Breed Profile: Indian Runner Duck

Indian Runner Duck Colors Have Spawned Many Breeds and Varieties

Breed Profile: Indian Runner Duck

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Breed: The Indian Runner duck may be simply referred to as the Runner duck. Despite the name, there is no evidence these ducks came from India.

Origin: Duck herding has been part of traditional agriculture in parts of the Malay Peninsula and some Indonesian islands for centuries. Farmers guide herds of ducks over land and roads to forage in rice fields, where they devour insects, snails, and other pests. Over their long domestic history, these ducks became the fast-running, long-ranging foragers first documented by Europeans in the 1850s.

ducks-in-rice-field
Ducks in a Rice Field in Yunnan, China, by Grzegorz Chrupała CC BY-SA 3.0.

Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace observed them in 1856 in Lombok, Indonesia: “The ducks are a peculiar breed, which have very long flat bodies, and walk erect almost like penguins. They are generally of a pale reddish ash colour, and are kept in large flocks. They are very cheap and are largely consumed by the crews of the rice ships, by whom they are called Baly-soldiers, but are more generally known elsewhere as penguin-ducks.”

origin-map
Malay/Indonesian origins (in red) based on locator map by Gunawan Kartapranata CC BY-SA 3.0.

How Runner Ducks Spread to Europe and Beyond

History: Although trading ships may have brought them to Europe before the nineteenth century, they were not widely known in Britain until 1890. However, there are accounts of “Penguin ducks” at Surrey and London zoo parks in the 1830s which fit the description of Runner ducks.

Around 1890, a pamphlet documented the first import by a sea captain from “India” (this was probably rather the East Indies, as there is no evidence of Indian origins). He saw value in the upright stance, active nature, and egg-laying abilities of local ducks. In around 1840, he brought some back for his farmer friends in Cumberland (northwest England, now part of Cumbria). Due to their laying performance, their popularity spread initially to Scotland, then to the rest of Britain after appearing at the 1896 Kendal Show.

It seems that the original imports were entirely fawn, entirely white, and pied (white with fawn or gray areas). The pied coloring was so unusual that it became the main breeding focus. Exhibitors aimed to perfect color and pattern to the detriment of other traits. The Indian Runner duck of the turn of the century was typically pied with a lower, stockier body shape. Meanwhile, keen to improve the laying performance of farmyard ducks, many farmers employed drakes for crossbreeding. Both approaches led to loss of the solid fawn variety and dilution of the original type.

Les-poules-de-ma-Tante-ROULLIER
Early twentieth century image in Les poules de ma Tante by Roullier-Arnoud.

Reviving Original Qualities

Enthusiasts formed the Indian Runner Duck Club in 1906 to revive the authentic gene pool, including fresh imports from Lombok and Java in 1909, and further imports in the 1920s. Those exhibited at the Palace Show in 1910 included solid fawn, which is a standard in Britain to this day. Through these imports, breeders restored the classic Runner type. They found other novel color genes in the Runner genome, such as dusky, brown, buff, and a new light gene. Breed pioneers used these to create a variety of new composites, such as Khaki Campbell and Buff Orpington duck.

Their unique appearance and laying capabilities caused their popularity to spread through Europe and to America, where controversy arose over correct coloring. The APA initially admitted a white and fawn Runner duck in 1898 as the “Fawn and White”. It varied from the British variety of that name, known as “Penciled” in the U.S. When various colors were found to be innate to Runners, other varieties were admitted.

white-and-fawn-runner-duck
Fawn and white runner duck male and female, courtesy of John Metzer, metzerfarms.com, CA.

Conservation Status: Still popular in many countries and listed as “recovering” at The Livestock Conservancy.

Unique Indian Runner Duck Colors and Shape

Biodiversity: Runner ducks pioneered unique gene variants for shape, behavior, and colors found in no other domestic duck, and these have given rise to several twentieth century breeds.

ducks-of-many-colors
Photo by Jeanine Smal/Pixabay.

Description: Slim body and neck held at 45–75° to the horizontal when relaxed. When alerted, Runners stand almost vertically with the tail pointing downwards. The set-back legs allow upright carriage and fast running gait. Eyes sit high on the head.

Varieties: Indian Runner duck colors and patterns are many and varied, some of which are standardized. Breeders developed varieties with no need for crossing with other breeds. The APA accepts Fawn and White, Penciled, White, Black, Chocolate, Buff, Cumberland Blue (a slate blue Indian Runner duck with lacing on wing coverts), and Gray (mallard colors and pattern). Other colors have become standards in Britain and Europe, including Fawn, Silver, Trout, Blue Trout, and Apricot Trout.

chocolate-runner-duck
Chocolate runner duck and drake, courtesy of John Metzer, Metzer Farms, CA.

A Skilled Multipurpose Garden Friend

Popular Use: Eggs, pest control, pets, and herding-dog training.

Egg Color: White or green.

Egg Size: Large.

Productivity: 100–250 per year.

Weight: Duck 3–4.5 lb. (1.4–2 kg); drake 3.5–5 lb. (1.6–2.3 kg).

black-runner-duck
Black runner duck and drake, courtesy of John Metzer, Metzer Farms, CA.

Temperament: Alert and active, they synchronize as a group, making them easy to herd. They become friendly if managed calmly. Males have high libido, so 6–7 females each is recommended to avoid injury.

Adaptability: Leg position and body shape make them excellent rangers and foragers. They need space to roam, but are non-fliers. Water is not necessary for breeding, but they need enough to wash, and appreciate the opportunity to swim. Housing for Indian Runner ducks can be a simple wooden hut with soft bedding for sleeping overnight. Longer confinement will require enough height for them to stand fully upright and flap. As highly social beings, they are happier in groups. Most females do not brood. Indian Runner duck lifespan is 8–12 years.

ducks-swimming
Runner ducks appreciate opportunities to bathe and swim. Photo credit: Anna Armbrust/Pixabay.

Quote: “Runners are a fun breed to have. They are almost comical in their upright stance and quick movements chasing bugs or foraging through your garden looking for slugs or snails. They also stay together as a flock better than most other breeds. And if you like green-shelled eggs, the Runners have a very high percentage of these—probably higher than any other breed.” John Metzer, Metzer Farms, CA.

Sources

Lead photo by Jacqueline Macou/Pixabay.

Originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Original occupation of Runners in Bali, Indonesia.

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