Heritage Breeds: Keeping Ducks and Geese
For many folks, ducks and geese are merely ornamental entertainment. We see them on ponds and lakes, and we enjoy their beauty and grace from a distance; however, we often forget their role in our agricultural past. Throughout our history, ducks and geese have been staples on farms across North America.
For centuries, families and small farmers valued these animals for their many products and services including meat, eggs, fat, down and feathers, weed control, alarms and more. Today, most folks have forgotten the role that ducks and geese can play in sustainable farm practices. Unfortunately, that’s led to a fowl loss, including many historic breeds that helped our founding fathers and mothers make a go of it in the New World. Take a gander at some of the remaining rare-breed geese and ducks and see waddle you think!
Keeping ducks and geese
Are you looking for beauty, brains and practicality? Look no further than the Chinese goose. Known for its elegance and grace, the swan goose, as it’s often called, is the quintessential backyard beauty, but don’t let the good looks fool you. Chinese geese are one of the most active foragers, best egg layers, and exceptional meat producers of all the geese breeds. Originating in Asia several centuries ago, the Chinese goose is an ancient breed with modern applications. Chinese geese can provide 40 to 100 eggs annually for the family. Their noisy, chatty nature makes them a great “watchgoose” for the farm or homestead. Also, as first-class foragers, these geese are great for weed control and lawn maintenance.
The Chinese goose is a lightweight breed, with geese averaging 10 pounds and ganders averaging 12 pounds. This alluring goose comes in two color varieties, brown and white. The goose has a long, slender, well-arched neck with a short and compact body. The breed has a distinctive knob on its head that has led to the nickname the knob goose. Today, the breed’s numbers are improving as more and more small farms discover the value and charm of the Chinese goose.
While the “Pilgrim” name suggests that the Pilgrim goose was an early traveler on the Mayflower, the breed is actually a more recent resident. Oscar Grow, one of the leading U.S. authorities on waterfowl in the early 1900s, is credited with developing the breed. So, why the Pilgrim name? When Grow and his wife relocated to Missouri during the Great Depression, the story is that she named the geese in honor of their “pilgrimage” to the new state. The Pilgrim is known for its autosexing characteristics. In fact, it’s the only goose breed in which the gender of goslings and adult birds is distinguishable by color. For the novice goose-keeper, the autosexing traits combined with the breed’s docile and personable temperament make it an ideal choice for the home flock.
The Pilgrim goose is a medium-weight breed, weighing 13 to 14 pounds at maturity. Day-old male Pilgrims are a silver-yellow with light-colored bills. Adult males are mostly white with gray rumps. Day-old females are olive-gray with darker bills. As adults, the females are a dove-gray with varying amounts of white in the face. Pilgrims typically lay 25 to 40 eggs annually. With fewer than 500 breeding birds reported annually in the United States, this American original is in need of conservation stewards.
From the midst of antiquity comes the Roman goose breed. Originating in Italy more than 2,000 years ago, these geese were considered sacred to Juno, goddess of marriage. Due to their small stature, Roman geese do well in both small pens and large pastures. If you are limited on space, the size of the Roman goose allows it to tolerate smaller spaces, eat less and leave less manure. For some folks, less is more – making them the ideal fit for the small farm. The Roman goose also makes a good “watchgoose.” Lore has it that Roman geese gave the alarm when Rome was attacked by the Gauls in 365 B.C.
The Roman goose is a lightweight breed, weighing 10 to 12 pounds. Like any Roman royal, the Roman goose appears to wear a “crown” on its head, called a tuft. The headpiece of feathers gives the Roman goose a unique appearance. Roman geese are typically a majestic white, and they lay 25 to 35 eggs per year. Despite their small size, they produce a quality roasting bird for the family. Today, the Roman goose is in need of conservation stewards to ensure the breed’s past, present and future.
The Aylesbury duck is a British meat breed that originated near London in the Vale of Aylesbury. In the 1800s, the breed was well-known in the United Kingdom as the premier table bird; their rapid growth rate, white skin and succulent meat were legendary. Stories tell of Aylesbury ducks being herded nearly 40 miles to the markets of London where they were prized by British gourmands. The Aylesbury was one of the first European duck breeds brought to the United States, and it was accepted into the American Standard of Perfection published in 1874.
Today, the Aylesbury duck remains a wonderful meat breed, ideal for the small farm or home flock. The Aylesbury is considered a heavyweight breed, with ducks weighing between 9 and 10 pounds at maturity. The breed is pure white with orange feet and legs, dark grayish-blue eyes, and a long, pinkish-white bill. The Aylesbury is known for its deep keel that almost drags the ground. Aylesbury ducks lay 35 to 125 eggs annually and are known for laying eggs during the winter season. More conservation breeders of Aylesbury ducks are critically needed.
The Rouen is a beautiful duck of French origin. The name Rouen seems to be a mixture of a variety of different meanings: “Rhone,” for the area in southwest France; “Rohan,” for a Catholic cardinal; “Roan,” meaning a mixture of colors; and finally “Rouen,” for a town in France. While the Rouen’s name origin is uncertain, what is certain is that in the early 1800s, it was the English who redefined the breed into what it is today. The breed was first imported to the United States in 1850, and it quickly became a popular multipurpose farm breed.
Today, the Rouen is found in two distinct types. The standard Rouen is a large duck that reaches an average weight of 9 to 10 pounds. The production Rouen averages 2 pounds less and has a trimmer body and more upright carriage. Male Rouens have a dark yellow bill, bright orange shanks and feet, and black eyes. In contrast, the females have brown bills, dark orange shanks and feet, and black eyes. The female also has a distinctive diagonal white/blue/white color pattern on her wings, while the rest of her plumage is brown with black texturing. Rouens lay 35 to 125 eggs per year. They are self-sufficient, hardy ducks that do well in a pasture-based system. The breed’s value is in its ornamental qualities and delicious meat. Today, the breed’s numbers are improving as more and more small farmers explore the benefits of the breed.
Carolina born and raised, Jennifer Kendall resides in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, Bassett Hound and orange Tabby, and dreams of one day owning some of these heritage breeds.
The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy is a nonprofit membership organization working to protect more than 170 breeds of livestock and poultry from extinction. Founded in 1977, ALBC is the pioneer organization in the United States working to conserve historic breeds and genetic diversity in livestock. ALBC’s mission is to ensure the future of agriculture through genetic conservation and the promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.
Membership in the organization is $35 per year. For more information or to join, call 919-542-5704 or visit the website at www.ALBC-USA.org.
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