Of Ducks in Particular

Duck Features: When the duck preens, it spreads the oil from an oil gland at the base of its tail, over its feathers. A layer of insulating down under larger contour feathers that are lubricated with this oil enables the duck to swim in near-freezing water. Even the webbed feet are made to withstand cold because there are neither nerves nor blood in them. Most domestic breeds are earthbound, but Muscovies, Calls, East Indies, and Mallards can still fly to some degree. Ducks can live up to 30 years; however, few make it to that age because their ability to produce eggs drops off after 3 or 4 years. If you are buying adults for breeding stock, choose birds 6-7 months old with evenly colored bills and legs, and make sure they are healthy. The male duck is called a "drake." The female is called the "duck" (which, of course, also means the species in general) or "hen."

Duck Temperament: Of all the varieties of poultry, ducks—male and female alike—are the gentlest and least likely to act aggressive. Drakes seldom fight unless females are present. (This might be an incentive for you to choose them if you have small children.) Ducks are notoriously nervous and noisy at night and will make a commotion over the slightest deviation in their environment's characteristics, benign or dangerous. Because ducks are so nervous, announce yourself when you are coming to them, move slowly, and talk to the birds to calm them. If a duck does display aggressive activity, it is best to remain calm and ignore the behavior.

Ducks tend to be either good egg layers or good meat producers. Meat producers are calmer, easier to confine, and grow faster and bigger. The feed conversion ratio for ducks is about 3:1, which makes them a good economical choice whether you pick a breed for meat or eggs. You may also want to consider the noise level, coloration as a defense against predators, and expense and difficulty of obtaining the birds. And then there are the eggs-meat combination breeds to consider.

Ducks in Print: Raising the Home Duck Flock, by D. Holderread (1978), is a helpful book. The New Duck Handbook: Ornamental and Domestic Ducks by Raethel Heinz-Sigurd, translated from the German (1989), has everything about housing, care, feeding, disease, and healing, with a special chapter on commercial uses of ducks.

ducks for Eggs: Don't buy ducks for eggs until you try eating duck eggs. Duck eggs have a ducky flavor, all the more so if the birds do a lot of scavenging in the bottom of a muddy pond. Also keep in mind the pollution problems of various bodies of water. So if you're going to let your ducks feed in water, be sure it's not polluted water. You can hide duck eggs in an omelet with chicken eggs and use them in baking. If you have trouble eating duck eggs straight because of the unfamiliar "strongness," make bread and custards out of them. Or, like the people in countries where duck eggs are a staple, you could get used to the taste and learn how to cook with them.

Becky Coleman of Charlo, MT, wrote me: "I kept Khaki Campbells for eggs once and found that, except for a certain toughness, they couldn't be told from chicken eggs. They had the run of the yard and a pond, but were mainly fed a chicken layer crumble. I wonder if the strong flavors people talk about come from what the ducks have been eating, rather than being intrinsic to duck eggs." Thank you, Becky! I haven't personally kept ducks for eggs, and there are real perils for me in passing on lore I've read and never experienced, so I appreciate it when somebody straightens me out. (The trouble with trying to cover everything in a book is that it's not possible for me to try it all myself.)

Duck eggs do not fry nicely by chicken-egg techniques—best to use a different process. (See "Frying a"t>uck Egg.") Incidentally, duck hens often lay more copiously if they haven't mated with drakes, and nonfertile eggs keep better than fertile ones. So if you need eggs in quantity, consider segregating your layers from your breeders. Of Duck Laying and Setting. Light-breed ducks (egg breeds) will begin to lay at about 6 months of age. Heavy-breed ducks are mature and will begin to lay eggs at about 7 months. An egg-laying duck's commercially useful laying period is considered to be 3 seasons. Actually though, they will lay longer than that. Most ducks lay their eggs at night, so it's a good practice to confine them then. Ducks begin to lay in the spring, in the morning. It's customary to let them out after 10am, by which time they will be done laying. You can maximize egg production by providing at least 14 hours of light (use a 40-60 watt bulb) daily. Some people leave the lights on all night, as it also keeps the ducks calmer. If you want a duck to go broody, leave her eggs and let them fill up a nest. Free-ranging ducks will build nests of twigs, leaves, grass, and their own down, on the ground. Muscovies, Indies, Calls, and Cayugas are likely to be good brooders. Cayugas are good at incubating goose eggs. Among the Blue Swedish, Aylesbury, and Rouen breeds, some individuals may be good brooders.

