garden, plant scientist Carol Deppe writes. In her practical and thorough book The Resilient Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing 2012), Deppe explains the joy of raising ducks for self-reliant food production and garden pest control. Read more about the case for keeping backyard poultry in this excerpt from the book’s “The Laying Flock” chapter.
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My ducks can use parts of the yard that are too steep, too wet much of the year, or too heavily shaded for gardening. Their manure fertilizes the yard and garden. Here in maritime Oregon, it is much easier to grow grass and slugs than garden plants. Ducks are great at converting grass and slugs into eggs. And the quality of those eggs exceeds anything I can buy. Ducks are experts at yard and garden pest control. Poultry provide us with garden fertilizer and make good use of excess or second-grade garden produce. In addition, free-range eggs can supply us with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which aren’t available from plant foods. Is it any wonder that so many gardeners love poultry? Gardening and poultry go together naturally.
My resilience is enhanced profoundly by having ducks, even, strangely enough, not counting the eggs. I’m a happier and more joyful person with ducks. My life is richer. If I find myself feeling discouraged or overwhelmed, I just go and sit with the ducks for a while. It seems to be impossible to stay depressed for very long when surrounded by a flock of foraging ducks.
Many people who want to produce their own eggs think of chickens automatically and never consider whether their needs might be better served by ducks. This is true even in the maritime Northwest, where ducks (but not chickens) can forage happily outdoors year-round. I encourage everyone who wants a home laying flock to start by fully considering the chicken versus duck issue.
Urban Poultry (and Suburban)
Even with only a small suburban or urban yard, you may be able to keep a few laying ducks or chickens. Check with your local animal control officer and with neighborhood association rules. Portland and Eugene, Oregon, for example, will let you keep three hens or ducks. Corvallis, Oregon, will let you keep a flock as long as you keep them on your own land. I now live outside the Corvallis city limits. However, a neighborhood association’s rules apply. Our neighborhood association allows horses, cattle, sheep, and home poultry flocks, but not goats, pigs, or commercial poultry flocks.
For those interested in laying ducks, the definitive book is Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread. For those who choose laying chickens, there are many possibilities.
Ducks Versus Chickens
The most ecologically well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. The best-laying duck breeds lay better than the best-laying chicken breeds. Ducks can free-range year-round in our region. Ducks forage much more of their diets than chickens and eat a larger variety of natural foods common here. Ducks eat snails and slugs, and are better for yard and garden pest control. Ducks love our weather. (I should perhaps mention my biases. I’ve kept five breeds of chickens, two breeds of geese, and seven breeds of ducks. The ducks are my favorites, especially Ancona ducks, and at this point, I keep only a flock of thirty-two Ancona ducks. But I like chickens too.)
Many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. A few people are allergic to both. I have also run into occasional people who claim to have problems eating duck eggs who can eat chicken eggs, though this pattern seems to be rare. Ducks from the better-laying breeds and strains can lay well enough to earn their keep for years. Laying chickens are usually not producing economically beyond the second year.
Ducks are much easier to control than chickens. Ducks of laying breeds can be easily confined with a fence only 2 feet high (as long as they have food and water and their buddies with them). Most of the egg breeds of chickens can fly well enough to get over any fencing. Keeping them out of the garden or the eaves of the porch often requires wing-clipping every bird.
Ducks tend to lay eggs that are bigger than chicken eggs from a breed of equivalent size. Some dual-purpose duck breeds (such as Anconas) lay eggs that are very big for the size of the bird.
Ducks normally lay their eggs between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. daily. This means they lay their eggs in the nests in their night pens instead of hiding a nest in the yard. You can pick up the duck eggs just once per day, at the same time that you let the ducks out to forage. Chickens have a twenty-six-hour laying cycle, meaning each hen lays a little later each day. So a flock of chickens is laying at all times of the day and night. When allowed to free-range, they sometimes come back to lay in their nests and sometimes don’t. So recovering all the eggs can be problematic.
Chickens can help with pest control in yards, gardens, and pastures under certain circumstances. But chickens don’t eat big slugs or snails, two of the most important garden pests in the Northwest. (Some chickens may eat small slugs or snails.) And the scratching of chickens tears up plantings and scatters manure and dirt over the rest. Ducks are considered the premier critter for pest control. All the laying breeds of ducks are big enough to eat even 8-inch banana slugs, and do so with enthusiasm, swallowing them the way a sword swallower does a sword.
Ducks are easy to herd. You can use one or two herding staffs, or you can just walk behind the ducks with your hands extended sideways, making scooping motions in the direction you want the ducks to go and saying, “Let’s go, ducks.”
