Chickens-or-Ducks-best-fowl-for-your-farm

It’s finally happened: you’re moving toward living your homesteading dream. You figured out your property and set aside a spot for your garden. Now it’s time to plan for your first livestock. But here’s the big debate: with which type of animal should you start?

Most homesteaders start with fowl of some sort. Of those of us who choose feathered over furry critters, most choose chickens. This was not the case for our family, who decided to jump into the livestock world with 50 ducklings. You might be wondering why we chose ducks over chickens and, perhaps, if this is a bird you should consider. Spoiler alert: if I had to do it all over again, I would have started with chickens. My husband, on the other hand, loathes our chickens and would keep all ducks if he was forced to choose. But which is the best bird for your homestead? What advantages do ducks have over chickens and vice versa?

First Things First: Let’s Talk About Eggs.

When we first think of owning our own livestock, most of us dream of farm fresh eggs. I envisioned a few fluffy chickens running across our yard and laying beautiful brown eggs in their straw-filled nesting boxes. It wasn’t until we had begun our hunt for our little farm that I even realized ducks could be raised for eggs as well—but if you are looking for shades of cream, terracotta, or chocolate in your egg carton, steer clear of ducks. Ducks are limited as far as the color of the eggs they lay. Most domestic breeds will lay white eggs.

If you are looking for a more unique color, the Dutch Hookbill will lay a light green-blue egg. Mallards are also said to lay this color, however, owning Mallard ducks is illegal without a permit. Perhaps the most unusual egg color in all domestic fowl is that laid by the Cayuga duck. The Cayuga is known for laying black eggs. They do, however, gradually fade to a lighter shade each time she lays (the color will “reset” every new laying season). That said, the gray eggs are still quite unique and beautiful. You can also find ducks that have white eggs tinted with a light beige or even a tint of green in birds like Khaki Campbells or Indian Runner ducks respectively, however, this coloration is not bred into the bird and can vary from bird to bird, even with those bred from the same parents.

Chickens, on the other hand, can lay eggs in about every color you can imagine. Some breeds such as Ameraucanas, Easter Eggers, or Cream Legbars can lay light shades of blues, teals, and minty greens. Many breeds such as Wellsummers or Plymouth Rocks can lay every shade of brown, with or without speckles. Marans are known for laying dark brown eggs, some as richly colored as chocolate. Olive Eggers can lay light or deep olive-green colored eggs. Some breeds even offer light pink hues. And yes, if you’re a purist, some will even lay white eggs.

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So how do these eggs stack up against each other in the kitchen? When it comes to eating eggs in their simplest form—cooked by themselves, perhaps seasoned with a little salt and pepper—the difference is a matter of opinion. Some say they taste the same. Personally, I feel the duck eggs have a richer flavor which can only be described as “eggier”— they’re eggs, amplified. The yolk is a bit creamier and slightly heavier as well. My husband prefers duck eggs; however, I enjoy the more delicate flavor of chicken eggs.

Both egg types cook up a little differently, too. The duck eggs need to be cooked at a lower temperature; cooking too hot and too quickly will result in a “rubbery” consistency. The duck eggs, with their thicker albumen (egg white), hold up to the abuse of a spatula a bit better than chicken eggs, making you less likely to break the yolk. They are overall a more durable egg. In fact, when one cracks a duck egg open for the first time, one will immediately notice the thicker shell and the increased effort required to crack it.

When using duck or chicken eggs in recipes, each has its own perk. Duck eggs, which are thicker, fattier, and more nutrient-packed, work well in baked goods where dense, moist, and/or rich results are desired. A friend of ours absolutely loves using them in brownies. My mother-in-law enjoys using them in some of her cakes. Chicken eggs, on the other hand, are great for fluffier delectables. I learned the hard way that duck eggs can be whipped until frothy but will not whip up to stiff peaks, but chicken eggs absolutely can. Duck eggs also do not rise in baked recipes the same way chicken eggs do. For these reasons, I enjoy having both types of birds in my flock so that I have some options when it comes to the perfect ingredients for recipes.

Which Bird Has Better Egg Production?

This is a tricky question. No matter which type of bird you choose, there are options to buy a breed that is known for having a high egg output. What we have found on our homestead is the number of eggs is one thing, but the time period of production is another.

At the height of laying season—typically in the spring—any given bird of any type will reliably lay an egg a day for us, perhaps skipping a day here and there. What has been very interesting to see is, over the years, our ducks reliably have an “off-season” which begins in the summer, typically after a few broody ducks hatch out babies, and doesn’t end until the dead of winter when they begin laying again. This is contrary to everything we’ve read that says the birds molt in the fall and stop laying then, picking back up in the spring. Our chickens, it seems, do follow this stereotypical pattern.