Egg Breeds

Indian Runner. There are many varieties of Indian Runner ducks of which the White Penciled, Fawn, and White are said to be the best egg producers (225-325 eggs per year). The Indian Runner originated in Asia (as did the rarer Bali to which it is related). Runners are a nervous, light breed (drakes are 4 lb. at butchering age, ducks are 3V2 lb.) that stand quite erect, nearly perpendicular to the ground. They can move quickly, which helps protect them against predators. Their feed-consumption-to-egg-production ratio is very good, and they lay equally as well as the other best duck layers—the Khaki-Campbell. And their eggs are larger. They are exceptionally good foragers but make poor mothers.

Khaki-Campbell. This duck is a quiet, healthy, good foraging, hardy breed that will continue laying in cold weather— as many as 300-325 eggs a year. The Khaki-Campbell duck is khaki with bronze highlights, has a green bill, and weighs only about 4'/2 lb. They don't go broody, and they are the least interested duck when it comes to swimming. Their eggs are creamy white and large, considering that this is one of the smaller breeds of duck—smaller than Pekins or Rouen. Khaki-Campbells were developed by an Englishwoman (Mrs. Campbell) out of Mallards, Indian Runners, and Rouen ducks. Crossbreeding has diluted many strains. To get a good egg-laying bird, be sure you get a Khaki-Campbell selected for high egg production. Authentic Khaki-Campbells are said to lay well 3-4 years and do well in winter, as long as they're sheltered from extreme cold. Butcher young Khaki-Campbells at 4 lb. to get a meat that is lower in fat than most ducks. Welsh Harlequin. These ducks are said to have laid as many as 300 eggs annually. Duck egg production of these egg-specialist breeds is right up there with the best chicken layers. It's interesting to note that, like the egg-specialist chicken breeds, the egg-specialist ducks are also lighter in weight, more high-strung in temperament, slower growing, and non-brooding.

Meat Breeds

Aylesbury. These ducks are a British strain considered by the English to be the prime meat breed of duck. They are noted for being less nervous than Pekins and exceptionally friendly toward humans. They are also less hardy. They have white feathers and skin and light orange legs and feet. Aylesburys eat grass quite well and will be ready for slaughter at 7 lb. at around 8 weeks. The males will grow to 9 lb., the females to 8. For breeding, use a single drake to 2

ducks and provide water for a mating surface. Aylesbury ducks are not the best egg-layers. You may get anywhere from 35 to 125 eggs a year. In pre-incubator England, broody hens were used to raise the Aylesbury young.

White Pekin

Chinese White Pekin. This is the most popular meat duck. The White Pekin is a blocky, extra-heavy duck, disease- and stress-resistant. The Pekin is probably the best bird to raise if your main interests are efficient meat production for home or market and white pin feathers. They are an extra large duck and grow very fast with an efficient growth-per-pound-of-food ratio (2V2 lb. of feed required per pound of gain). The White Pekin can be ready to eat at only 7 weeks of age, weighing 6V2-7 lb. The bird is then perfect for roasting (although fairly high in fat content) and is technically called a "duckling." Adult Pekin drakes weigh 10 lb., hens, 9. The Pekins come in numerous different genetic strains, as developed by different competing breeders. In general, Pekin drakes are very fertile; the Pekins' large, white eggs are quite hatchable; and 1 Pekin drake can handle 3-5 ducks.

Although they are high-strung and poor setters, freeranging pairs have been known to raise up to 20 ducklings a year. Don't mate a younger drake to older ducks. Pekins are a poor choice for a foraging duck, and the females are noisy. The Pekin is considered a good layer—between 125 to 175 eggs per year, if they are well-managed, and so could be used as a meat-eggs breed. When Pekin ducklings are being raised on a commercial scale for meat (and not being kept for breeders), they are referred to as "green ducklings." Green ducklings are kept confined to limit their exercise and kept under continuous light because that stimulates growth. Feed-conversion efficiency drops off after 7 weeks, and green ducklings are butchered shortly after, when their wing feathers develop. That's pure agribusiness for you. Muscovy. This is a large white or colored (depending on the variety) lean duck with well-muscled breasts. They often have a darkening, like a mask, around the eyes. The Muscovy duck is the only domestic breed not of Mallard derivation. They originated in South America, come in White or Colored, are slower growing than Pekins or Rouens, but are a first-class forager. Muscovies are also different from other ducks in the nature of their feathers, which are not as downy, are harder, and don't oil as well as those of other ducks. They can actually drown, if unable to get out of the water for too long—especially heavy, long-winged males. The good news about Muscovy feathers is that they're easier to pick than those of other ducks. An adult male can weigh 16 lb., but is more likely to be around 12. The much smaller females weigh 7 lb. Their meat is best if they are slaughtered before 17 weeks. The big ones can get quite fat if confined and overfed.