In Asia, the free-range egg industry is based upon ducks that are kept in secure permanent quarters at night and herded to various separate foraging areas during the day. Since chickens can’t be herded, the night pen or house usually needs to be in or adjacent to the foraging area. To rotate chicken forage, you move their house, which must be portable. To rotate duck forage, you just herd the ducks to a different spot during the day, leaving their permanent pen in its permanent spot.
The crowing of roosters is much louder than any noise ducks make. Neighbors are less likely to hear or object to the sounds of ducks.
In many areas free-range chicken eggs are only seasonal, but free-range duck eggs are year-round. Here in the maritime Northwest, the free-range duck is happy foraging outdoors the entire year, and ducks of appropriate breeds are good winter layers. Ducks delight in cold rain. Chickens are so miserable in cold rain and use so much energy keeping warm that they either don’t lay or their egg production isn’t economical. The duck is the only way to get economical, year-round, free-range egg production in the maritime Northwest and other areas with cold, wet winters. (In areas where the ground is frozen much of the winter, there is no way to get winter free-range egg production from any poultry.)
Ducks can forage a larger part of their diet than chickens. Chickens eat mostly grain and animal life, with greenery as a salad. Ducks eat grain and animal life but also considerably more greenery than chickens, including grass, as long as it is succulent and growing.
In addition, ducks can make excellent use of wetlands, waterways, lakes, and ponds.
Ducks are more resistant to disease than chickens. Ducklings are hardier than chicks. Ducklings are more heavily feathered and have a layer of subcutaneous fat. They are designed for cold, wet weather. Ducklings can be outdoors earlier in spring than chicks. If allowed to waterproof themselves properly, ducklings can be out foraging in their third week. Chicks are normally kept indoors the first six to eight weeks.
Ducks, however, are much more vulnerable to four-footed predators than chickens, especially chickens with intact wings. Some people with marginal fencing or night housing can keep chickens but not ducks.
Chickens are much more readily available and usually cheaper. Day-old chicks of many breeds are often sold sexed, so you can get exactly as many of each sex as you want. Most laying breeds of ducks are much less available and are usually sold as straight-run only, meaning you don’t know how many of what sex you’re getting.
Ducks need bathing water. Chickens maintain their skin and feather condition via dust bathing. Some people find it much easier to provide a dry dust bath than a bathing pool. Books sometimes say ducks can be raised without bathing water. Although this is technically true, raising ducks that way isn’t kind. Ducks keep their skin and feathers in condition by bathing in water and preening and coating their feathers with wax. All you need for a handful of ducks is a kiddy pool of water changed a couple of times a week. My ducks have a small pond I made by propping up a piece of pond liner on the hillside so I can open one side and drain it and hose it down easily. If you are unwilling to provide bathing water for ducks, I suggest you get chickens.
Chickens are a much better confinement animal than ducks. Ducks drink far more water, have a much looser, more liquidy poop, and need more space when confined than chickens. Some people need to confine their poultry and bring the garden produce and food to the birds. Chickens are usually the better choice for that situation.
In areas where winter is harsh and the ground is frozen or covered with snow for months, any poultry has to be confined. This fact can translate into chickens being the most workable option. If I lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin, or upstate New York, I think I would keep chickens instead of ducks.
The “chicken tractor” is a small portable house with no floor that is moved around to fresh ground every day or so. There are many books and articles about this style of poultry keeping. It is actually a confinement situation in which the birds get a little greenery but not actually very much animal material. It works best for commercial broiler chickens, which don’t forage very actively or move far from the feeders anyway. Laying hens in chicken tractors produce eggs that are more a commercial-diet-based egg than a free-range one. However, chicken tractors are the only option many people have for their laying flock, and the chicken tractor, managed optimally, produces eggs that are better tasting, probably more nutritious, and certainly more ethical than those from commercial caged layers.
Chicken tractors work best with chickens. You can’t just substitute ducks. Laying chickens roost on raised perches at night and will use nests stacked in a bank against the wall. So the chickens use three dimensions of the space in a small movable house. The “chicken tractor” usually has one wall of nests that can be accessed from the side without entering the pen and a built-in roost on one side or end. A chicken tractor for ducks is problematic. Ducks use only floor space, and so need much more floor space than chickens, even before taking into account that their manure is much wetter. They need extra floor space for nests and resting. They need much more water and bigger water containers and bathing water. By the time you have given the ducks a big enough pen to be comfortable for them, it won’t be able to hold many birds in it, and it will not be very portable.