As of writing this, we are entering the third week of January here in Virginia, and at least 3-4 of our ducks began laying a few weeks ago. We are just now seeing a chicken egg here and there, but they have been days apart and from different chickens (we can tell as the eggs have been different colors). It’s possible they’re laying in a hidden nest somewhere (they free range during the day), but one point still remains: for us, the number of eggs we get annually per bird is roughly the same; what matters is when their “downtime” falls. We enjoy the fact that for the most part, there are only a few weeks of overlap between when the chickens stop laying and the ducks start again, which means we have eggs the majority of the year.

Which Bird Is More Aesthetically Pleasing?

Second to the desire for eggs, you may want a bird that is nice to look at. While both birds have a good variety of feather colors, chickens, hands down (wings down?), beat ducks in the multitude of color variations and patterns you can choose. Ducks can be quite pretty with their shades of brown, speckles, and certainly their iridescent feathers (let me mention the Cayuga here again, with its color-shifting sheen), however, chickens come in similar colors, and then some. Chickens can have speckles, spots, “barring”, “lacing” (single or double), “mottling”, and more—sometimes a mix on the same chicken. Chickens also come in some colors that domestic ducks do not, such as some shades of brown, red, orange, and even lavender.

Chicken feathers themselves can also come in different textures, such as the silkie breed with feathers as fluffy as a cotton ball, or the frizzle breed that looks like it may have pecked at an electrical outlet. The length of feathers can also vary in chickens. A somewhat well-known breed among chicken enthusiasts is the Phoenix—it can grow feathers that are longer than twice its body length! There is even a popular variety of chicken known as the “Showgirl”, which has a comical puff of feathers on its head, with none at all on its neck. With ducks, you can find breeds that are “crested”, which makes the duck appear as though it is wearing a fluffy hat… but that’s about as interesting as the feathers get. Otherwise, they’re all straight and a standard length, regardless of the breed.

Which Bird Is Messier?

This is an easy one: ducks are messier.

No chicken could ever be as messy as a duck, try as it might (which it won’t). Ducks effortlessly make an absolute mess of everything from the moment they hatch. We tried to brood 50 ducklings in two extra large plastic totes. While it worked as far as space went, it absolutely did not contain their mess—but I don’t know what could.

The little cuties would dunk their heads in water, grab food, dunk their heads again, splash around the water, shake their heads about which flung a mixture of food and water against the walls of the brooder, play in the water some more, flap their little winged nubs… rinse and repeat, literally. They did this between napping, and their brooders were absolutely disgusting by the end of the day.

Compare this with our chicks, of which we had a similar amount in the same size brooder. To watch the fluff balls march over to the water, then take the daintiest of sips, was quite comical to watch. They were so much more deliberate and careful with their efforts, whereas the ducklings were almost aggressive consumers! With the ducklings, we had to do daily complete clean-outs of their bedding (including wiping down the brooder walls). We could go days without having to do the same for the chicks.

As we watched them grow, we observed the chicks and ducklings kept with their behaviors as they matured, especially when it came to their interaction with water. As the ducks grew and were given the ability to free range a bit, they would find the smallest of puddles and make a mess of them (be aware that if you let them free range, they’ll do things like drilling into muddy earth in search for bugs, leaving your yard with holes everywhere they’ve been, especially if it’s rained recently).

The ducks also need dishes of water deep enough for them to dip in their heads (washing their eyes and nostrils is crucial to their health), and with a dish that large and deep, they always try to fit their bodies into it as well. This results in puddles all around the waterer, and thus, more mud for the birds to play in. With chickens, a simple dish works fine (we don’t have any waterers with nipples, but this is an option for chickens as well). We have a waterer on a high shelf where the ducks can’t get to it, and the water stays pristine compared to the duck pools. The chickens drink from it as they always have, with deliberate little sips.

The ducks also continue to be messy beyond their water habits. They will quickly soil their bedding, as well. Ducks’ stool is soft and liquidy, and they are not picky about where they do their business. They will poop as they walk along. They will poop where they sleep. They will even poop on their own eggs. There is a joke that is said among duck owners: “Once you own ducks, you’ll know why Donald Duck never wore pants.”

In this regard, chickens are so much easier to deal with. Their fecal matter is much drier and firmer and thus easier to clean up. In our experience, the chickens have a favorite perching stick they sleep on every night, so if they do poop when they sleep, it just falls into an easy-to-clean pile. They also are much cleaner with their eggs, which sometimes need little to no washing before storing. The duck eggs almost always need a little scrub down (if not because of poop, then certainly from mud).

I will say, however, the chickens do poop up and down. What I mean is, since they can fly and perch, they get on top of things and end up pooping in hard-to-reach places, like the upper shelves of the barn. They also love to climb our porch at dinner time and wait there, pooping and staring at the door, until my oldest kiddo emerges with the food bucket. At least it’s easy enough to sweep it into the grass.

Which Bird Is More Predator Proof?

All I can offer here is anecdotal experience, but what that has proven is ducks attract far fewer predators than chickens. We had the ducks for a few years before we had the chickens, and in that time the only predator we dealt with was a persistent fox. We believed she may have had some babies in a den in our woods. Over one summer, she picked off about twelve of our ducks. We reluctantly put fencing back up (we were enjoying allowing them to free range) and hadn’t lost any more for quite some time. It’s important to note this really was just one summer that this happened. Prior to that, we really didn’t have many issues with predators, foxes, or otherwise.