Male Muscovy

The Muscovy is said to be resistant to diseases that the Pekin and the Runner (when kept in large numbers) are subject to. It is noiseless, which your neighbors might appreciate, but hens fly quite well when fully grown. Unlike the other ducks, the Muscovy roosts at night like a chicken, preferring a fence or tree so they're safer from predators. But the flying can be a problem; for example, they might get into your orchard—or your neighbor's. But if you put Muscovies in your deep freeze shortly before full adulthood, the flying problem won't come up. Or you can clip 1 wing.

Muscovies have sharper claws on their feet than other ducks, and the big drakes can become temperamental, so be cautious when handling them. The Muscovy hen may lay as many as 100 eggs a year. It is probably the best for reproducing itself, as the hens are excellent layers and brooders, with excellent fertility and hatchability. The hen will lay 20-25 eggs and then brood them. She may produce and care admirably for 2 broods each season. She'll even face and drive off dogs and foxes. The ducklings are hardy, but they take a month more than other ducks to grow full feathers. Most duck eggs hatch at 28 days, but Muscovy eggs require 35 days.

Rouen. This duck breed is large, like the White Pekins, which makes it a good roaster, and colored as prettily as the wild mallard from which it was adapted several centuries ago. Fly-tyers say that Rouen feathers make good trout flies and streamers. The Rouen doesn't fly, and it has a quiet, friendly nature, which is nice if you have small children. They lay 35-150 eggs a year, some blue-green as Easter eggs, some creamy white. Rouens are slower growing than Pekins. They can be butchered anywhere between 2lh and 6 months. Rouens tend to stay very near home. Genetic Rouen lines vary in egg-laying powers—some are excellent, some poor. A reasonably light drake can take care of 4 or 5 ducks. Look for the trait of continuing to produce fertile hatching eggs past 3 laying years. Rouens do well on farm ponds and near wooded areas where a rugged duck with

good survival instincts is required. A 3-foot-high fence will keep Rouens (and most other non-flying ducks) in.

Dual-Purpose Duck Varieties

Blue and Black Swedish. This duck is rare in the United States (but more popular in Europe). It's a good insect-eater, lays 100-150 bluish to grayish white eggs a year, and has been said to be less prone to predator attacks because of its protective coloration. Crested drakes weigh around 7 lb., the ducks, 6 lb. They make good mothers and forage well. Buff Orpington. These ducks are another rare dual-purpose (eggs and meat) breed. Drakes weigh 8 lb., hens 7. They may lay up to 250 eggs a year. Cayuga. In the same weight class as the Swedish, Cayugas are a rare, rugged black American duck that can stand extreme cold very well, are good foragers, and lay 100-175 eggs a year. They are very quiet, but to avoid an unattractive carcass, it's necessary to remove the skin and pinfeathers.

Bantam Duck Breeds: There are also the bantam duck breeds—the Call, the Australian Spotted, and the East Indie, all of which are excellent foragers and brooders. Most people keep them as novelties, as they do not produce eggs in great quantities (not more than 125 a year) and are comparatively small (usually under 2Vi lb.) for a good meat source. But their meat is of very fine quality, and they do lay well in the spring, if the eggs are gathered daily. Call. These are the best-known of the bantams. They are noisy little birds, either gray or white, favored as live decoys in England, where they originated. You'll need some patience to raise Call ducklings. They may do well on a diet of rolled oats and ground greens mixed in with their water. You can buy them from Shane Risner at Prickeree Pines Gamebird Farm: 616-868-6015; 12410 64th, Alto, MI 49302; [email protected]

Male Female


Mallard. These are relatively small (male, 2.8 lb.; female, 2.4 lb.) ducks that can fly. They prefer living where there's water to fly from and alight on, and they frequently dive and swim underwater. They are a wild species (believed to be the progenitors of many domestic ducks), are perhaps the best duck foragers, and are natural mothers. The Mallard does not fatten as well or ship as well as the Pekin, and they have gamey-tasting meat. The drake has dramatic feathers, while the female is a demure brown. Check with your state game regulatory agency before ordering Mallards—you might need a permit.

