Is any homestead complete without ducks? I don’t believe so; we’ve been raising six ducks since this spring and we sure enjoy them! I must admit raising ducks was not a well-thought-out plan, in fact, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. The kids and I went to our local farm-supply store because Mama, (yours truly) wanted to buy a beginner honeybee-hive kit, which were strategically placed near all the adorable chicks, goslings, baby turkeys, and ducklings. I don’t know who wanted the ducklings more, the kids or myself! Knowing next to nothing about ducks at the time, I asked the lady working in that area which ducks were best for laying eggs. She advised me to go with the Pekin ducks so the kids chose two adorable, fuzzy, yellow ducklings, I grabbed some non-medicated chick-starter food, some pine shavings, and home we went.
The pine shavings and ducklings went into a large galvanized tub equipped with a heat lamp in which we had raised baby chicks in previous years. I snapped a picture of the kids with the ducklings and sent it to my hubby who was away for work at the time saying, “Look who’s joined the family!”
He knows I can be impulsive and, thankfully, he took it in stride! In fact, he did his research and informed me that Pekin ducks are known for their meat more so than their egg production and suggested we try getting our hands on some Welsh harlequin ducks who are known to be excellent egg-layers. To this I readily agreed and a week later we added four more ducks to the flock. Unfortunately, these four turned out to be drakes (if you aren’t familiar with duck lingo that means they are males). Folks, take it from me, do a little research before you get your ducks, or any animal for that matter.
If you are one that likes to do your research before jumping into something, great! I am going to write the article that I should have read before getting our ducks, and hopefully help someone out there from making my mistakes. First you must decide what it is you are wanting from your duck: eggs, meat, or both.
Duck eggs have almost twice the nutritional content of chicken eggs. This is due to the larger yolk where the majority of the nutrients are. I can’t personally describe to you how duck eggs taste. My one female duck hasn’t started laying yet, but should start any day now. Others describe them as very similar to chicken eggs, but even more flavorful with a creamier yolk. Just be sure you order female ducks, if it is eggs that you are after. They will cost you a bit more than the straight run, but you will be guaranteed to receive egg layers. If you don’t yet own Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia for Country Living, I recommend that you order yourself a copy, ASAP. It is full of amazing information that every homesteader will find helpful. Her section on duck breeds is valuable and is what I will be drawing from as I discuss the following duck breeds.
If you are interested in duck eggs, then you might consider the Indian runner. There are many varieties of this duck including the white penciled, fawn, and white. They can lay up to 325 eggs a year! These ducks are great foragers. They are also very unique-looking ducks, standing tall, nearly perpendicular to the ground. I’m considering adding some to my flock just because of their comical appearance.
Another great egg-layer to be considered would be the Khaki-Campbell. These ducks are considered to be very hardy ducks and will lay well even in cold weather. They do not get broody. Unlike most ducks, they are not very interested in swimming.
Also known for great egg production are the ducks which I have, Welsh harlequin, just be sure you order females. This can be determined by beak coloration when the ducklings are just a few days old. The female’s beak will look pinkish, whereas the male’s will be dark grey. These ducks come in two color varieties also called phases, silver and gold. I have the silver phase. They are gorgeous ducks! Also, very great foragers. Unlike my chickens, they do not bother my vegetable gardens, although they did munch quite a bit of my elderberry bush. We raise rabbits here as well, and my ducks love to hang out under the rabbit hutches and munch on the rabbit droppings and whatever creepy crawlies they find among the droppings. Talk about recycling!
If you are interested in a heritage breed of duck that is a good egg-layer consider the Dutch hookbill duck. This variety of duck is listed as critical on LivestockConservacy.org, a website dedicated to educating people about various domestic livestock which are becoming rarer, some on the verge of extinction. This particular duck is capable of flight. The wings can be clipped to keep them from flying, or you can keep them caged, although I personally would let them do what they do best and that is forage. Another plus about this variety is that they have great mothering instincts, an important aspect for any true homesteader to consider!
Perhaps it is duck meat which you are after, and who wouldn’t be, considering how delicious it is. If you’ve never had protein-rich duck meat before, you are missing out! It is dark meat, somewhat comparable to the dark meat of turkey, but in my opinion, more flavorful. Crispy duck skin is out of this world and make sure you save the grease, which makes amazing gravy. Ducks have a generous amount of fat that can be rendered and used to fry with; in Europe, duck fat is highly prized.
As I mentioned earlier, we have two Pekin ducks, a male and a female. They look practically identical. The way I can tell them apart is by their quacks and their tail feathers. Generally speaking, female ducks have a loud quack, whereas male drakes have a quieter raspy quack. The male’s tail feathers curl backward unlike the females. This is common in most duck breeds.
