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Kelly Klober: An Introduction to Ducks

By KELLY KLOBER

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From Chapter 3: Waterfowl

The breeds of domestic duck familiar to most are the White Pekin and the Rouen. The latter is the large, deep-sided bird with the color pattern similar to that of the wild Mallard. The wild Mallard, or gray, pattern in varying forms is seen on many breeds and reflects the Mallard ancestry of nearly all of the domestic duck breeds.

The main exception to this genetic fact is the Muscovy, the roosting duck from South America. They are a truly interesting breed, and one subject to a great deal of conflict and misinformation. The conflict begins with its very name. Instead of “Mus-co-vee,” the correct pronunciation is “Mus-cah-vay.” And while a Muscovite hails from Russia, the Muscovy is a native of the southernmost climes.

In this breed the mature males are much larger than the females. They are a duck that doesn’t quack, but they do have a serpentine hiss. The face of a good show specimen is heavily encrusted with caruncles, giving it a face only a liquored-up mother could love. The females lay fairly well and are good broodies (several hens may share a nest), and the eggs have a thirty-five-day incubation period. While Muscovies will mate with other breeds, the offspring are often sterile (though fast growing) and are considered to be true mules.

Muscovy Duck
Muscovy Duck

The breed is propagated in a variety of colors including white, black (with white points), blue, and chocolate. A breed feature is the red, fleshy growths—caruncles—on the head and around the beak. These are especially notable on the males as they age. They are growing in value as a meat bird, often harvested primarily for the breast, which many liken to roast beef. The darker feathered birds are the ones that seem to be the most sought after in the ethnic meat bird trade. Though the White Pekin and the Rouen are perhaps the most familiar of the domestic duck breeds, they are generally seen only in the “industrial” forms rather than those birds that are bred most exactingly to breed standards. The White Pekin was the breed on which the market-leading Long Island duckling was based, and many hatcheries once boasted heavily of the size and dressing qualities of their strain of White Pekin. Wellbred Rouens are also large ducks and are on par with the Aylesbury breed as to being deep sided. It is held that some of the very best of this breed are so deep sided that they can only breed on swimmable water.

Some years ago I interviewed noted midwestern waterfowl breeder Mr. Bill Amundson of Hartford, Michigan. His duck breeds of choice were the Khaki Campbell, Black and White Magpie, and the Chocolate Indian Runner. These three breeds are noted for their vivid coloring, and all three are exceptional egg producers with the Magpie being more of a multi-use bird. With good care, they may lay nearly year-round, and in some earlier flocks Khaki and Runner hens laid up to three hundred eggs per hen per year. The Runner was often likened to the Leghorn, and their
unique, upright stance also had them dubbed the “bowling pin” duck by many.

I interviewed another noted waterfowl breeder, Mrs. Frances Grieve of Waco, Texas, at the same time. She noted that the White Pekin breed lays mostly in the spring though early-hatched and some older birds may lay for a short period in the fall as well. The Rouen and Muscovy, she added, follow a similar pattern of lay. I have seen some Muscovy hens produce three clutches of young in a season if the hatchlings are taken away from the hen for artificial brooding.

Rouen Duck

Among the heavy breeds Mr. Amundson favored the Pekin, the Aylesbury (a very large, white, English breed, with very deep sides and a pink bill and feet), and the Rouen. With a great many of the large breeds there is a seasonal aspect to their egg production, but up and down the United States most should be in or approaching egg production by March first of each year. Mr. Amundson favored the egg-laying breeds for the small farm and holding and gave his Khakis the nod over his Magpies. They produced the eggs that he and his family used and that they sold to others
for table use and baking.

The American Poultry Association recognizes seventeen breeds of domestic duck and divides them into four different categories. Included in the heavy breed class are the White Pekin, Aylesbury, Rouen, Muscovy, Saxony, and Silver Appleyard. To catalog and fully describe each breed here would simply take up too much time and space, but we will list a few talking points about some of the newer or less commonly seen varieties.

The Saxony and Silver Appleyard were recognized by the American Poultry Association in 2000 and 1998. The Saxony is a colorful German breed developed in the twentieth century and lays large white-shelled eggs. The male, or drake, has a claret breast, oatmeal-colored body, and a soft blue-gray head. The hen has fawn or buff plumage with white points to the face and neck. They are a quite good-sized duck with mature weights of nine pounds for drakes and eight pounds for hens.

The Silver Appleyard is a breed developed in Great Britain that also lays a large white-shelled egg. They have a color pattern reminiscent of the Mallard. At the end of the mating season the males will molt into “eclipse” plumage that is darker, more mottled, and with grayer tones. They have the same mature weights as the Saxony breed.

A lot of duck breeds were developed to be what are termed “dual-purpose” fowl, which perform as both meat and egg producers. They won’t lay as well as the breeds developed as egg layers nor grow and dress as well as birds developed for early harvest as meat birds. A better term, I believe, would be one borrowed from the British: “multi-use fowl.” Such birds will do a fair job of both meat and egg production; the species that does not lay and grow does not survive. Still, if your market is for eggs then opt for an egg-laying breed; if your market is for duck meat then breed and produce birds developed to be strong in the traits that contribute to economic duck meat production.

The medium-weight class of duck breeds includes the Cayuga, Crested, Swedish, and Buff. The Crested is bred in Black and White varieties, and a crest is being bred onto other breeds, including the Blue Swedish. There can be real problems with the positioning of the crest, which is to be large, well-formed, and centered on the crown of the head. I have seen ducks with crests all over the head and even on the back and sides of the neck. There is also some evidence of health or genetic problems with this trait, and great care must be taken when selecting foundation stock for this breed.

Cayuga Duck

The Swedish breed is now bred in Blue and Black varieties. Blue, or Slate, is always a challenging color to work with in poultry, and this may be one of the reasons for the growing interest in the Black Swedish variety. Either variety must have a white bib that is four to five inches wide at its widest point and tapering in as it moves up toward the mandible. Mature weights are eight pounds for drakes and seven pounds for hen ducks.

There has been a lot of interest in elaborately colored and feathered birds of many different poultry species. They can certainly be eye-catching, and many are bought from artist-recreated pictures in catalogs or on the Internet. Alas, all birds of a breed do not hatch with the potential to be showroom winners; many mismarks can be used to produce later winners, and most will have some practical values. The British will call these garden birds, very suitable for hobbyists or those wanting a few birds to produce for the family table.

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About the Author: 

Kelly Klober was raised on a small farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species, including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.

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