“What on earth is that?” exclaimed the tradie when he spotted the Muscovy duck sauntering past our gate last week.
I laughed. We’re used to reactions like that when visitors first see the oversized birds that wander the paddocks around our farmhouse.
Muscovy ducks aren’t the most common farm birds in Southland, but they’ve become a bit of a hobby for us in the last few years.
So what are Muscovies and how did they get to the farm just as I’d managed to become pet-free? Here’s how it happened.
Muscovy Ducks Arrive On The Farm
When Chris came home from Uni you could hear his battered Toyota rattling all the way from the main road. He pulled up on the front lawn as if he’d only been away for a day rather than a whole year. Then, instead of coming inside, he opened the car door and started rummaging in the back.
I kept cool and sauntered out to say hello.
Chris dumped a bag overflowing with dirty washing on the lawn and grinned.
“Gotta surprise for Dad,” he said. “What d’ya reckon he’ll say?”
He pulled out a large cardboard box and lowered it onto the grass. The box hissed. Then it cheeped.
What the heck???
Gently, Chris opened the lid and tipped the box on its side. Out waddled the largest duck I’d ever seen, followed by 10 tiny, black and yellow ducklings.
Before I had time to draw breath, he reached back into the car and produced a grizzled drake the size of a small goose and two more ducks. Suddenly, a complete family of Muscovy ducks was wandering around my garden.
“Dad’ll be thrilled, eh!”
Never mind about Dad. I’ve been down this track before with pet lambs and puppies.
“Who’s going to feed them?” I wanted to know.
“I’ll look after them,” promised Chris. “They were on the pond outside my flat and I’ve kinda got attached to them.”
Luckily, Dad was as pleased as punch with his Muscovy ducks. And neither of us mind feeding them. Which is just as well because nowadays Chris is in Argentina and the ducks are well and truly at home on the farm.
What Are Muscovy Ducks?
Muscovies are a type of waterfowl native to Mexico and parts of South America and were one of the earliest water birds to be domesticated. Their dark, glossy feathers have a beautiful green tinge in sunlight and they have distinctive red, warty-looking bumps around their faces and beaks. These are called caruncles and they help to keep the ducks’ faces clean when they poke around in the mud.
These birds are a strange mix. Their bodies are duck-like, but their long necks and beaks make them seem more like small geese. I’ve never heard our ducks quack — and in fact, they’re often marketed as “quackless.”
Muscovy ducks aren’t silent, though. The drakes have a whole variety of hissing sounds in their vocabulary. When they feel threatened or are fighting their hisses raise the roof — and it’s best to back off quick. But when they’re swimming, or waiting for grain, their calls are gentle and quiet. The ducks have a maternal, clicking hiss that they use to call their ducklings and an indignant squawk reserved for courting drakes.
Compared to most breeds of duck, the drakes are massive. Fully grown they’re about 86cm long and weigh 7-8 kg. Females are smaller, but still an impressive 5kg. Contrast that with a mallard which is less than 1.6 kg and you can see why people would want to breed Muscovies for their meat.
Muscovy Ducks Take Out The “Duck Personality” Comps
Muscovies have distinctive personalities. Some are shy, others pushy, always arriving first to the grain bucket. Some stick close to the pond but a dozen or so range far and wide over the paddocks. One duck is a loner and likes to potter up the gravel road far from home.
A few of the older ducks tend to visit my garden — I chase them out with a broom! They regard that as more of a nuisance than a reason to stay away.
In Spring and Autumn, the ducks and drakes pair off and begin to prepare their nests. These could be found anywhere: under a bush… in the rushes… between two hay bales… But the one place you’ll never find our ducks is up in a tree. They can fly but tend to stay low to the ground. Domestic Muscovies would never dream of doing anything as precarious as nesting in a tree.
The Water Bird That Shouldn’t Get Wet
One peculiarity of Muscovies — and this is truly bizarre — the ducklings cannot get wet!
Say what? Hey back up — these are water birds that can’t get wet?
Yes, strange as it may seem, if domestic Muscovy ducklings get their backs wet and cold in the first few weeks of life it is usually fatal.
However, neither ducks nor ducklings are aware of this fact and they scramble to dive into the water whenever they see it. That’s okay in warm weather. But spring nights (and days) can be colder than winter ones and that is fatal to wet Muscovy ducklings.
If they’re lucky we find them in time. We rush them inside by the fire and dry the downy little feathers with a warm hairdryer. It’s magic when their cold little bodies revive and you hear the cheep, cheep coming from their box next morning.
All this means that we keep the mothers and babies in sturdy hutches for their first few weeks. After that, they are free to enjoy the pond on fine days, but we still shut them in at night or when the weather is rough.
The cages protect them from more than the weather. There are stoats, wild cats and hawks around. Those pests are properly wary of the adult birds, but the ducklings make tasty treats.
Because our adult birds roam free they largely feed themselves. Muscovy ducks eat worms, grubs and grass in the paddocks and love to dive for fish, insects and waterweed in the pond.
Their favourite food is barley, and luckily for them, we have heaps in the silo. In late winter Terry feeds the ewes some barley every day. The Muscovies love that and rush to pick up the leftover grains in the paddock. For about a month we barely see most of them. They’re too full of barley to bother coming to see me at night.
But in spring and autumn, we mosey up to the pens twice a day to feed the ducklings their chick grain and a little bread. (That’s a treat for the mother ducks who don’t enjoy being confined to a cage.) For me, it’s the start of my daily walk. Terry takes the other shift in his Polaris. When they hear the chug-chug of the engine or see me coming with my yellow buckets the ducks and drakes fly in from all directions.
They skim over the fences and land with a thump. Then they waddle to catch up as fast as they can go — which is actually pretty fast. When I’m walking uphill, I can keep ahead of the flock. But when I start on the downhill slope they surge forward and trip me up if I’m not watching my feet. Nowadays, a trip to the duck pond is part of our tour whenever visitors come to the farm. And it’s not only strangers that are impressed.
Feeding the ducks has been one of Harvey’s favourite farm activities ever since he could throw a handful of grain. The bossy old drakes come up to his chest but that doesn’t bother him — except when they try to gobble straight from his bucket. The ducks are quieter, and peck politely at his feet.
Too Many Ducks
Muscovy meat is tender and sweet, and the eggs are huge and tasty. Both are considered delicacies amongst the duck-connoisseurs in our community. But these birds are our pets, and although we eat the eggs, somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to eat the ducks. However, they are prolific breeders and we can’t keep too many of them because the pond won’t stay healthy and clean if it’s overpopulated.
So the first time the population rose above 40 I put an ad in the local paper. “Muscovy ducks for sale.” I couldn’t believe how fast they sold. We haven’t had to advertise again. Those same customers now phone up every season:
“Are the ducks for sale yet?”
And when the answer is yes, they can’t get here fast enough.
I don’t ask what they do with their ducks. I don’t want to know.