The same cannot be said for the chickens. My God, I have never seen so many predators as we’ve had since the chickens! We got our first chickens in the fall of 2021. During the 2022 year, we dealt with many predators, including our own dog! She hates the chickens, and though she has now been trained not to kill them, she still enjoys chasing them for sport. She never did the same with the ducks, for whatever reason. Unfortunately, prior to her training, she had killed four juvenile chickens when she was accidentally locked in the pen with them for just an hour or so one day.

Also in that year, we were starting to lose some leghorns, one by one. After losing about three or so, the culprit showed herself one day—another fox! She ran off with another leghorn before we could do anything about it. A few days later she came back and grabbed a duck. This time my husband ran after her; she dropped it and took off, and we hadn’t seen her come back since.

Despite feeling like the threat of the fox had passed, we kept the birds locked up for a bit. Our coop has a very large, attached run, so we are afforded the opportunity to keep them behind a fence with space to move around. One morning, however, my son noticed some juvenile chickens were missing. My husband and I checked the fence, figuring something had climbed in, and grabbed them at night. We made sure we charged our electric fence (which had been off previously) and turned it on—and were surprised when birds were again going missing overnight.

As it turned out, birds were starting to go missing during the day, as well. We hadn’t seen any foxes, and soon we realized why—it wasn’t a ground predator this time; it was a hawk. One of my sons caught it in the act of killing one of our olive eggers one day. He screamed and the hawk flew off of the chicken, though sadly it was too late for the bird. Still, it was enough to scare the hawk away and it seemed to leave the birds alone thereafter… but two weeks later, we had a disturbing new development in our pen. We were waking up to headless chickens.

The dog, a fox, a hawk, and now a brand-new predator: an owl. With the discovery of the poor decapitated chickens, I immediately suspected we were dealing with an owl. That was confirmed one night when my husband saw it perched atop the coop, right next to a plastic version of itself that we put up in hopes of deterring aerial predators (yes, you can laugh!). My husband scared the owl away, but only temporarily. The next night he was back. We tried to put up a motion sensor light, which seemed to work for a little bit, but that was a temporary fix as a few nights after having no issues, we saw the back-lit silhouette of the owl sitting on the coop.

We considered locking the birds up at night, but we have so many, it would be a tight fit to keep all of them in with the doors closed. Though the coop with the attached yard is over 1,100 square feet, we had no choice but to cover the entire thing with game bird netting. It was an extremely frustrating task, but after much effort, we were able to secure a ceiling for our birds, and we haven’t had any predator issues since (knock on wood!).

Which Birds Are Best for Your Garden?

Perhaps as part of your dream of bird ownership, you imagined using your birds to help maintain a garden. Many of us have read about chickens keeping gardens pest-free by eating annoying bugs as treats. Are they truly gardeners’ best friends? What about ducks?

Both chickens and ducks love to snack on bugs, it’s true. But if you release them into your garden, you may have a larger, more destructive problem on your hands than insects. Both types of birds love to snack on any freshly sprouted greens you have coming up. They’ll also gladly pick at your produce. In our experience, tomatoes, grapes, and elders (leaves and berries) are among the many things that the birds will eat indiscriminately. What’s more, most of the time they will choose pretty much anything over the actual insects you are trying to get rid of (for us, it’s those pesky squash bugs!).

There is an additional factor with ducks: they trample everything! They will not walk between shorter plants, but rather over them. Chickens, on the other hand, don’t destroy plants in the same way, but they love to scratch and pick at the soil, disrupting neat, carefully planted garden beds (and eating any planted seeds). They will also dig small pits for themselves to take dust baths in.

If you don’t want birds in your garden, what can you do? We’ve found that it’s much easier to keep ducks out than chickens. Since the ducks can’t fly nearly as high as chickens, a two to three-foot fence is sufficient to keep them out. Chickens on the other hand require a much higher fence, lest you be diligent with clipping their flight feathers.

So… Which Do I Recommend?

As I said in the beginning, I say, “chickens”, and my husband says, “ducks”. When I asked him for specific points, he said ducks are hardier (ours have been extremely healthy), they lay larger eggs (that is absolutely true, as they average large to jumbo size), and they’re a more unusual farm animal (we rarely meet other duck owners, but plenty of people with chickens).

I believe chickens have a more colorful variety of both feathers and eggs, are easier to care for (read: fewer messes to clean), and are all around friendlier (the ducks tend to be a bit timider; the chickens will occasionally let us pick them up).

Both chickens and ducks have their perks and their downfalls. Ultimately, you have to choose what seems like it will suit you best, and even then, you may find the other type of bird is the more enjoyable one to own. Whatever you decide, there is one thing I am certain of: no homestead is complete without a few feathered friends running around the yard.

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