This article was first published in the August/September 2010 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
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I’ve tried a number of duck breeds over the years, always looking for my “true love” duck, sometimes keeping several breeds in a given season. But I’m trying to simplify my three-ring-circus of a poultry flock, inspired in no small part by the superior wisdom of the Lady of the Manor; so a couple of years ago decided to settle on my ideal breed and raise only the one, rather than constantly playing the field.
I’ve always found waterfowl in general great fun to raise, so sheer enjoyment was my first criterion. One of the most fun breeds I’ve encountered are Runner ducks. For a couple of years, my “poultry buddy” Mike next door had a flock of seven, and I loved to go over and watch their antics. They were the clowns of the barnyard, with their hyperactivity and their odd vertical stance—a busy troop of animated bowling pins, or caricatures of soldiers moving ramrod-straight with military precision. Like some flocks of wild birds, they all moved together, veering in one direction or another in absolute lockstep. As Mike put it, “They move like they’re one tissue.”
Did I call them “clowns”? I’ll never forget the evening I first saw them stop their constant scooting about, and arch their necks gracefully to feed and drink. The transition from clown to ballerina was instantaneous, unexpected, magical. I was charmed.
But sentiment rarely leads the way in my flock, and I continued to enjoy Mike’s flock of Runners vicariously. They are simply too small-bodied to fit the ideal breed I sought. For those looking for a duck that excels at egg production, however, Runners may be the perfect combination of fun and productivity—they lay up to 300 eggs a year. (Other light-bodied “egg specialist” breeds include the Campbell, now most readily available in its Khaki color—up to 340 eggs per year—and the rarer Harlequin, Magpie, and crested Bali.)
We slaughter a good number of ducks each fall, not only for their sumptuous meat but for their superior cooking fat; so my ideal breed had to be a good meat duck. One of the best of all meat ducks is the Muscovy—fast-growing to an impressive twelve pounds (for drakes—seven pounds for ducks), with superb flavor. Muscovies actually have a different wild ancestor from other domestic ducks, who are all descended from the wild mallard. They are much more capable on the wing than the “true ducks,” and may prefer roosting in trees, or flying over the fence, presenting more of a challenge to the flockster. I prefer ducks who are easier to keep where I want them, inside one of my electric net fences. And I must say that one of my ideal-duck criteria is beauty, and Muscovies have “a face only a mother could love,” with their large face patches of rough, bare red skin (caruncles). Hmmm, now that I think about it, though, Muscovies are like guineas: The first impression is ug-ly!—and then they grow on you.
Still, you wouldn’t call them a beautiful duck, and beauty as said is a further criterion for my ideal duck. I’ve raised Pekins and Rouens, and found they performed well as meat ducks. But I’ve never cared for all-white birds such as the Pekin; and I lost interest in the dark, subdued garb of the Rouen after a visit to Eliot Coleman’s farm in Maine a number of years ago. Eliot had some Swedish Blue ducks on slug patrol around his garden; and after seeing them, I knew I wanted a duck with brighter colors than the Rouen.
The Swedish Blue itself is medium size (drakes eight pounds, ducks seven), so I kept looking for a beautiful, colorful duck in the heavier class. A couple of years ago I decided to try Saxony and Silver Appleyard ducks, both from Holderread Waterfowl Farm. Both are fun, easy going, and easy to manage. As my regular readers know, I gravitate toward fowl willing to hustle a good deal of their own grub; so a big plus was that these two breeds are among the most active foragers of the heavy breeds of mallard type ducks. They are also far and away the best layers in this class, making them top choices as the most general purpose domestic duck. Both are beautiful ducks, fine ornaments to the homestead; and grow fast to an adult size (drakes nine pounds, ducks eight) that puts them not quite at the top of the heavyweight class (Aylesbury, Muscovy, Pekin, Rouen), but certainly among the best of the table ducks.
