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Muscovy Ducks

I really enjoyed learning about Runner Ducks for my first blog so though I would research another breed. It was difficult to choose but finally decided to learn more about Muscovy Ducks as there are so many of them at Caenhill CC and thought they deserved some attention.

There are no obvious individuals to pick out at the center. Of course there are the sneaky ones who join the pre rush hour and have a feed before the official breakfast time. There are also the ones that perch high up during the alternative rush hour keeping a watch out for Mr Fox. Sometimes Mr Duck features - he likes to 'Keep it Clean' - but this seems to be a generic name for many of them. Giggle and Benedict did grow up with a Muscovy friend called Cloudy but 'she' is often difficult to spot amongst so many others. Despite this, I have discovered Muscovy Ducks are very important birds on the farm and am pleased I have discovered more about them.

There are three categories of Muscovy Duck. The wild variety, the feral birds and the domestic birds. There are several small populations of feral birds in England and New Zealand however the ones in America are considered an invasive species and it is illegal to keep them in case they escape. The breed originates from tropical regions in Mexico and Central and South America. It is not known why they are called Muscovy Ducks but there are several theories. Muscovy is the name of a region around Moscow and although they do not come from Russia the term Muscovy was perhaps used to indicate an exotic place. Another thought about the name was due to the birds giving off a musky aroma. Whatever the reason, the name was being used in Europe and America as early as about 1550.

The wild birds are mainly black with white wing patches whereas the feral and domestic ducks are much more varied in colour. They can be dark brown, black, white, lavender or a mixture of these colours. The Caenhill CC flock certainly demonstrate this colour variation well. (As an aside, a group of Muscovy Ducks can apparently be referred to as a flock, group, team, or the best of all, a paddling of Ducks).

An obvious feature of the Muscovys is their big size in comparison with other ducks. Domestic males can grow to 86cm (34") and can weigh up to 8kg (18lbs). Females are smaller at 64cm (25") and can weigh up to 5kg (11lb). Their wing span can reach 152cm (64"). The wild birds tend to be a bit smaller but males may still reach 76cm (30") in length.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Muscovys is the red fleshy mask around their face which is brighter in the males. The lumpy skin, sometimes described as warty, is called caruncles. Tiny oil glands grow on them which can help the birds waterproof their feathers when preening. Apparently though, their water poofing is not as effective as other ducks and they generally tend to be less fond of spending too long in water compared to other duck breeds.

As well as brighter red faces the males can be identified by having a red knob at the base of their bill. Both ducks (males) and drakes (female) have a crest of feathers on top of their head but it is bigger in males and may be raised during courtship or if excited or nervous.

There are another couple of facts I found interesting about the Muscovy Ducks appearance. Firstly, not only are the claws on their webbed feet quite long, but they have an extra claw at the back of their leg. This is probably because the wild variety inhabit forested swamps, lakes and streams and they usually roost in trees at night. Their claws therefore help them move amongst the foliage. Secondly, they have a wide flat tail which they wag from side to side during courtship and when they are happy. There certainly are a lot of happy Muscovy Ducks at Caenhill CC as wagging tails and bobbing heads, referred to be Chris as 'duck dancing', is seen regularly at rush hour. This wagging behavior has led to them sometimes being known as puppy ducks.

As well as their waggy tails another feature about Muscovy Ducks demonstrated by the Caenhill flock is that they are considered to be excellent mothers. Usually between 8 – 16 white eggs are laid and the mother will sit patiently on them for 35 days, only leaving once a day to feed and drink. The ducklings can take 24 hours to hatch and are often kept warm by their mother for a further 10 – 12 days before leaving the nest site. The numerous ducklings, some of which were seen coming through the hole under the rush hour door, shows what successful mothers Muscovys are compared with the Runner Ducks who drop eggs wherever they happen to be. The ducklings themselves are initially mostly yellow, and may have buff brown markings. When hatched they are relatively mature being agile and speedy. In biology this is known as a precocial species.

As well as enjoying the food provided by Wiltshire Fruit and Veg, Marks and Specers and Sainsburys, Muscovy Ducks eat plants from grazing and dabbling. They can also eat small fish and amphibians and apparently will also eat mice. In addition they have been shown to have a real benefit to farmers as they are very good at catching and eating flies and mosqitos. One particular study calculated the Muscovy Ducks kept inside on a dairy farm reduced the fly population by 96.8% and the number of maggots by 98.7%. This ability must keep the barn much more pleasant, especillay as all the dung and droppings must inevitably attract bugs.

Commercially Muscovy Ducks may be kept for meat which is usually referred to as Barbary Duck. Muscovy males may also be crossed with a Mallard hen but the resulting offspring, called a Mulard Duck, is sterile. They are then used to make foie gras, a speciality food made from the liver. This involves force feeding the birds so I have not felt inclined to learn any more about it. Strangely crossing a male Mallard with a Muscovy hen also give sterile offspring but it is not viable either for meat or eggs.

Muscovy Ducks are sometimes also kept for egg production. Although not the most prolific egg layers, the eggs are large and apparently very popular with pastry chefs as they make light puffy pastry. Although the wild and feral birds can sometimes be aggressive the domestic Muscovys mostly enjoy human company and are sometimes kept simply as pets. They don't like being picked up but one advantage they have over other ducks is they are relatively quiet. The males may puff and hiss if they feel threatened but usually just make a low breathy call. The females sound is described as a quiet trilling coo and they make a chirping sound when laying their eggs. It is probably a blessing that they are generally quiet or Julia and Perry would be calling the noise abatement society now that Oreo's barking has joined Coco and Eli braying, Ken and the other roosters crowing and Bessie making tractor noises.

The Muscovy Ducks at Caenhill are well fed with plenty of space and usually seem to be calm and happy. I think I appriciate seeing them more now I have learnt a bit about them and hope one day Chris captures them flying. The females can fly better than the males, I presume because they are lighter, and can apparently fly strongly with their neck held infront like a goose. It will be an extra special day to see them demonstrating this skill.

To finish, a big Thank you to Kara for the photos and for retrieving my draft copy after I thought I had lost it!

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Muscovy Ducks - Photos

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