Updated: Jan 16, 2020
I might have named this, “Why not chickens?” That seems to be the question most often behind the question when people ask us, “Why ducks?”
Commercial food production favors chickens, so chicken meat and chicken eggs are ubiquitous. Chicken eggs are the only eggs many people who get their food from grocery stores have ever had. (For a brief history of how chickens rose to prominence in our food system, check this out.)
Turkeys and ducks are indigenous to this continent and, like geese and partridges, are generally more robust than chickens. Ducks also tend to have stronger immune systems and are less susceptible to external parasites like mites.
The best option for a small regenerative farm in the Pacific Northwest is not the same as the best option for large scale commercial confinement egg production. (Whether there is such a thing as a good choice for large scale commercial confinement farming is a conversation for another day.)
The Resilient Gardener
When I read read Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener in 2013, I was sold on ducks being the perfect farm bird for the Pacific Northwest. Deppe believes ducks forage better than chickens, lay better at an older age and in the winter, are easier to keep out of the garden, and are happy even during cold, wet winters.
The most ecologically well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. The best-laying duck breeds lay better than the best-laying chicken breeds. Ducks can free-range year-round in our region. Ducks forage much more of their diets than chickens and eat a larger variety of natural foods common here. Ducks eat snails and slugs, and are better for yard and garden pest control. Ducks love our weather.
Our reasons for choosing ducks
Ducks delight in the rain. They are designed for cold, wet weather. They continue to range throughout our cold, wet conditions – their feathers shed the rain and keep them warm. Ducklings can be outdoors early in spring. If they are exposed to water in the first few days of their life, they will be adequately waterproofed to forage outside during the day in their third week.
Ducks need shade during summer heat, but are very unlikely to overheat. When they get hot, they submerge themselves in water to cool off. Ducks are susceptible to frost bite, but given our mild winters, that is not an issue here.
Ducks eat two of the most relevant garden pests in the Pacific Northwest, slugs and snails. Ducks love them! And most domesticated ducks are big enough to eat very large slugs.
Ducks can forage a substantial portion of their diet. Ducks do eat grain, but animal life and greenery, including grass, makes up an important part of their diet.
Here in the maritime Northwest, ducks have great forage all winter, except when slugs and worms hide during below freezing temperatures.
Ducks produce very wet poop, so it distributes itself more evenly across the ground and needs less processing than other birds’ droppings.
Ducks are easy to control. If their basic needs are met (food, water, other ducks) domestic ducks can easily be kept in their own yard or field with a fence only two feet high. Most chickens kept for eggs can fly well enough to get over any fencing. To keep them confined and out of trees and off structures (like houses and barns) often means clipping their wings, which we’d like to avoid.
Ducks are more resistant to disease than chickens. Ducklings are hardier than chicks. Ducklings are more heavily feathered and have a layer of subcutaneous fat.
Duck eggs are big. Ducks eggs are generally bigger than chicken eggs from a breed of equivalent size.
Ducks lay a lot of eggs. Duck breeds who are good layers lay more than good chicken laying breeds.
Pastured ducks lay nearly year round. Chickens need more daylight hours to lay so for year-round eggs, their humans need to significantly supplement their light. Ducks lay for more years than chickens.
Ducks eggs have a similar nutritional profile as chicken eggs. There are some difference, of course. They are higher in protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin E than chicken eggs (chicken egg source and duck egg source). Duck eggs taste richer, have a thicker shell, and have a longer shelf life. Their higher protein levels make them great for baking, especially gluten free baking!
Duck lay their eggs at the same time every day. Ducks normally lay their eggs between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. daily. This means they lay their eggs in the nests in their night pens instead of hiding a nest in the yard. You can pick up the duck eggs just once per day, at the same time that you let the ducks out to forage. A flock of chickens lays at all times of the day and night.
Duck eggs are edible to more people. Many people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. A few people are allergic to both. I have also run into occasional people who claim to have problems eating duck eggs who can eat chicken eggs, though this pattern seems to be rare. Ducks from the better-laying breeds and strains can lay well enough to earn their keep for years. Laying chickens are usually not producing economically beyond the second year.
The ducks I am referring to in this article are Mallard descendants, the most common domesticated duck. I have no experience and very little information about Muscovy ducks.