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If it walks like a duck…

Ducks! Colorful and varied, good producers, effective pest foragers, attractive. Some quack more than others – they call them Call ducks  for a reason – but many owners enjoy that sociability. Husbandry is different from that for chickens, but once you have them set up, they are no trouble. Take a look at the possibilities:

Ducks divide into two main categories: the Muscovies and all the others, descended from Mallards.They are separate species and, although they can breed and produce offspring, the offspring aren’t fertile, like mules. The cross can be a good production bird, growing fast like the Mallard with the heavy body of the Muscovy.

Muscovies don’t quack, making them quieter than other ducks. The females have a soft quack they use occasionally when they have ducklings but more commonly chirp and tweet softly. Males have a raspy huff. They have the red carruncles, warty-looking red skin on their heads. Not everyone likes the appearance, but Muscovies can be even-tempered and make good companions. That’s not universal – they can also be territorial and aggressive, but when they are raised around people and other animals, can usually be counted on to be good neighbors.

Mallards are still common in the wild. They are the ancestors of the wide variety of domestic ducks recognized by the American Poultry Association and the American Bantam Association. They fall into four categories: Bantams, Light, Medium and Heavy. Many of them are also good egg producers and some have been bred as egg hybrids. Some people who are allergic to chicken eggs can eat duck eggs without having an allergic reaction.

Because of their warm and water-resistant plumage, ducks require less protection from the elements than chickens do. However, they are also subject to predation, so they need secure housing and fencing.

Duck droppings are watery and messy. Maintain them on gravel over sand that will drain well. Replace the top two or three inches of sand as needed with clean sand. The soiled sand makes a rich soil amendment. Runner ducks were developed in Asia as part of the rice production system. They would be herded from one paddy to another, where they would eat the insects and loose grains and fertilize the watery paddy. Then they’d be moved on to another. They are tall and slim, often described as having a ‘wine-bottle’ shape.

Duck breeds vary in their ability to brood and raise their own offspring. Muscovies lay large clutches and enjoy raising their own ducklings, but Runners, like egg breed chickens, are unlikely to brood.

Dave Holderread operates Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center in Corvallis Oregon. He wrote the book on Raising Ducks. I include a chapter on ducks in How to Raise Poultry, an overview of various poultry species.

The International Waterfowl Breeders Association is the collective breed organization. A sample newsletter from Summer 2009  is posted on the site.


Orpington Chickens: A Royal Breed

Consider the Orpington Chicken Breed. It’s a general purpose breed, useful for both meat and eggs. Orpingtons are large birds, roosters weighing around 10 lbs., hens 8 lbs. Orpingtons lay brown eggs. Estimates of laying on exhibition strains vary, from 50 to 120 eggs a year. (Purely Poultry’s Buff Orpingtons are smaller and lay 175-200 eggs per year.) Orpingtons are active and good foragers but calm and friendly in disposition, making them popular as companions. The hens also are good broodies and attentive mothers.

Their feathers are their glory, broad and smooth, but without the fluffiness of Cochins. Cochins have been bred into Orpingtons to add to their feathers, not always with desirable effects. Orpington plumage, especially on the sides, should be full but not fluffy.

Historically, the breed’s roots trace back to England and it is shown in the English class. Its white skin is typical of English breeds, still popular in that country. Americans are accustomed to yellow skin. It gets its name from the town of Orpington in the County of Kent.

The first Orpingtons shown in America in 1890 were black, followed soon after by buff. Buff color was all the rage in the late 19th century, and was bred into many chicken breeds. The buff color was the first Orpington variety recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1902. Black and white varieties were recognized in1905, followed by blue in 1923.

Orpingtons come in many other colors that are not yet recognized. Recently, Chocolate Orpingtons have attracted attention in internet sales. Buyer beware. Reports have varied. In England, many other colors are raised, including gold laced, cuckoo, lemon cuckoo, lavender, porcelain and splash.

The Diamond Jubilee Orpington was developed to honor Queen Victoria’s 1897 celebration of 50 years on the English throne. It is a mixture of black, brown and white feathers. The Dorking that was bred into them to produce that color also gives them a tinted rather than brown egg.

Queen Victoria herself kept a flock of Orpingtons. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, kept Orpingtons, the Buff variety reputed to be her favorites. Prince Charles remains a champion of Orpingtons.

Originally, both single comb and rose comb varieties were raised. Today, single combs with five spikes are recognized for showing, but you may find an occasional rose comb.

My buff Orpington, Oprah, has a strong spirit, loudly announcing her spectacular eggs even before she lays them. She’s the first one up in the morning, often taking the opportunity to lecture the other girls on the finer points of laying superior eggs.

The United Orpington Club provides more information and will connect you with other Orpington enthusiasts.

Orpington chickens bring fine qualities, historical interest and a brush with royalty to your henhouse.