DUCK Food: By the time they're a month old you can have your ducklings on a diet of grain, household scraps, and food from foraging. Liquid milk, mixed into their dry food at feeding time, and hard-boiled eggs can promote egg production and add shine to plumage. Adult breeder ducks being fed over winter can make it on a home-devised diet suitable for chickens. Ducks, like chickens, need calcium from some source for eggshell making and grit for their gizzards. Like chickens, they should not eat decaying vegetation or spoiled feed because they can get botulism poisoning from that. Most grains, including millet and rice, are popular with ducks.

The Duck-Foraging Option. Because of their foraging ability, ducks can be a bargain to raise, plus they help control bugs and slugs. At 4 weeks of age, your ducks can go on range. Foraging birds grow more slowly and are leaner at butchering time but will ultimately (in as many as 12 weeks perhaps) reach the same target weight. They are naturally good foragers and will hunt for and consume tender grass, clover, and green leafy plants in general—as well as insects, slugs, snails, and all their ilk. The most natural foraging territory for ducks is wet, low marshland. But a year-round large flock can make excellent use of a pond plus plenty of foraging space on shore. If given the opportunity, they'll eat weeds, berries, and seeds; will glean for fallen grain and fruit; do bug patrol in alfalfa fields and under rabbit hutches; and will clean out algae from ponds. Ducks enjoy Japanese beetle larvae. When liver flukes are a problem to cattle, ducks sent into their pasture will devour the snails that host those parasites and make the land safe for the cows again.

Ducks are not as good grazers as geese. Unlike geese, ducks must have young grass, so it helps them if you mow their foraging area to encourage new growth, or put some geese in with them. Some duck growers help by locating 1 or more electric lights near ground level, turning them on only at night. The ducks can then feed on the insects attracted to the lights. Foraging ducklings need adequate space for the number of them. Confined too closely they'll simply end up killing all vegetation in their space and creating a foodless mud hole. If you have wandering ducks and live near a road there may be a problem. Ducks travel together, they are fearless, and they don't move fast. Ducklings raised by a mother duck learn to find their own food very young.

By allowing your birds to forage you can cut back on the amount of their commercial ration or even completely do without it if you regularly supplement with such grain as cracked corn, wheat, milo, oats, etc., during seasons when they can't forage as well, or year-round if their foraging territory is limited.

Commercial Food. Ducklings do better on crumbles than mash, which they are very wasteful of. Ducklings need more niacin than chicks; lack of it stunts their growth and causes weak legs. So if your ducklings are not on a duck starter you could add a soluble vitamin from the feed store to their water. Their crumbles should be sprinkled occasionally with fine gizzard grit. Don't feed cracked or whole grains until the ducks are at least 4 weeks old. Once they get big, feed only once a day except in the dead of winter. Feed in the evening—about what they'll clean up in a quarter hour. Confined birds will need more feed, more often than foragers, such as twice a day. Confined ducks in winter can get along on cheap grains supplemented with greens or quality hay. Don't throw grain for ducks on the ground; offer it in a trough. Confined birds will enjoy greens or vegetable throwaway parts cut into small pieces and put into their water. Add ground eggshells to their food for calcium. Even if you're feeding all commercial duck formula, it's good to supplement with fresh greens.

Duck Reproduction: Ducks are sexually mature in 5-7 months. A drake in his first year is called a "drakelet," and a duck in her first laying season is called a "ducklet," corresponding to a pullet. Don't raise male ducks or geese without the company of females. This can result in birds that bond to other males and will never mate with females. Telling Drake and Duck Apart. With ducks it can be difficult to figure out which sex is which when you want to slaughter or sell some of your fowl and keep others for breeding. The Rouens can be distinguished by color, but most other domestic ducks cannot be sexed by color. You can sex ducks that are old enough for slaughter by voice. By then females will have developed a raucous, raspy-sounding call, whereas the male is comparatively hoarse and quiet. That doesn't work with the Muscovies, but adult Muscovy males are considerably larger than females, so you can tell that way. Another way to sex mature ducks of all the Mallard-derived breeds (doesn't work with Muscovies) is by tail feathers. Males have about 4 curly feathers on the upper side of the tail that form a loop back toward the bird's head. Those are called "sex curls." Females don't have them. Duck hens with yellow or orange bills may develop dark spots on their bills when they begin to lay. An experienced person can identify the sex of a duckling by 2-3 weeks of age, by examining the duckling's vent, but this requires care as ducks injure easily. To do it, you'll need good strong lighting since the sex organs inside the vent are very small. Duck Mating. Under natural circumstances, ducks mate on the water. The smaller breeds can also accomplish this on land as can smaller pairs of the bigger breeds. So pondless duck breeders select small drakes and large ducks. In general, heavy breeds should have 1 male to every 3-6 females. Light-breed drakes can service 4-7 duck hens. It's smart to have an extra 1 or 2 avian studs for backup. If you are raising several duck breeds, keep them separated to assure the ducklings are of purebred status. Provide each breeder bird with 5-6 square feet of floor space inside and 40 square feet outside. Commercial breeders feed a breeder developer ration, about 'A lb. morning and evening, until about 1 month before egg production, at which point they switch to a breeder ration—as much as the birds want to eat. Hatchability. Fertility is greatest when egg production is highest. Hatchability declines after the first few settings. It's uncertain how long your drake breeder will remain fertile. One Runner drake is on record for having fertilized eggs 20 years, but most duck growers don't take a chance and retire drakes after 8-10 years of age.

