PHOTO: iStock/Thinkstock
Cherie Langlois
February 18, 2009

A frequent visitor to zoos and farms during his childhood, Dave Holderread loved animals as much as (or more than) the next kid.

But according to his parents, birds captured his attention more than any other creature–especially birds with webbed feet.

“If I disappeared at the zoo, they knew where to find me: At the duck pond,” says Holderread, a waterfowl breeder in Corvallis, Ore., who has raised ducks for over 40 years and is the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks.

“I remember as a little boy I was just amazed at these birds that could walk and swim and fly. They’ve got the best of all worlds and their versatility still fascinates me.

Just call them Super Ducks.

They float and dive, waddle and fly (well, sort of). They can swallow a slimy slug in a single gulp. Lovely and amusing, farm ducks can provide protein-packed eggs and tasty meat, feathers for comforters and crafts, plus mowing, fertilization and pest control services. What’s not to admire about such talented and useful creatures?


Introducing the Duck

With the exception of an odd South American native called the Muscovy, most domestic duck breeds flocking around farms are descended from the mallard, a familiar wild duck abundant on wetlands throughout North America and commonly raised in captivity.

Mallard males, or drakes, are hard to miss: They flaunt shimmering green heads, chestnut breasts and flashy blue wing bars called speculums. The female duck also brandishes a blue speculum in flight, but her subtle, penciled brown plumage provides superb camouflage while she incubates her eggs.

Mallards and their domestic descendants received the nickname of dabblers because they normally forage at the surface of a shallow water body, often tipping tails-up to snatch freshwater plants and mollusks.

Through years of selective breeding, many mallard-derivative breeds and varieties have emerged in a charming mix of colors, sizes and shapes. They range in size from bantam breeds likethe vocal Call duck, a 1½-pound mini-dabbler once used by hunters as a living decoy, to heavyweights such as the Pekin, a white, 9- to 10-pound duck originating in China that’s popular on farms–and on the menu of Chinese restaurants.

More unusual breeds include the athletic Runner, a lanky, upright duck featured in the movie “Babe,” and the Crested, a dabbler that wears a large, feathered cap on the back of its head. If you long to add a splash of color to your farm, ducks will do the job nicely: While some domestic breeds and varieties resemble the mallard in color and markings, others have been selected for plumage in black, blue, chocolate, lavender, pied, buff and more.

Ducks differ in more than just appearance, however. While most domestic breeds are unable to fly, some–like the bantam Australian Spotted–can. Do you want lots of eggs to sell? Then a super egg-laying bird such as the Campbell, which can produce up to 340 eggs annually, would be a good bet. If you’re looking instead for a pro at sitting and mothering, the Call might be your duck.  Planning to raise meat birds? You might want a hefty, fast-growing fowl like the Pekin or Muscovy.

If you’d like a well-rounded duck, check out some of the threatened heritage breeds. Jenifer Morrissey, who operates Turkey Trot Rare Breeds in Waldon, Colo., wanted ducks that excelled at producing both eggs and meat. After discovering she couldn’t keep up with the Khaki Campbell’s enormous egg production, she began raising two multi-purpose heritage breeds, the Silver Appleyard and the Ancona. “I chose rare breeds because I’m interested in sustainable agriculture, and these breeds often have characteristics, like adaptability and hardiness, that make them work well in such settings,” she says.

Cat Dreiling, of The Ruffled Duck Farm in Deerfield, Kan., also found herself drawn to an uncommon breed, the Welsh Harlequin, while looking for a self-sufficient egg-layer. “My philosophy is that every animal on the farm should provide for itself as much as possible. The Welsh are extremely efficient foragers, and because they’re in the light duck class, their feed requirements are less than that of a heavier breed,” she explains. “They’re also capable of laying a substantial number of eggs and are equally willing to set a nest and hatch their own young. They’re one of the most attractive breeds of duck, in my opinion!”


Dabbling in Ducks

Now, before you bolt to the feed store, where you’ll surely be smitten with the first fuzzy ducklings you encounter, let’s talk more about the duck’s admirable qualities-–and those few characteristics that can drive a farmer to distraction. As kindred farmyard fowl, ducks have much in common with chickens: For instance, both species provide meat and eggs while adding beauty and interest to our farms. But ducks differ in a number of respects from their clucky cousins.

“Ducks are more adaptable and disease-resistant than chickens,” says Holderread, who currently keeps about 45 duck breeds and varieties at the preservation center he operates with his wife, Millie. He became impressed with the duck’s hardiness while participating in a teaching and research program on poultry production in Puerto Rico. “We literally never treated a duck for anything–internal or external parasites or any disease–in the four years I was there.  The chickens were a constant fight.” He’s quick to add that this doesn’t mean ducks never have health troubles; in fact, they’re more prone to leg problems than chickens, so they should never be caught and carried by the legs. Rather, when well-managed and kept in uncrowded conditions, they’re less affected by disease and parasites than other birds.

Both chickens and ducks eat a varied diet that makes them handy for pest control, but ducks crave creepy-crawlies that chickens will ignore. “Ducks are just wonderful as slug and snail exterminators, and dabbling ducks are great on mosquito larvae,” says Holderread. “We’ve also worked with people who raise livestock that have problems with liver flukes [a parasite]; they’ve been able to eliminate them with ducks.”

