Ducks will gobble up emerging weeds, weed seeds, bugs, slugs and snails in the garden.
Illustration by Elara Tanguy
Whether you raise them for fun or frugality, ducks and geese are great additions to a homestead. They forage for much of their own food, need only a simple shelter and fencing for protection, and convert insects and weeds into healthy proteins. So, aside from the charms of honking, waddling, quacking and splashing, what can ducks and geese offer your family?
Eggs. Some duck breeds will actually lay more eggs than chickens will. Duck eggs are not much different in flavor from chicken eggs. In general, small duck breeds, such as Campbells and Runners, lay more eggs than bigger breeds. (For help choosing waterfowl breeds, check out our breed profile charts: 14 Dapper Duck Breeds and 12 Gregarious Goose Breeds.) None of the goose breeds lays as prolifically as a duck, although a single goose egg can make a formidable omelet. Goose eggs are often kept for hatching or hollowed out by artists to create decorative jewelry boxes and other craft items.
Meat. Any waterfowl breed can be raised for meat, but some grow faster and larger than others while consuming less feed. Also, there is a trade-off between meat and egg production; larger, meatier breeds do not lay as prodigiously as the midsized or smaller breeds commonly kept for fresh eggs. Duck sold at the butcher counter is most likely Pekin, and a goose from a butcher is typically an Embden. The lean, tender meat of the midsized Muscovy duck is comparable to fine veal, and rendered goose fat provides terrific shortening for baking. Raising ducks for meat is a short-term project completed in two to four months depending on species. Geese are ready for butchering in about six months.
Weed and pest control. In the garden, ducks will scarf down emerging weeds, weed seeds, bugs, slugs and snails — just keep them fenced away from tender greens and ripening strawberries. Muscovies will clean out ticks, wasps, mosquitoes, flies, Japanese beetles and other pests. Geese are also excellent at weed control, especially young Chinese geese, which are light enough that they don’t compact the soil as they forage. One product of all this weed-eating and insect-munching is phosphorus-rich manure, which, along with soiled shelter bedding, is ready for composting.
Feathers. If you intend to roast a bird with the skin intact, white-feathered breeds look cleaner when plucked than breeds with darker plumage. On the other hand, waterfowl with colorful plumage are less visible to predators. No matter their color, the birds’ soft feathers and down can fill comforters, pillows and vests.
Fun and fancy. Waterfowl can also be kept for exhibition, to conserve a rare breed, or simply for the enjoyment of their silly antics and beauty. Sebastopol geese, for instance, have luxuriously long, soft feathers, and several breeds of both ducks and geese are available in versions with striking crests or tufts.
What’s not to like? Getting your waterfowl to stay put can be an issue, as some breeds like to fly around — but you can control them by carefully clipping the feathers of one wing. While ducks are typically gentle, geese can get aggressive, a trait rendering them well-suited for guarding property. If you worry that incessant quacking and honking might be irritating to nearby neighbors, choose Muscovies, which are also known as “quackless ducks.”
Which Type and How Many?
Domestic ducks come in two species: Muscovy (Cairina moschata) and mallard-derived breeds (Anas platyrhynchos). Mallard breeds are often kept in pairs, although maintaining fewer drakes (males) will reduce the feed bill and offer hens relief from high-libido males. If you don’t want ducklings, you can keep just hens; experience has shown that peace will reign in a yard housing only sweet-tempered female Muscovies. Muscovy ducks don’t pair up; the two sexes lead separate lives. Drakes of all breeds have an insatiable sex drive, but they won’t pester hens as much if living in groups of at least five ducks. An offspring from the mating of a Muscovy duck and a mallard breed is normally incapable of reproduction. Geese bond in pairs or trios, although a gander (male) of a lightweight breed may take on up to six females, and a heavy-breed gander can handle up to four.
Some smaller breeds of duck, such as the Welsh Harlequin, may lay as many as 300 eggs per year. An Embden goose will supply only 15 to 35 large eggs per year, but she may reach a hanging weight of 14 pounds in only six months.
As weeders, two ducks per 500 square feet of garden will do more good than harm, but two mature geese could do a lot of damage. Goslings, on the other hand, are great springtime weeders.
Raising ducklings and goslings poses more challenges than raising chicks does. Waterfowl like to play in water, which necessitates frequent changing of bedding to ensure a clean, healthy environment. A cardboard box is thus not the greatest brooder option. Instead, fit a large plastic storage tote with an elevated floor made of hardware cloth (turn the cut edges under so the birds can’t snag a foot), giving excess moisture a place to go until you can mop it out.
