Waterfowl: Ducks, Geese and Swans

Waterfowl are different from their land-based relatives, the chickens and other gallinaceous birds such as quail and pheasants. Their plumage is oiled to resist water and their meat is all dark. They carry a layer of fat under their skin, an adaptation that helps them stay warm in cold water. All those differences can be advantages, but also require different husbandry.

They all have long histories with human culture and diet. Neolithic hunters aimed at geese, ducks and swans for food. Ancient Egyptians valued ducks and geese, both those that migrated through their Nile flyway and those they captured and domesticated. Many ducks and all geese remain seasonal egg layers, reflecting their wild ancestry. Several duck breeds have become egg producers and China geese are good natural egg layers.

Ducks  and geese do better with some water to splash around in. Swans require it. If you have a pond on your property, ducks will use it happily. If you don’t, most will manage without it, so long as they have a supply of drinking water. Some ducks and geese require swimming water for mating. Swans eat aquatic vegetation, so they must have water to swim in, even if their diet relies on commercial feed.

Americans don’t eat as much duck and goose now as they did in the past. Most table-ready ducks are Pekins, although Muscovies are occasionally available. Commercially available goose is usually an industrial hybrid.  Embden is a large meat breed but all geese make good table birds.

Roast goose is the center of the traditional holiday feast, but it has become so infrequently served that cooks are unfamiliar with it. Most express concern about its reputation for being fatty, due to that extra layer of insulating fat under the skin. Preparation takes care of that. By pricking the skin, and even par-boiling the bird, the fat drains off, providing a natural basting and leaving goose grease to be saved for future cooking. NPR commentator Bonny Wolf calls goose fat “creme de la creme of fat.”

Chickens, ducks and geese can be raised together. Some care has to be exercised with chicks and ducklings, as the ducklings take to water that will drown a chick. Drown-proof waterers are available to get past this hazard.

Waterfowl are hardy and do well in cold climates. That extra layer of fat and their insulating downy feathers keep them warm and dry. Goose down is known as the warmest, and can be a valuable product.

The appeal of waterfowl, swimming smoothly across a peaceful pond, is different from that of busy chickens in a barnyard. Keeping them is worthwhile and offers different markets and rewards. Perhaps this is the year for you to broaden your poultry keeping to include them. My book, How to Raise Poultry, includes chapters on each and pointers on building small wetlands.