Before the pet zoo, I had no idea that there were many different species and breeds of ducks. I thought there were ducks, geese and swans and that was it. I never realised the diverse world of beauty hidden behind the word “duck”. It was only after I found our first duck, Shulman, that I did research and learned about the existence of muscovy ducks. Ducks come in many different species, breeds, types, sizes, shapes and colours. I just wish I had space to keep some of each!
We have two types of ducks: muscovies and mallards. They are in fact only distantly related – they are not only different species, but belong to different genera. The muscovy duck or barbary duck (Cairina moschata) originates from South and Central America, where it has been domesticated hundreds of years ago. Muscovies are large ducks with strange, knobbly red growths on their faces called caruncles. The male (drake) is much larger than the female and has more extensive caruncles. The sounds they make are very different from the ‘quack-quack’ we usually associate with ducks: the female has a lovely, trilling coo and the male sounds like he’s trying to do the same, but lost his voice.
One of the things with muscovies is that they fly. Our males don’t fly, they are too heavy, but the females fly up to the roofs and over the fence easily. We gave many of Katya’s first brood away to a place called Food Forest, and they later told me all those ducks flew away, females and males. Fortunately, most of ours stay put, because I really don’t want to cage them.
Another thing is that the males can grow almost as big as a goose, and with the hissing sounds, the claws on their feet and the funny red face, they can scare people sometimes. Ours have never bitten or threatened to bite anyone (Shulman is the notorious exception – see my post Berserk Male Syndrome), but many kids run away from them anyway. For that reason, we keep only a small number of muscovies.
Most other domestic ducks belong to another species and are derived from the common mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). These ducks have been domesticated thousands of years ago and a large variety of breeds have been developed since then, many of them looking totally different from the original wild mallard. There is the white pekin, the funny Indian runner, the cute little call duck, the gorgeous blue-black cayuga… Many of them have lost the ability to fly and lay a large number of eggs all year round.
In Israel, the muscovy duck is far more common than the mallard-derived species, presumably because these tropical ducks require less water and cope better with the heat than the European mallard. It is quite hard to find heritage mallard-derived breeds and they are costly. But my husband had his heart set on mallard ducks, so he went to a breed center and bought a pair. It took me some time and a lot of help from the Backyard Chickens forum to find out that they were Welsh Harlequins, or at least an approximation of what Welsh Harlequins are supposed to look like.
I have been told that the female is supposed to have black legs and bill, but for the rest, their description fits the breed. They come in two different colour strains: gold and silver phase. Our original female is gold phase and the male is silver. Since then, they have hatched a number of ducklings of both colour varieties. I love the silvers with their pronounced colours and bright blue speculum (feathers on the sides of the wings), but the goldens are my favourite – their colours are softer and more muted. We have since acquired another male, that I think is more of a Rouen – he is heavier and his colours are different.
These ducks are a pleasure to watch! Our visitors love them. They are beautiful, they quack, they have fuzzy little ducklings and no one is afraid of them. I love watching them splash in the pond. When I change the water, they go crazy with excitement. They enjoy playing in the mud, drilling holes in the ground with their bills, and sitting on the rocks preening their feathers.
So, we have two species of ducks splashing around here. They get on pretty well together, usually they leave each other alone. There is only one problem with mixing muscovies and mallard-derived ducks: the possibility of hybrids. During the breeding season, the mallard drakes mate with the muscovy females quite frequently. Boris stands watching helplessly, croaking hoarsely, although he is twice their size and could easily kick them off. Boris and Shulman never try to mate with the mallard females.
Mallard-muscovy hybrid ducks are called moulards or simply mules. They are artificially bred for meat and they are sterile. Until now, we never had a hybrid duckling, but in theory, it is possible. It would have to hatch from a muscovy female’s egg. It would be interesting to see what a naturally hatched hybrid would be like. We will have to wait and see if it ever happens!