By Jacki Martinez Perkins
Chickens are a popular addition to homesteads due to their efficiency and easy maintenance. Ducks can be another enjoyable option for many reasons. Their personalities are far less aggressive than chickens, their management considerations differ and, because of a difference in proteins, some individuals who cannot digest chicken eggs are able to enjoy duck eggs. There is also the epidemiological consideration that ducks do not succumb to avian influenza; however, they can still spread the virus to other poultry.
Some things about ducks make them ideal for amateur livestock producers or for more urban settings. Their eggs have a thicker shell to protect against wetter conditions and can withstand rougher handling. Fighting style amongst males is entirely different from that of roosters, consisting of a comical form of wrestling rather than the pecking or use of spurs that roosters employ. This makes them safer to handle in general. They do not chase and terrify small children to the extent that chickens seem to enjoy. Ducks are easily grouped together and herded to new locations by their handlers. Duck yards are not prone to dust-bath holes, though ducks will drill small holes with their bills in search of insects and slugs, a behavior that can be satisfied by leaving a bit of long grass for them to forage in. Most importantly, in my humble opinion, ducks do not crow. Rather, ducks emit a rather pleasant grunt while waddling around endearingly,
Management strategies for ducks revolve around the fact that they are amphibious fowl. They evolved to live on and around water, which means they need access to more open water sources than chickens do to maintain their personal hygiene. Having a shallow dish for ducks to wash their faces in is the bare minimum and access to a wading pool is ideal. The existence of a swimming area for ducks does include the added challenge of mud created at the margins, unless otherwise built for proper drainage or consistently moved to a new location as part of a foraging rotation. Ducks do not roost the way chickens do and cannot be easily plucked up in darkness. It is much better to set up a way to funnel ducks into a carry kennel or special cage with a top-opening hatch since the most effective and humane way to catch them is gently around the neck. As with laying hens, we do not want to keep too many males, called drakes, as the pressure on the females becomes too great. Drakes have been known to drown hens when the ratio is not adequate (around one drake to three hens) and will engage in necrophilia thereafter. It is ok to not keep drakes; the hens will still lay eggs.
There are also differences in eggs between chickens and ducks. Duck eggs are larger, healthier and easier to digest for some people due to a difference in protein structure. The shells are thicker and less permeable, so they keep longer in storage and can be used rather successfully as holiday decorations by blowing out the insides, attaching hangers and decorating the outsides. My biggest personal criticism is that the quality of the white after hard-boiling is rather rubbery due to the better ability of the whites to gel. This quality, however, leads to some very nice meringue and mayonnaise.
Depending on breed, ducks can be as prolific as chickens in the amount of eggs they lay and are generally more consistent layers throughout the year, not being as sensitive to the effects of daylight. Breeds more proficient at laying, like Indian Runner ducks, typically struggle to fly, while heavier muscled breeds, such as Muscovy ducks, do not lay as well and can often be found on one’s rooftop. It is worth noting that Muscovy ducks are the most aggressive and resilient breed of domestic duck; they are very hardy, will fight and climb with their talons, and roost in trees. Ducklings are less susceptible to mortality than chicks are, as their feathers are waterproof right from hatching. Sadly, they are not as soft and fuzzy as they look, having rather coarse down. This can be a wonderful teaching moment for children.
Duck meat is generally harder to harvest due to feathers being more firmly rooted. Yields are also not as satisfying, since ducks have little need for large thigh muscles.
Raising both waterfowl and chickens can have advantages, but keep in mind that one species can be the silent carrier of diseases the other suffers from — as is the case with the highly pathogenic avian influenza.
If you enjoy eggs but are less than excited about owning dusty, aggressive, loud creatures, I urge you to consider the duck. They can be quite enjoyable, given proper management. I wish you happy homesteading.
Jacki Martinez Perkins is MOFGA’s organic dairy and livestock specialist. You can contact her at [email protected].
This article was originally published in the fall 2022 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.