What animal is hardier, lays more eggs, has a longer, more productive life, and is funnier and more charming than the popular backyard chicken? A duck, of course. They are also messier, more willful and require a different management style, but almost anyone who has ever been owned by a duck will agree that they are worth it.
When I moved to a neighborhood without a homeowners’ association, the first thing I wanted was a flock of chickens. Our small property borders a large pond, and, alongside my chicken research, I started looking into ducks. The more I looked, the more I liked. I never did get those chickens. Instead, I’m a happy slave to a small flock of Indian Runner and Magpie ducks from which we obtain eggs, ducklings, entertainment and a fair number of mud holes in the back lawn.
Ducks are practical
When you think of a duck, you may imagine an all-white waddler begging for bread scraps at the local pond. It’s hard to imagine such an entertaining creature also being practical. But gardeners and householders in Asia and Europe have kept waterfowl as a useful addition to the backyard menagerie for centuries, and for good reason.
Duck hens bred for egg-laying ability can lay up to 350 eggs a year, each of which will weigh 20 percent to 35 percent more than a chicken egg. Furthermore, they will produce longer than a chicken, well into a fifth or even sixth season – long after chicken hens are ready for soup.
And if you’re worried about whether those eggs will taste “weird” or not work in your recipes, never fear. Ducks fed a healthy balance of layer pellets and forage will produce an egg that tastes similar to a fresh chicken egg and provides better loft in baked goods.
As if their productivity weren’t impressive enough, these little guys act as efficient exterminators, gathering much of their own food as they work. The year we moved here, the garden was completely decimated by Japanese beetles. Fortunately, my first little flock of six ducks began an effective annihilation program the moment their mouths were large enough to swallow the destructive pests. They ate adult beetles and grubbed the larvae out of the lawn. We haven’t had a Japanese beetle problem since.
Ducks are hardier than chickens, both as babies and as adults. Thanks to their larger size and the fact that they naturally run a feverishly high temperature, they are resistant to most diseases.
When fully feathered, ducks are practically weatherproof. Their waterproof down coats keep them warm and dry – and happy – in even the worst of weather. On wet, dreary days, your ducks will make you smile with their cheerful, puddle-splashing antics. They do fine in hot weather, too, as long as they have access to shade and bathing water.
But can be challenging
Though charming, ducks are also, in a word, filthy. They muck up their pens, they muck up their water, and they dig mud puddles anywhere moisture accumulates – like the condensation outlet from your air conditioner that you never knew existed until it became a large, putrid, mosquito-infested, muddy duck habitat. Somehow, through the magic of oiled feathers and frequent bathing, they come out looking like divas, but you almost assuredly won’t. Invest in good muck boots and excellent drainage.
Additionally, they don’t like to be cooped up, they sleep on the ground, and they can be pretty loud. While chickens will put themselves to bed in their coop at night, free-ranging ducks often have to be herded or bribed into a safe enclosure. Then, while a chicken will roost safely off the ground, a duck is likely to sleep on the ground next to the fence – where a clever raccoon can reach through for a tasty meal.
Even waterfowl require care
Ducklings can be raised in a plastic tub with a heat lamp at one end. They don’t require as much heat as chicks and will let you know if they are too hot or too cold. They need water-absorbent bedding, such as wood chips or straw, that is changed at least daily. They can be started on unmedicated chick feed, but require extra niacin. Purina Flock Raiser is a good duckling option, but not all feeds that say “duckling” on the label are adequate. To ensure enough niacin, you can mix any good quality, unmedicated chick starter 50/50 with game bird starter, or simply add pharmacy-grade niacin to the drinking water. As a rule of thumb, dissolve one 100 mg niacin tablet per gallon in the waterer.
Adult ducks don’t need any special supplementation and can be fed chicken layer pellets. Plentiful natural forage and green foods from the kitchen round out a healthful diet. Provide free-choice grit to aid with digestion.
Predator protection for ducks is similar to that for chickens. However, ducks prefer to sleep outside, and if you’re going to provide them that luxury, you must cover the bottom 2 feet of their outdoor enclosure with solid material or 1⁄2-inch hardware wire mesh. Additional wire over and under the pen wards off climbing, flying and burrowing predators.
For shelter, choose a structure that is draft-free but well ventilated. If you live in a mild winter area (USDA Zone 5 or higher, for instance), your ducks will thrive with a simple doghouse or even just a straw bale windbreak. For bitter winters, offer a cozy insulated space or a heated barn.
To manage your flock’s addiction to muck, you need to provide good drainage. David Holderread, leading waterfowl expert and owner of the 49-year-old Holderread Waterfowl Farm, stresses the importance of keeping food well away from water sources to prevent wet and moldy food. Therefore, he places bathing and drinking water on special wire-constructed “water porches.”