Butchering a Duck

When. If you're not sure if a duck has hit the 7-lb. slaughter weight yet, weigh it. But some breeds never get near that weight, no matter how much food and time they have. If you're planning to butcher a duck, it's best to do it at 8-12 weeks, before 5 months for sure. After that the meat is tougher. In addition, ducks in molt are unsuitable for butchering. Pin feathers from the coming plumage make the plucking a formidable task. They molt at about 10 weeks of age, so butcher either before that or well after it. Or skin the duck.

Catching a Duck. First try to corral it in a small pen or fence corner so you won't end up chasing it. With one hand right under the head, grasp it by the neck, and with your other hand, bring its body close to you, wrapping your arms around its wings so it can't flap them. Ducks are easily hurt, especially their legs and wings, so you have to capture them without a big fight. Once you have hold of the bird like this, you can carry it with one hand under its body and the other holding its wings down. You can carry it with the head pointing to the back of you or to the front. Keep the bird away from your face and take special care with Muscovy claws.

Killing a Duck. Chop off its head. Or stun it with a sharp blow on the head and then stick it through the throat or just behind the eye with a narrow-bladed knife. Or hang it by both its legs and cut the throat back of its bill. Or use any of the same directions as found under "Chickens" in this chapter. Bleed the bird thoroughly. For picking directions, see "About Feathers." A 7-lb. duckling will dress out to about 5 lb. of meat. For fried duckling some people prefer to peel off the skin and fat from the body and legs (the wings will be hard to do). If the duck is to be cut up (rather than roasted whole), any of the chicken methods can be used. Chill the carcass to 34-40°F as soon as possible.

Duck Recipes

Frying a Duck Egg. You can't fry a duck egg the familiar, chicken-egg way and expect it to be tender. So lightly grease and heat a frying pan that has a lid. Break your eggs into it as for frying chicken eggs. Pour a little hot water about the edges of the eggs. Put the lid on the skillet and cook like that until the egg-white is firm (a few minutes). Serve promptly.

ROAST DUCK WITH ORANGE JUICE Rub the duck inside and out with salt and pepper. Put a whole onion and some chopped celery inside the duck or stuff it with a bread stuffing. Rub the outside skin with cooking oil or butter. Pierce the skin of a fat duckling in multiple places to allow the fat to render out A duckling can be roasted at 450°F for 15 minutes, then at 350°F until done. A full-grown duck should be roasted at 350°F for about 25 minutes per pound, uncovered. When the skin is turning brown, begin to baste the bird once in a while with freshly squeezed orange juice or with the pan drippings. Optional: When the duck is done roasting, make a sauce by adding 2 T. flour to the drippings in the pan. If you burnt the bottom, pour the drippings into a frying pan and add the flour there. Add a cup each of water and orange juice. Don't let it boil. Pour the sauce over the duck and garnish with orange sections.

<&> FRIED DUCK Cook the gizzard, heart neck, and rib bones the same as to make Seasoned Giblet Gravy (see recipe under "My Favorite Goose Recipes"). Or fry the first 3 along with the other pieces. If you saved the skin and fat from the body and legs when you were cleaning the bird, cut them into small pieces and render out the duck grease. Remove the cracklings. Beat I egg with a fork and add 3 T. milk, and salt and pepper. (You may need more dipping batter than this.) Dip each piece of duck into the batter, then roll it in fine, dry bread crumbs. Brown the duck pieces in the rendered duck fat When browned, pour off most of the fat add 2 T. water, cover and bake at 350°F for 45 minutes in a Dutch oven. Remove cover during the last 10 minutes. Doris' Duck Tip. If your duck has a fishy or wild flavor, put the whole duck in salt water and add onions. Bring just to a boil and drain off water. Then prepare the duck as usual. Another lady told me her system was to stuff the duck with an apple and an onion, each chopped, and seasonings.

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