Pekins are the most popular meat ducks; they are extra-large white ducks. They have a great meat to feed ratio and can be ready to eat at just seven weeks of age, weighing up to seven pounds. We are hoping to get some ducklings from our pair eventually. Our fingers are crossed as Pekin ducks are known for being poor setters, but free-ranging pairs, which ours are, have better success and may raise twenty ducklings a year. We could, of course, invest in an incubator and incubate their fertile eggs if the mother duck won’t cooperate and sit on her eggs; whatever it takes to ensure we have plenty of Pekin meat in the freezer.
Another duck highly prized for its meat is the Muscovy. Dan Hunz, a local farmer, sells this type of duck meat at our local farmer’s market. He was kind enough to let me come out to his farm and see how he is raising his ducks. He has them in a movable shelter encircled in chicken wire with a tin roof. He moves them to new areas of grass daily, which keeps their living quarters clean and provides them with fresh grass to forage. He also feeds them a game-bird feed consisting primarily of cracked corn. These ducks come in a variety of colors and are the only domestic duck breed that was not derived from the mallard. Muscovies are quiet ducks capable of flight. They are not great swimmers and can drown if unable to get out of the water. Muscovies have a leaner meat than other ducks and are very great at reproducing. The female may even care for two broods each season. Muscovies have sharper claws on their feet than other ducks and the big drakes can become temperamental, so be careful when handling them.
If you are wanting to raise a good heritage meat-duck whose status is listed as “watch” on the conservation priority list, consider raising Rouen ducks. This is a large colorful breed of duck that is docile and cannot fly. They do well on farm ponds and near wooded areas. As a bonus, their feathers are said to make great trout flies and streamers, think Christmas presents for the fishermen or women in your life!
What if you want duck eggs and meat? No worries, these next breeds are great dual-purpose ducks and will keep your freezer, fridge, and belly full! The Swedish Duck, and its Blue and Black varieties, lay up to 150 grayish-white eggs a year and are a very hardy duck. They, along with many other duck breeds, can be purchased online through Metzer farms.
Here is what they have to say about breeding to get the elusive blue color in the Blue Swedish duck, “The most interesting component of the Blue Swedish breed is the production of the blue color. Blue birds do not breed true. In other words, if you mate a Blue Swedish with another Blue Swedish, only 50% will hatch blue. You will also get 25% black with white chests (called Black Swedish) and 25% that are a very light grey color, often called Silver or Splashed White Swedish. To produce the blue color you must have heterozygote parents, meaning they have a black and a silver gene for feather color. In addition, the first two or three primary flight feathers are pure white in a Blue or Black Swedish duck. This, along with the correctly sized white patch on the chest, makes the Blue Swedish a difficult bird to perfect in terms of feather coloration.”
Another great dual-purpose duck is the Cayuga. These ducks are a handsome and rare black duck. They used to be the most popular meat breed in the Northeast USA, where they originated, before being passed in popularity by the Pekin. The Cayuga lays grey eggs, along with an occasional black egg! They are very good foragers and can handle the extreme cold very well.
If you prefer a beautiful light-brown duck, then the Buff Orpington may be the duck for you. These ducks lay up to 250 eggs a year and are great ducks for roasting.
Mallard Ducks are another dual-purpose duck. These ducks are wild and are believed to be the progenitors of many domestic ducks. They are relatively small and have a gamey-tasting meat. Check with your regulatory agency before ordering Mallards, as you may need a permit.
Now that you have an idea of some of the different kinds of ducks there are to choose from, you may want to consider food and shelter.
We turned an old playhouse into a duck house and added on an outdoor coop. I have a kiddie pool in the outdoor area for them which we put sand around to try to keep the area from becoming a mud hole. They love their pool! I try to change out the water often, as they prefer clean water to swim in and for drinking. I recommend investing in a pool with a spout on the lower side. I ordered a dog pool that can be folded up. It is incredibly sturdy and the spout really makes draining the pool quick and easy. Just be sure the ducks are able to easily get in and out of the pool. When the ducks were smaller we had a wooden step near the outside of the pool and a rock in the pool that helped them get in and out.
One word of advice, do not put your ducklings in cold water. We nearly killed our ducklings by putting them in cold water before they had their real feathers. Ducklings chill very easily so be patient and wait until they have their feathers which will be around six weeks.
Some people do not provide any shelter for their ducks and the ducks manage just fine. Our ducks don’t spend much time inside. They spend the day roaming around our yard as a group. It is a lot of fun to watch them roam around in this fashion. As soon as one starts waddling away the others follow suit. They always get quite excited when I come outside to feed them in the evenings. I feed the ducks oats or wheat; they love both. I plan on also providing them hay in the winter when they can’t forage on grass.
I hope I’ve convinced you of the value of adding ducks to your homestead. They are low-maintenance animals that will not only feed you and your family, but will also provide countless hours of entertainment.