As far as management, waterfowl generally require less elaborate housing and fencing than other poultry. Anyone experienced with chickens knows these birds can jump fences and they’ll scatter in every direction if you attempt to herd them inside for the night. Ducks, on the other hand, are easy to confine and shepherd around. According to Holderread, one person can easily herd a flock of 500 ducks and keep them in with a barrier only 2 to 2 ½ feet high. Got a flying breed? No problem. Just clip the primary feathers on one wing once a year, he says.

Although some drakes and mother ducks can be cantankerous, these birds usually have gentle dispositions and pleasant personalities. “If managed properly, they’re rarely aggressive,” says Dreiling. “They each have their own personality and are joyous over something as simple as a fresh pool of water.”

It’s true: Ducks are naturally passionate about water, which can make them even messier to keep than chickens. Dabblers drink plenty of it, which in turn produces large amounts of moist, smelly droppings, and they constantly cloud water containers by swishing their beaks in them during and after mealtimes.  Enthusiastic bathers, ducks congregate in and around pools, splashing and muddying the ground.

“Maintaining a clean pen when you combine ducks and a constant source of water is a problem, especially when the weather is cooler and water doesn’t evaporate as rapidly,” says Dreiling. “The Welsh are dabblers, so if even an ounce of water is spilled from the pool, they’re instantly eye-deep in the mud drilling for goodies!”


Duck Care Basics

White Ducks
iStock/Thinkstock

As with any farm animal, ducks demand and deserve care on a daily basis throughout the year, no matter what the weather or how harried one’s schedule happens to be. Fortunately, tending a small duck flock isn’t difficult, terribly time-consuming or very expensive. Here’s what you’ll need to give your quackers:

1.  Ample, relatively-clean water to drink and bathe in.

Contrary to what many people believe, domestic ducks can get along fine without a pond. In fact, an improperly-designed and hard-to-clean pond poses a health hazard to your feathered friends and quickly becomes an odorous eyesore as mud and droppings accumulate. At minimum, ducks need drinking water deep enough for them to dip their heads in so they can keep their eyes and nostrils clean. Of course, they’ll be happier and healthier if they have water to swim and bathe in as well.

Plastic wading pools provide a simple way to give your flock a swimming hole without going to the trouble and expense of building a pond: They’re easy to scrub and move from place to place before a messy mix of mud and duck manure surrounds them. To combat mud problems, Holderread spreads a long-lasting layer of pea gravel in pens, followed by sand and then a skin of sawdust, which he replaces each year.

2.  Forage and balanced feed (including supplemental grit and calcium, if needed).

Ducks relish hunting for slugs, succulent grasses and other fare, and allowing your flock to grub for some of their own food will save money on your feed bills while reducing your pest population. A bonus: They’ll fertilize as they forage, which makes them great for garden patrol if you can protect your young plants from those flat feet and rooting bills.

In confinement situations or to complement forage, you’ll need to provide your ducks with a balanced, nutritious feed. Commercial waterfowl rations are available in some areas, but if your local feed store doesn’t carry one, you may have to mix your own (see Holderread’s book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks for detailed information on duck nutrition) or go with a commercial gamebird or unmedicated chicken ration. Traditionally, chicken feeds have been deficient in niacin, a nutrient that ducks–-especially ducklings-–need in larger amounts, Holderread says. “Today, the manufacturers usually add more so it works out okay for ducks.”

Keep in mind that a duck’s nutritional needs change with age and at certain stages of its life. Growing young birds, for instance, shouldn’t receive a calcium-packed laying ration or, unless you’re raising meat ducks, a high-protein diet that promotes fast growth. Throughout the year, Morrissey gives her flock three custom-mixed feed rations based on Holderread’s formulations: A breeding ration from February to June; a laying ration from June to September; and a holding feed the remainder of the year.

3.  Shelter and protection from predators.

Although they don’t necessarily require the sort of snug quarters many folks construct for chickens, dabblers do need shelter from heavy rains, snow and sun, as well as protection from dogs, coyotes and other predators with a taste for fresh duck. An insulated house will help keep laying birds more productive, while a secure perimeter fence can safeguard ducks from hunting canines. Confining your flock in an enclosed pen at night helps ward off nocturnal attacks from raccoons and owls. Some raisers also use large guardian dogs to provide round-the-clock duck protection.

4. Good health and flock management.

“I’ve found that the best way to raise healthy ducks is to provide them with plenty of space to exercise, access to good nutrition and adequate water,” Dreiling says. “Also, keep a mindful eye of drake-to-duck ratio; no less than three ducks to one drake helps prevent needless stress on the females.”

Many raisers find their hardy birds seldom need vaccinations, deworming medications or routine veterinary care when well-managed on a small scale. Unfortunately, ducks can and do contract diseases like avian influenza and fowl cholera, so it’s important to stay alert for ruffled feathers, changes in food or water intake, lethargy, bloody diarrhea and other signs of sickness. Some common-sense health measures will go a long way toward keeping disease from decimating your flock: Quarantine any avian newcomers; separate and treat ill individuals promptly; try to reduce your ducks’ contact with wild birds; and notify an avian veterinarian if you experience sudden, unexplained deaths in your flock.

Give them the care they need and your dabblers will thank you in their own cheerful, quacking, tail-wagging duck fashion. “Ducks recognize patterns of feeding and care and let you know how excited they are to be let out to their pond each morning or get their evening feed,” says Morrissey. “They are absolutely the happiest animals one could have on a farmyard.”

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