Just Ducky – The Sustainability of Muscovy Ducks
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Sherri Talbot
With a newfound enthusiasm for homesteading, local food, and backyard poultry, it seems like heritage breeds are always in the spotlight recently. Individual breed groups, supported by organizations like the Livestock Conservancy and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, have brought attention to endangered breed livestock across the UK and the Americas.
However, not all heritage breeds are endangered. Despite the prevalence of more modern, industrialized breeding methods, which have all but erased genetic diversity, some of the older breeds and species have adapted and still hang on.
One of the more impressive examples of this is the Muscovy duck. Domestic and wild, the Muscovy has thrived where other species have fallen to the wayside. They have been domesticated since the days of the Aztecs and show no signs of decline any time soon. In fact, they are doing so well in certain parts of the southern United States that they are considered a nuisance, and there is open season on them year-round.
So why are Muscovy so prevalent while other species falter? Many factors play with this gigantic quacker that combine to make the Muscovy an unusually hardy — and adaptable — species.
The most immediate factor making the Muscovy such a powerhouse is its size and build. The Muscovy male weighs anywhere from 10-18 pounds. While the females are much smaller, traveling with such a huge companion means even their slight six-pound average is a less tempting target for predators. Not only is it hard to carry off one of these giants, but their powerful wings and wickedly clawed feet make for formidable weapons. And if all else fails? They will poop on you!
Another physical feature setting the Muscovy apart is its voice. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck? Well, then it probably isn’t a Muscovy. Muscovies make a minimal sound. Females make a high-pitched squeak if agitated, and the males make a hissing sound as if they had laryngitis. Both males and females communicate mainly with body language by raising the crest on their heads if agitated or wagging their tails when pleased. This lack of chatter makes them popular with homeowners who don’t care for more vocal poultry, and their breathy voice means they will attract less attention from your neighbors and from the local wildlife.
Domestic Muscovy are good fliers, though not as strong as their wild brethren. While it can make them challenging to contain, it does give them options when threatened by predators. Muscovies prefer to roost in trees and build their nests in the trunks, giving them an advantage over ground-dwelling ducks. Their clawed feet and an extra toe on the backside of the foot mean the Muscovy is out of reach or sheltered from most predators at night. They will also sleep on open water — if available — which likewise allows them an easy escape from prowling carnivores.
Survival isn’t just about escaping predators, though. Thriving also involves future generations, and the Muscovy is a champion brooder. So much so that breeders seeking egg layers overlook them. They lay fewer eggs than many duck-types because they’d much rather be making more Muscovy! Mothers will brood up to three or four times a year with a clutch of 15-20 eggs per clutch. Since domestic Muscovy can live up to 20 years in captivity, this means that — theoretically — a single female can hatch out over a thousand young in her lifetime.
While Muscovy partnerships are not monogamous, the drake from an annual breeding season will frequently stick around to help protect the female and her nest. This means more support for the ducklings and it can improve their survival rate. In addition, females will sometimes co-brood, sheltering the young even further.
Their adaptable dietary habits also allow for the Muscovy to feast wherever it finds itself at home. Plantlife of all sorts, especially aquatic plants, are demolished with gusto. They will keep the grass clipped short and the cattails cleaned out of your pond. Even low-hanging tree leaves are fair game. Be aware! Fenced gardens with an open top are no match for their powers of flight if other, easier vegetation isn’t available.
Ducks are omnivores, however, and they are equally undiscerning when it comes to their protein sources. A Muscovy favorite is mosquito larva, so duck owners with a pond may appreciate fewer bugs in the evenings. They will also eat slugs and snails, decreasing the chance of meningeal worm larvae spreading to other livestock. They have even been known to catch and eat mice, frogs, and fish.
Being adaptable also helps Muscovies to expand their territory. Despite having initially evolved in warm climates, the Muscovy has thrived throughout most of the Americas. Small colonies have also been found in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. They have been shown to thrive in temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit and survive in temperatures even colder.
A determined survivalist indeed.
While their ability to fly and tendency to wander might not be a good fit for a more suburban homesteader, Muscovies are an excellent choice for a beginning homesteader and have a lot to offer.
Their abilities to forage, defend themselves, and reproduce with little outside assistance make them an easy addition to any backyard farm. Their production of eggs is enough to keep a family comfortable but not so prolific as to be overwhelming. And, of course, their broodiness suggests generations of cute, fluffy ducklings in years to come.
There is a lot of drive toward endangered breeds that need support for those looking for a heritage breed. But the Muscovy should not be ruled out simply because it has been so successful. Instead, it should be celebrated for its determination to survive.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.