The first time I saw a Call duck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d wandered over to the waterfowl section of my local poultry show and found the usual suspects — Cayugas with their iridescent black feathers, pompadoured Cresteds looking like they were on their way to a fancy opera, Muscovys with the strange red growths above their bills — but in the midst of it were these small white ducks, just a few times the size of the rubber ones you might have played with at bath time. The ducks had short yellow legs and bills barely as large as their oversized heads. Their bodies were round and fat. When they quacked, opening their tiny bills, it sounded like a loud squeaky toy. I was shocked I’d never heard of these little birds before, which looked like Disney cartoons come to life, and became even more surprised as I began to research them and discover that they’re largely unknown outside the poultry world.
One of the reasons is that in breeding the birds to be so adorable, they’ve gotten harder to hatch. Most hatcheries don’t sell Call ducks so to obtain one, hopeful owners have to make a connection at a local poultry show or contact a breeder who could be many hours away. “They are not an easy breed to raise,” says Dawn Lytle, a member of the Call Breeders of America located in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Originally, Call ducks were decoy birds whose loud call attracted wild birds down where hunters could shoot them. They were closer to the size of a Mallard. As duck hunting has declined in popularity, Call breeders found a new way to keep the breed alive. “We just kept them cute,” Lytle says. People started breeding for characteristics like short legs, big heads, and small bills and the Call duck became a popular exhibition bird and pet. “But those characteristics of fertility and reproduction and motherability have all kind of been bred out of them.” An exhibition-quality call duck might only lay 20-30 eggs a year and it’s not uncommon for only half to hatch, though some gifted breeders get closer to 90%.
“They can be hard to hatch but they’re quite easy to sell,” says Art Lundgen, a member of the Call Breeders of America from Jamestown, New York. Many of his customers want the birds as pets or for show. “They’re popular with 4-H kids.” The birds’ small stature means they require less food (making them less expensive) and are easier for small hands to hold. Krissy Ellis, who runs the popular Instagram @Dunkin.Ducks, had ducks for many years before she got her first Call duck at 16 from a 4-H friend who was leaving for college and had to rehome his birds. Munchkin and Cava, as her birds are called, were set up in a coop inside Ellis’ house because she was afraid that they might get killed outside if left to their own devices. She regularly puts a harness and leash on her birds and takes them on hikes, road trips, and even on lunch dates to Starbucks. “One time I took Munchkin swimming at a waterfall,” Ellis says. “She had the time of her life.” Since getting a pair of Call ducks, Ellis has sold three to local 4-H kids who want a Call of their own. “The little kids are obsessed with them,” she says. Compared to chickens that like to peck eyeballs, toes, and clothing or even full-size ducks, Calls are gentle birds.
This does mean that they need a little more oversight than the average duck which can be left to free-range and swim outside. “Once I had Ming outside and a hawk tried to get him with me standing right there,” Kim Falls, who runs the Instagram @Kim4Peace, says of her Call duck. “They need to be protected from predators 24/7,” she explains. Other than that, raising them is easy. They need fresh water to drink and bathe in and will happily use that water to make a big mess (like most waterfowl). Because of their short legs, owners might want to put in steps to help them access their pond or pool. Luckily, they tend to be healthy birds but are more prone to sinus infections because of their short nasal passages.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, true to their original profession as decoy ducks, Calls can make a lot of noise, females in particular. “If you have more than one, you’d better have a big yard or neighbors that won’t mind the quacking,” Falls says. Though their squeaky quack is charming, a female laying an egg sounds more like she’s screaming. Ellis describes the tone as “small and angry” then adds, “I’m sure my neighbors that are far away can hear them.”
Some people who have fallen in love with Call ducks but want to avoid the worst of the noise get a flock of drakes which are quieter. “Drakes live well together,” says Lytle. “As long as you don’t introduce a girl, you’re fine.”
The most important thing to know about Call ducks is that once you get one or two (or many more), you may not be able to go back. Lundgren, who is 75 now, has been raising Calls for 30 years and isn’t planning to stop any time soon. Lytle has been raising and showing Calls for a decade. “I’ve raised all different breeds of waterfowl and chickens,” she says. “But I will never be without a Call duck until I die.”
Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.