To keep drinking water clean, you’ll need a waterer that discourages play. Try an open bowl or pan with a piece of clean, untreated lumber floating on the surface. Cut the lumber to be slightly smaller than the container so birds can only drink around the edges.
Place food and water on opposite ends of your brooder, or the feed will become a wet mess and the water will turn to sludge.
If you can’t find a commercial waterfowl starter ration, use chick starter crumble. Ensure it’s not medicated with a coccidiostat (which prevents specific intestinal parasites in chicks, but is of no use to waterfowl) and fortify the crumble with livestock-grade brewer’s yeast (3 pounds brewer’s yeast per 25-pound bag of starter) to prevent niacin deficiency, which can cause bone and joint disorders.
Typically, an infrared heat lamp or light bulb provides brooder warmth, but a hot glass bulb will shatter if splashed with cold water. (Beware: Most “shatter-proof” bulbs are coated with Teflon/PTFE, which is deadly to birds.) A safe alternative — and a good investment if you continue raising water birds — is a sealed infrared pet heater, such as Infratherm’s Sweeter Heater. Shelter the birds from rain, wind and hot sun until they are fully feathered — seven to 10 weeks for mallard-derived ducklings and about 16 weeks for Muscovies and goslings.
Making Ducks and Geese Feel at Home
Consider adding both ducks and geese to your homestead, as the two get along well. Geese tend to be aggressive toward trespassers, so domestic ducks — which don’t fly well or at all and are sometimes too heavy to even waddle fast — will enjoy some degree of protection from predators when kept with geese. Do not keep waterfowl in a small yard with chickens or turkeys, as ducks and geese like wet conditions that are unhealthy for land fowl.
A fence keeps waterfowl safe and confined. A 3- to 4-foot-tall narrow-mesh fence will hold most breeds, while a 5- to 6-foot fence is better for Muscovies (which like to perch on the fence top) and the lighter goose breeds.
Most predators, such as coyotes and raccoons, prowl at night, so install a well-built shelter for protection, and train your birds to go in at dusk. This will also be a place for hens to lay eggs and take refuge from wind, sun and rain.
Pine shavings for bedding will help simplify cleaning and keep eggs clean. Do not furnish water while your birds are confined, as boredom plus the attraction of water can result in a soggy abode. They also shouldn’t have food while in their nighttime shelter; they’ll do fine overnight and eagerly look forward to breakfast.
Ducks and geese love to splash and gambol in water — for the larger breeds water is essential for mating and egg fertility — so a small pond is an asset. Water access also helps birds clean and condition plumage. Sebastopol geese, for example, need water for the care of their fancy feathers. Of all water birds, only Muscovies do well without a pond for bathing and mating.
A water feature must have easy access for the little ones, and it should be easy to clean. A children’s wading pool works, provided it’s equipped with a drain for cleaning and ramps to help the smaller swimmers climb in and out.
Feed and Forage Considerations
Mallard-derived ducks can satisfy 90 percent of their dietary needs by eating vegetable matter; the remaining 10 percent comes via live snacks, such as mosquitoes and tadpoles. The diet of a Muscovy leans more toward meat treats, such as slugs, snails and baby gophers. Geese are entirely vegetarian.
Waterfowl that are not pushed for egg or meat production can forage for nearly all their nutritional needs. Supplementing their diet with grain or a commercial ration helps them through the winter months and gives fertility a boost during breeding season. Birds with access to plentiful forage need only as much commercial ration as they will eat within 15 minutes, morning and evening.
Unless your yard has a flowing spring or stream, you’ll need to supply plenty of potable water for your birds. In addition to hydration, ducks and geese clean their bills by squirting water through their nostrils, so a drinking trough should be easy to wash, and birds must be able to dip in their entire heads. To keep water out of the feed — and feed out of the water — keep the two at least 6 feet apart. Waterfowl are fun, but they can be messy.
Baby Birds! For mail-order poultry sources, see the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Hatchery Finder. For pictures of domestic waterfowl breeds, see The Livestock Conservancy’s poultry page.
Gail Damerow is the author of Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks: Chickens, Turkeys, Ducks, Geese, Guinea Fowl. She and her husband look after goats, poultry, fruit trees and an ample garden on their farm in Tennessee.