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My wife and I have been keeping ducks and chickens for several years in a suburban yard north of Seattle and have found that the two types of birds each have their own challenges and rewards. If you’re considering adding these delightful waterfowl to your productive landscape, here are a few thoughts to consider first. These are very much the product of our experiences and, of course, breed selection, location and your own goals can make a big difference in what works and what doesn’t.
1. Consider The Breed
With the right breed, ducks can be great grazers. We spend far less on supplemental feed for our free-ranging ducks than we do on that for our much more restricted chickens. One reason is that we’re happier to let the ducks range, as they’re much less destructive to the yard. With their shovel-like bills, they love to root around in loose soil for bugs and grubs and take positive delight in finding slugs and snails. There’s none of the scratching mayhem of a flock of hens, and if you choose a non-flying breed, ducks are easy to keep away from plants you’d like to protect: You’ll only need raised beds or low fencing to create off-limits areas.
2. Consider Your Space
Managing the flock is easy enough: Nine times out of 10 they head “home” around sunset, and all we have to do is lock them into their protected enclosure overnight. But it is also easy enough to herd the ducks around if we need to.
On the other hand, happy ducks really do need a good chunk of land to range and graze. Unlike chickens, they don’t bear confinement well: You can’t simply put a few ducks in a coop-and-run combo in a corner of your yard and call it good. Ducks must be provided with an area of clean water—not just to drink, but to swim in, eat in, bathe in, poop in, and (if you’ve got males and females) to … ahem … “get busy” in. Some folks make it work with a small flock and one of those plastic kiddie wading pools. This’ll do, provided the pool gets refilled every day or so (fertigate with the dirty water), but my personal feeling is that ducks really should have access to a decent-sized body of water, at least several hundred gallons per duck and with enough surface area that they can get some good swimming in.
Parenthetically, one concern I’ve heard regarding high-productivity layer breeds is that they’ll lay eggs in water. We haven’t had any problems with this. Usually, we wait until after egg laying time to let the ducks out of their enclosure, but even when we have found eggs laid around the yard, they’ve been in clutches hidden here or there, never in the water.
3. Consider Your Climate
To some extent, these requirements also make ducks a little less tolerant of extreme weather conditions. In the damp, temperate Northwest, they handle our winters just fine, tolerating our occasional mild freezes with no additional support and hunkering down in the shade when it gets hot. In an area that sees truly hard winters, however, chickens can simply be kept inside in a slightly warmed coop, but ducks are not as amenable to this . With their need for open water and dislike of hot sun, it’d take more ingenuity to raise ducks in a hot, dry region.
4. Consider Predators
We’ve also had more predation problems with our ducks. In all our years of chicken keeping, we’ve never lost a bird to predation, even on nights when we’ve done foolish things, like forgetting to close the coop door. We’ve lost two ducks, however, albeit both in situations where they were outside of a protective enclosure overnight.
5. Consider The Mess
Ducks poop a lot. However much you are imagining, they poop more than that. The upside is that duck poop lacks the burning intensity of chicken manure, and instead, is rather soft and watery and doesn’t need to be composted to mellow. Fertigating with water from a duck pond is a great way to hit your garden with some great nutrition.
Obviously, this pooping can be messy and smelly, which may limit where you want to allow a flock to wander. We’ve used step-over-height fencing to keep our birds out of parts of our yard that we use recreationally. The smell is also more “musty barnyard” than the burning ammonia intensity of an ill-kept chicken coop, something I consider a little easier to live with.
6. Consider Keeping Males
Keeping males—and therefore breeding your own —is easier with ducks. Drakes lack the rooster-as-alarm-clock issue, and in fact, they are quieter than the females. They appear to have a limitless sexual appetite, though, and can be sexually aggressive against other birds. We tried to keep our ducks and chickens together before the drake began attempting to force himself on the hens—something that is not uncommon, we learned, and that can grievously, even fatally, injure the chicken. Now they live separately, but if any hens manage to get out, we can be sure he’ll be trying to chase them down.
7. Consider The Rewards
But what of the results? A duck egg is a truly splendid thing to behold. Although duck eggs may look scarcely larger than chicken eggs, they are about 33 percent larger by volume and weight, and owing to their greater nutritional density (less water, more fat), contain more than 50 percent more calories. Almost across the board, they are higher in nutritional content and will substitute favorably in almost any baking application. We usually just use one duck egg for every chicken egg a recipe calls for. The results may end up a touch eggier but also smoother, moister and more satisfying. They can otherwise be cooked exactly as you would cook a giant chicken egg—just be careful not to overcook, as they can get rubbery.
Folks who are watching their cholesterol intake should be aware that duck eggs are higher in this department, so you may want to review the available literature and exercise some restraint.
A good laying duck will lay more than 240 eggs per year, and without as emphatic a wintertime pause as a chicken will go through. Supplemental illumination can help keep the laying going into winter. If you consider egg production by weight, a duck will generally outperform a chicken, too.
Duck meat is a culinary delight, as well, if you’re prepared to slaughter and process your own animals. Plucking a duck carcass isn’t the easiest of jobs, but a good hot-water scald does a lot to help things out.
There are dozens of available duck breeds optimized for egg production and meat production and different climatic conditions. If you’re interested, some good research can help pick the right match. We’ve been raising Anconas exclusively, a great dual-purpose breed with unique coloration, a delightful personality and wonderful foraging skills. I’ll definitely recommend them to anyone considering raising ducks. There’s a great community of Ancona breeders who may be able to help you get started, as well as commercial farms like Cackle Hatchery and Boondockers Farm, which sell ducklings online.
With their slightly awkward waddling ways and mellow personalities, our ducks have also become “productive pets” in a way that our chickens never have. They may not be for everyone or every yard, but if the space you have and the life you lead seems to fit, some quackers can be delightful to have around. Perhaps it is the novelty—it does seem like suburbia is full of chicken keepers these days—or their greater freedom to wander the yard or the fact that we breed them ourselves, but something has clicked!
About the Author: Nick Strauss owns a small homestead with his wife in the Pacific Northwest. They blog about homebrewing, homesteading, cooking and more at Northwest Edible Life.