The following is an excerpt from Natural Living: The 21st-Century Guide to a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle by Liz Wright (GAIA/Octopus, 2010). Whether you want to begin your journey to a more self-reliant life in the garden, in the kitchen, in the chicken coop or even in the wild, Natural Living has advice and inspiration to help you get started successfully. This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Raising Your Own.”
Domestic ducks not only produce a large number of good-sized, rich eggs, but they also make good table birds. They are increasingly popular with self-supporters, and they can also help you rid your land of slugs and snails as they forage.
Choosing a Breed
All domestic breeds (except the Muscovy) originate from the wild Mallard, but they have been developed for specific purposes. Most ducks still have a strong utility element — they provide meat and eggs — although there are exceptions. Like chickens, ducks are divided into bantam, heavy and light breeds, with the heavy breeds being better suited to the table and the light breeds providing the high egg layers.
The best known of the bantam breeds is the Call duck, so named for its loud and persistent quack. It makes a great pet, but is not a good layer. The Crested Miniature, which is an exhibition type, lays a useful 100 eggs a year, but the Silver Appleyard Miniature not only lays well but is also meaty for its size. The Australian Spotted also lays well and matures fast. Bantam breeds are good flyers and need to have their wings clipped.
This group includes the really good layers, such as the Indian Runner, an upright duck that cannot fly but is a superb forager on pasture and should not be confined to a small area. The Campbell was bred for egg laying — it can produce 300 a year — and also makes a good table bird. The Welsh Harlequin is another dual-purpose, hardy bird with a placid nature.
These are the table birds, and at the top of the list is the Aylesbury. The true Aylesbury is rare, and most such-named ducks are really white, heavy, Pekin-type hybrids. The Pekin is a semi-upright, quick-maturing, high meat-yielding bird, but a low layer in Britain, although U.S. keepers can expect up to 200 eggs a season.
The Rouen and Rouen Clair are kept for their looks, but still produce a good carcass and 100 or so eggs a season. The Silver Appleyard was developed to be a good foraging, dual-purpose bird, but it is also colorful in appearance.
Heavy breeds are not good flyers, with the exception of the Muscovy. It originates from a tree duck, and with its crest, its hissing, and the red, fleshy protuberances on its face and bill (carbuncles), it looks quite different from other ducks. It makes a good table bird (though it is dark meat) and is a moderate layer, but it can be aggressive and also eats small mammals.
Among the established commercial breeds are hybrids, such as the high-laying Rhode Island Red/Sussex hybird Daisy Belle, but there are many other types.
You can buy ducks direct from breeders, from quality shows and sales, and from hatcheries.
Buy birds at the age they start laying eggs (21 to 24 weeks old), and they can live for eight to 10 years. Day-old ducklings require heat and starter crumbs as well as drinking water. Restrict access to swimming water until the birds’ preen glands come into play — which is not until they have passed the downy (fluffy) stage — because ducklings reared away from their mothers are not waterproof and will drown or get chilled.
Offer a balanced ration according to age or type: starter crumbs for ducklings, growers’ pellets for 4- to 6-week-old ducks, finishing pellets up to slaughter, breeders’ pellets for breeding ducks, and layers’ pellets for egg producers. If they are foraging on ground that hasn’t beren overgrazed, ducks will pick up lots of invertebrates and other grubs to supplement their diet. Provide plenty of water.
Water for Ducks
Ducks need water in order to splash, which activates their preen gland, keeps their feathers well-oiled and healthy, and cleans their eyes and nose. The heavy breeds appreciate swimming water for mating, but the lighter ducks can manage with a small pond. The water must be deep enough for them to be able to get their heads under the water and ideally to be able to float.
The water will become foul and must be changed regularly unless it flows naturally. All ponds need to have sloping sides or ramps so that they can get in or out.
Ducks must be shut in a house at dusk to protect them from predators, and then let out in the morning. They are ground-roosting birds and need a secure, well-ventilated shed with a large entrance so that they do not get damaged. High windows will allow air to circulate above the birds, and the house should be at least 3 feet high. For nighttime confinement only, ducks need about 4 square feet of space each, but if they have to be confined for longer periods, they will need more space, along with a pond that can’t be knocked over.
Ducks are messy creatures, so you’ll need to be able to clean out their pen and hose it down. They also suffer from “bumble foot,” which is caused by infections resulting from injuries on their webs by sharp stones or rubbish. Bumble foot can be fatal, so grass or smooth surfaces are preferable.
Ducks are at risk from foxes and other predators, and ducklings are at risk from winged predators. Young birds should be protected in a covered run, while adults need protection at night and sometimes during the day. The protection may take the form of electric fencing or wire sunk into the ground and sloped at the top. If you are using natural water, look out for water predators, such as mink.
If they are kept well with access to water and room to forage, ducks are hardy. Worming and mite treatments are essential, and respiratory problems are often caused by a stuffy, over-hot house with moldy bedding. Crop binding is caused by gizzard worm or by long grass or grass clippings getting stuck in the gizzard, so make sure you provide grit.
The sudden death of more than one bird from your flock should always be investigated by a veterinary surgeon in case the bird has a serious disease, such as avian flu or Newcastle disease.
Produce From Your Ducks
Collect eggs every day and keep them clean. It’s difficult to get ducks to lay in a nest box, but they do often lay in the house, so keep the bedding clean. Table ducks need to be slaughtered at seven weeks for hybrids or 10 weeks for pure breeds, before they go into their juvenile molt. After this they will be harder to pluck, although the meat is unaffected. As with chickens, slaughter is usually by neck dislocation, but it requires more skill and determination than for chickens, and you must learn from an expert or get a professional to do it for you to ensure a humane death.
Plucking is time-consuming. Ducks can be plucked wet or dry, and small-scale plucking machines are available.
Don’t keep more than one drake to a flock. They have high libidos and will damage the ducks with their constant attention. You don’t need a drake at all for the ducks to lay eggs.
Reprinted with permission from Natural Living: The 21st-Century Guide to a Self-Sufficient Lifestyle, published by GAIA/Octopus, 2010.