Start with good stock
If you have been charmed by ducks despite their slovenly ways, choose a breed and a line that matches your goals. Consider whether you’re interested primarily in eggs, meat, pest control or decoration, and whether mothering ability is important.
Holderread cautions against choosing stock based exclusively on breed. He says a breed’s best qualities can quickly be lost through poor selection. Instead, choose birds from a reputable breeder with stock bred specifically for the purpose (or purposes) you have in mind.
Once you’ve found a breeder or two you like, you may want to start with a small assortment of suitable breeds and see which one wins your heart. I loved every one in my mixed starter flock, but the Indian Runners were both productive and funny. My sense of humor trumped all for me. You may have different priorities.
Ducks can be profitable
Duck eggs are a specialty product well-loved among bakers and chefs who prize them for their superior loft and rich flavor.
My extra eggs easily sell out at $5 a dozen to personal chefs and gourmands. Depending on location and your willingness to invest in marketing,
you may receive as little as $1.50 for a dozen eggs or as much as $12 (or more). Asian markets, farmers’ markets and chefs can be good outlets for eggs. Eggs sold for hatching purposes bring the highest retail prices, and potential markets include sites like Eggbid.com or the auction forum at BackyardChickens.com.
Duck meat can be grown and sold for a seasonal market, or simply produced for family use from extra drakes in your flock. Just remember to check your state and local ordinances to ensure compliance with health requirements.
Equipped with an inexpensive incubator and a group of high-quality, productive fowl, you can also make a small profit selling ducklings. Each spring, I fire up my foam-insulated, 40-egg incubator and crank out 20 to 30 ducklings per month while demand lasts. Hatching is addictive fun, and the $5 to $6 per baby easily offsets the cost of feed for several months.
Likewise, Kayla Schumann of Sweetfolly Flowers and Feathers in Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, says her Indian Runner ducklings sell out three months in advance. Ordering from a hatchery or purchasing through a feed store usually involves an order of six or more birds at a time, so, she says, “There’s a huge market for small orders of two to four ducklings.”
Because ducks can be raised in small spaces without specialized equipment, a large budget or extensive experience, they represent a wonderful
opportunity for young entrepreneurs like 17-year-old Lucas Poock of Spruce Creek Waterfowl in Sandusky, Ohio. He raises ornamental waterfowl for profit and is planning to expand into Welsh Harlequins and Indian Runners this spring. His advice to young people: “Don’t rely on your parents to pay for everything. If you really want to start raising waterfowl, make a plan and a budget.”
Whether you’re looking for a profitable addition to a backyard flock, or just a fun companion to provide breakfast and a show, ducks certainly fit the bill, so to speak.
For best results, obtain stock from a supplier who breeds selectively for the qualities you want. Foraging ability corresponds directly to pest control efficiency.
Indian Runner: 150 to 300 eggs per year, excellent foragers, poor mothers, 4 to 4 1⁄2 pounds, common. Personal notes: funny-looking with an upright stance, entertaining and available in a wide variety of colors.
Khaki Campbell: 250 to 340 eggs per year, excellent foragers, poor mothers, 4 to 4 1⁄2 pounds, common. Personal notes: skittish and low on personality, but great producers.
Welsh Harlequin: 240 to 330 eggs per year, excellent foragers, mediocre mothers, 5 to 5 1⁄2 pounds, unusual. Personal notes: can usually be sexed at hatching by bill color, relatively calm bird.
Magpie: 220 to 290 eggs per year, excellent foragers, mediocre mothers, 5 1⁄2 to 6 pounds, rare. Personal notes: strikingly beautiful duck, scientifically proven to produce the world’s cutest domestic duckling.
Meat or Pest Control Only
Muscovy: 50 to 125 eggs per year, excellent foragers, excellent mothers, 7 to 12 pounds, very common. Personal notes: large, quiet duck available in a wide variety of colors; meat flavor is strong; many people find the red facial caruncles unattractive, but they are beloved for their puppy-like personalities.
Pekin: 125 to 225 eggs per year, mediocre foragers, mediocre mothers, 9 to 10 pounds, very common. Personal notes: pretty, all-white duck, calm and personable, often prone to leg problems, mild meat flavor wins taste tests.
Rouen: 35 to 125 eggs per year, good foragers, mediocre mothers, 9 to 10 pounds, common. Personal notes: looks like a large mallard.
Egg production numbers and average weight data from Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread.
Heather Head lives in North Carolina with her husband and their ducks, bees, goats, cat, guinea pig, quail and three human children who make the rest of the menagerie seem tame. She blogs amid the chaos at www.CuriosityCat.me.