To my eye, the Appleyard is the more colorful and beautiful of the two breeds. And their egg production (200-270 eggs per year) gives them a bit of an edge over the Saxony (190-240). Last spring, therefore, I bought another batch of Dave Holderread’s ducklings, but just Silver Appleyards this time.
The Silver Appleyard was bred in the 1930s by Reginald Appleyard, a well-known poultry writer and breeder in England at that time. Appleyard’s notions of the ideal duck were pretty much the same as mine: He desired to develop a breed “with a combination of beauty, size, lots of big white eggs, and deep, long, wide breast.” I have been unable to find any information about the breeds Appleyard used to develop his new breed.
Appleyards were brought to the United States in the late 1960s, though they did not see wide availability until the 1980s. They were accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 2000.
My Appleyards performed beautifully last year; and in the fall, when I would normally slaughter the season’s entire “crop” of ducks, I reserved a drake and two ducks for breeding this year. Which brings me to the final criterion for my ideal duck: I want a duck who “remembers” how to reproduce her own kind. Like many modern breeds of chickens, many recent duck breeds have been selected to “forget” the lore of incubating a clutch of eggs and nurturing a family of ducklings. My research indicated that broodiness is a trait that Reginald Appleyard managed to retain in this breed. They are not at the top of the class of broody ducks—that honor goes to the Muscovy (and the bantam ducks who, like bantam hens, tend to excel as mothers)—but reports I read indicated they should give good service as mothers.
As insurance, while waiting for my ducks to go broody, I placed Appleyard eggs under chicken hens as they went broody, with good hatches that gave me a head start on the season.
I gave the ducks, Aster and Yarrow, their own section of my main poultry house, inaccessible to the various chicken flocks; furnished with a simple duplex nest in plywood (each side eighteen inches wide, sixteen deep, and twenty high), lined with burlap sacking over the earth floor and topped off with clean straw. (Planning ahead in this way is necessary when breeding ducks: Unlike most chicken broodies, broody ducks cannot be moved after they settle without “breaking them up.”)
The ducks had free access to the outdoors, with plenty of grass and alfalfa to forage, and a fifty-gallon sheep waterer in which to bathe. But they continued to lay in the nests inside. I removed the eggs from the nests as they were laid, leaving plastic eggs in their place. I stored the eggs at cool room temperature on their sides, and gave them half a turn each day.
In early May, both ducks went broody simultaneously. Onset of broodiness was signaled first by a lining of breast feathers in the nest, then by their remaining on the nests full time, with the exception of several nest breaks each day. When the ducks were well settled into this routine, I replaced the plastic eggs during one of the nest breaks with my reserved hatching eggs.
I didn’t have the best of luck with my broody Appleyards. Aster lost focus about a week before the end of the incubation period (26 to 29 days for mallard type ducks, a week longer for Muscovies). While she continued to set the nest, she did so erratically, and the embryos failed to complete development. Yarrow remained faithful to her work, however, and at the end of the first week of June brought four ducklings off the nest (out of nine eggs set). Sadly, two ducklings had been smothered while hatching (first-time mothers sometimes remain too “heavy” on the struggling hatchlings), and three eggs had failed to develop properly.
Though she had had her problems with her first clutch, Yarrow more than redeemed herself when she adopted a clutch of seven ducklings, more than a week older than her own. The mother of that clutch was a hen who got confused about her duties (she settled onto a roost at night, leaving her babies distressed and forlorn at ground level), and I hoped that a duck would after all be the best mother for them. Yarrow was suspicious of the “intruders” at first, but I monitored closely to make sure she did them no harm; and by next morning they were all one happy family.
As for Aster, the duck who failed to incubate her clutch: There are stern rules at Harv’s Hatchery for broodies who ask to be mothers, then fail to carry through. (I’m thinking curry.) I will replace her with two ducks from this year’s hatch, for a total next spring of three breeding ducks. I will also add a second breeding drake. Wish me luck as I continue working with my Appleyards to make them my ideal breed of duck.