Many people will enjoy trying both chickens and ducks. Generally, the two species should not be brooded together or housed in the same night quarters (unless they’re in separate pens). They have different requirements. However, chickens and ducks can usually share their daytime foraging area.
Ducks for Garden Pest Control
That ducks are supreme for garden pest control is widely recognized and mentioned in many books and articles. Exactly how to use the ducks and still have a garden left afterwards never quite seems to be mentioned.
When it comes to greenery, ducks eat virtually everything people do, and more besides. So if you just turn a flock of ducks into a garden, you won’t have a garden for very long. Even if they don’t eat the tomato plants or squash leaves today, they will eat them tomorrow or the next day. They will eat the tomato plants long before they bear any tomatoes. They think corn plants are just big succulent grass that should be inside of ducks. They eat any grape leaves lower than about three feet. (Laying ducks can jump.) They even eat all the tops off the onions and garlic. And you can just forget it with lettuce, cabbage, kale, sorrel, or any salad plants. The only greens people eat that ducks don’t eat are the very hottest varieties of mustard.
Ducks don’t scratch in gardens like chickens. However, they have wetter and more projectile poop, so anything within about 8 inches of the ground can get pooped upon. They can also tromp on small tender seedlings. Chickens both tromp on young seedlings and scratch them up. But neither ducks nor chickens do the seedlings a whole lot of good. So using ducks in a garden while crops are growing is never a matter of just letting the ducks have full access unsupervised. It’s a matter of management and timing.
Here’s more information, based on my experience, about ducks as natural garden pest controllers:
• Ducks provide considerable slug protection for a garden when penned or allowed to forage near but not in it. Slugs like duck poop better than anything in the garden and will actively desert the garden and seek the duck poop—and get eaten by the ducks. Some people talk of putting a duck run all the way around a garden, but this isn’t necessary. Just a duck area within about 20 feet of the garden is good enough. Putting the duck area right next to the garden is handiest, though, because you can then just toss the cull produce over the fence.
• Ducks have dependable priorities when foraging that we can use for garden pest control. When first allowed or herded into a new area, ducks will run all over and eat all the most valuable, mobile, high-protein items first—slugs, worms, sow bugs, etc. Then, only after they have picked off all the pests, do the ducks go for the salad. So turn the ducks into the garden while you’re working in it, and just keep an eye on them and herd them out as soon as anybody starts on the salad course.
• Sometimes I have a row of tender small seedlings in the garden where I want to use the ducks. These need to be protected from getting tromped on. I use bamboo stakes to make a crude barrier on one side of the seedlings. A bamboo-stake barrier about 5 inches high on one side of the row is enough to encourage the ducks to walk around instead of across the row. And sections of barrier are easy to move to where they are needed.
• I don’t let ducks into areas of a garden that have low-growing greens in them that I plan to eat soon and raw.
• Ducks or chickens can be used to clean up a garden after the crops have been harvested.
• I use 2-foot-wide hardware cloth to separate ducks from gardens or sections of garden. I like the hardware cloth because it is stiff enough to need minimal support and because I can step over it. It’s adequate to hold ducks as long as they aren’t separated from buddies and aren’t starving or thirsty. The common 2 × 4 inch fencing isn’t ideal, because it’s just the right size to catch the head of a duck. Likewise with 2-inch chicken wire. (The 1-inch chicken wire is OK.) Combo cattle-poultry panels are useful for many purposes. Ducks can reach about a foot through them.
• In a yard, you can often just turn the ducks out to forage freely as long as you have a perimeter fence to keep out stray dogs and other daytime predators. (To fence either a garden or poultry area these days, I would go with electric poultry net, which keeps out raccoons and many predators that can climb ordinary fences. See Day Range Poultry by Andy Lee and Pat Foreman.) Many ornamental plantings make good ornamentals partly because they are unpalatable to most creatures.
• If your yard, pasture, or orchard is large, you can use water and shade to encourage ducks to rotate their attention, spread out their manure, or direct pest control to certain areas. Ducks will hang around more near a water bucket or kiddy pool with bathing water.
• Ducks need shade on sunny days. So if you don’t have trees, you may need something to provide shade.
• Ducks won’t forage in high grass where they can’t see predators.
• Ducks will usually not forage very far from hawk protection. That is, they are reluctant to move out into areas with no bushes, trees with low branches, or other objects that can be ducked under or around in the event of a hawk attack. I prop up a 4 × 8 foot piece or two of plywood about 2 feet off the ground in areas I want the ducks to use that have no natural protection.
More Resilient Gardener Small Duck Flock Resources:
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Resilient Gardener.