Breed Profile: Magpie Duck
Magpie Ducklings Show Their Colors … and Their Strengths as Foragers
Reading Time: 5 minutes
BREED: The Magpie duck is light, dual-purpose, heritage breed, a challenge for exhibitors, but well adapted to ranging.
ORIGIN: First developed in England and Wales around the 1920s for eggs and meat; we do not know which breeds where included in their foundation. However, their form, hardiness, and markings suggest a blend of Indian Runner and an old Belgian breed, the Huttegem.
In the 1970s, a similar breed, the Altrheiner Elsterente (Old Rhine Pied duck) was developed in Germany. It is considered the same breed as Magpie in Europe, although it probably has a different foundation.
Belgian Duck Farming and Type Origin
English poultry authority Edward Brown wrote about the Huttegem duck in 1906, after touring Belgium. He considered that it evolved during the 1800s from the crossing of the ancient local heavy meat breed, the Dendermondse (or Termonde), and ducks of Runner type.
Duck-breeding was a popular family industry along the river Scheldt and around Oudenaarde in East Flanders, first for eggs, then later also for meat. Meadows along the river were marshy until 1920 when the land was drained. Farmers could raise ducks on the rich, watery meadows for little cost, as ducklings could gain all their nutrition from the land. Hatched in fall and put out to pasture at a few days old, ducklings had to survive snow and ice with minimal straw shelters as wind breaks. These hardy ducklings made excellent foragers and families would take time to stamp the ground to raise worms for their eager appetites. When a new lock and channeling dried out the surrounding land, the breed was abandoned, except for a few enthusiasts who keep flocks for exhibition. Now, the Huttegem and Dendermondse are extremely rare.
How the Magpie Pattern Evolved
Whereas Belgian farmers were unconcerned by color, focusing on productivity and hardiness, standards initially accepted blue-and-white markings, which were predominant, then later black-and-white. Waterfowl expert Dave Holderread recognizes Brown’s description of the Huttegem’s head, bill, body, and carriage as correct for the Magpie. He considers the genes for their white bib and Runner pattern would have produced some offspring with Magpie markings.
These traits suggest Huttegem stock was used to develop the Magpie, whose breeders sought white plumage on the breast to avoid dark stubs on plucking. In the 1920s, duck eggs where popular in Britain, so Magpies were kept for both meat and eggs. The breed was then standardized to present clearly defined and symmetrical markings in 1926.
In 1963, Magpie ducks were imported to America and taken up by a small number of breeders in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. A Standard was accepted by the APA in 1977. The difficulty of acquiring the desired markings may have discouraged fanciers and limited the breed’s popularity. However, birds became more available from 1984, and homesteaders have found them hardy, adaptable, productive, and a pleasure to keep.
A Rare Heritage Breed with Hardy Genes
CONSERVATION STATUS: The Livestock Conservancy lists them as a threatened duck breed, and very low numbers are recorded by the FAO.
BIODIVERSITY: Their hardiness points to a long-acquired adaptation to harsh conditions, likely acquired from northwestern European breeds, while several traits, including pattern, form, and stance indicate Indian Runner genes. Together with the Ancona duck, Magpies may preserve rare genes from old Belgian breeds.
The colored pattern varies widely, which makes it difficult to breed to the Standard for show. Even if parents have the desired marking, offspring show variation, with males paler and females darker with each generation. Therefore, good breeding stock with markings unsuitable for show can be employed to produce show birds. Magpie ducklings hatch with markings that approximate how their plumage pattern will develop, which makes it easier for exhibitors to choose their show birds early on.
Magpie Duck Characteristics
DESCRIPTION: A medium-sized, light duck with a long body and neck. The body is moderately wide and deep, and carried 15–30° above horizontal when relaxed.
The plumage is pied, with white face, neck, breast, undercarriage, and primary and secondary flight feathers. The crown of the head and back from the shoulder to the tail is solid color. When the wings are closed, the back markings ideally resemble a heart shape. As birds age, parts of the colored areas progressively turn white, especially in females. Old females often lose their colored crown and may become completely white.
The eyes are dark. The bill is long, orange or yellow, with some green mottling or shading that becomes more widespread and darker with age. The legs and feet are orange, often mottled with black, and increasingly so with age.
VARIETIES: The Black and the Blue are the original and most common varieties. There is a Dun in Britain, and a rare Chocolate.
SKIN COLOR: White
Large Magpie Duck Eggs and Other Useful Traits …
POPULAR USE: Apart from being bred for show, Magpie ducks make excellent dual-purpose homestead birds or pets, while clearing the garden of weeds and pests. They can rid a garden of slugs and snails, or pastures of the carrier snails of liver fluke. Being light, they cause little damage to soil or plants.
EGG COLOR: White, cream, or green-blue.
EGG SIZE: Large/2.3 oz. (65 g).
PRODUCTIVITY: 180–290 eggs per year and high longevity.
WEIGHT: Adult male 5–7 lb. (2.3–3.2 kg), female 4.5–6 lb. (2–2.7 kg), depending on strain. Market weight: 4–4.5 lb. (1.8–2 kg).
TEMPERAMENT: Friendly if handled from young and highly active. Drakes have high libido, needing at least five mates to avoid tiring the females.
ADAPTABILITY: Magpie ducks cope well with most damp climates, from cold to hot and humid. As hardy, active foragers, they can sustain themselves at pasture with little supplementation, eating grass, seeds, insects, slugs, snails, and aquatic life. They thrive given space to range, and appreciate swimming. They need at least access to water for bathing. Generally non-fliers, they can launch themselves over a three-foot barrier if alarmed. Females typically do not brood, but those that do raise their young well.
Overall, they make ideal free-range poultry for children, novices, and homesteaders, but require expert breeding for show.
QUOTES: “I have raised other domestic duck breeds, and none of them have enjoyed grazing or been as active foragers as Magpie ducks … These ducks have a fantastic personality and are really friendly and captivating to watch and enjoy in the yard!” Matthew Smith/APA.
- The Livestock Conservancy
- APA: American Poultry Association
- Holderread, D., 2001. Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. Storey Publishing.
- Schollaert, N., 2016. The Ducks of Scheldt Banks. Aviculture Europe, 12(4).
- Brown, E., 1906. Races of Domestic Poultry. Arnold.
Originally published in the April/May 2023 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.