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Garden duck delights

In the first article of his three-part series on keeping ducks, PHILIP SCHOFIELD explains the difference between domestics and wildfowl, and suggests easy-to-keep species for beginners

Mandarins are stunning to look at but, at first, they can be nervousMandarins are stunning to look at but, at first, they can be nervousMOST people enjoy looking at ducks. Many of them are very beautiful and each species has its own unique characteristics.

Almost any outdoor space can be enhanced by the addition of ducks, but it is essential to choose the right ducks to avoid disaster and disappointment.
Captive waterfowl are divided into two categories – wildfowl and domestics. Domestic ducks (geese are beyond the scope of this article) have been bred in captivity for hundreds of years and have altered in shape, size and colour as a result.

All domestic breeds descend from the mallard, apart from the Muscovy (Cairina moschata), which descends from the wild Muscovy – a perching duck from South America. In comparison, wildfowl have only been kept in captivity for, at most, a couple of hundred years, and have not altered in shape from their wild ancestors, although many have now diverged into colour mutations.

When deciding whether to keep wildfowl or domestics, the first question to ask is what the ducks are supposed to do for their owner. If you want enough eggs to eat, a duck for dinner or pets that can be picked up and cuddled (not that any duck really appreciates this), then it has to be domestics. If the aim is attractive birds to enhance your garden, and maybe even contribute to conservation by maintaining numbers of rare or threatened species, the answer has to be wildfowl.


Red-crested pochards are divers, so require deep waterRed-crested pochards are divers, so require deep water

Best for beginners
Mandarins (Aix galericulata) and Carolinas (A. sponsa) cannot be beaten for colour and must head the list, although they will be nervous when first acquired.

Rosybill (Netta peposac) and red-crested pochards (N.rufina) are both divers and need a little more water, but are particularly steady and help to make other species feel secure.

Chiloe wigeon (Anas sibilatrix) and white-cheeked pintail (A. bahamensis) are both pretty all year round with no “eclipse” plumage – this also applies to the rosybill.

Northern hemisphere ducks, where the male is brighter than the female, have an “eclipse” for several weeks in the summer, when the drake’s bright plumage is lost and he looks very like his more soberly coloured mate. Thus Mandarins, Carolinas and red-crested all go into eclipse.


The male Carolina has stunning plumageThe male Carolina has stunning plumage

Big and beautiful
Some of the hardiest ducks belong to the mallard group. These include the Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), African yellow-billed duck (A. undulata) and the Philippine duck (A. luzonica) – all of these are quite striking, but may be a little large for the smaller enclosure. The common mallard (A. platyrhynchos) is very handsome, but is too aggressive – and promiscuous – to be kept with other ducks.

Birds from the mallard group have a habit of “dibbling” holes in wet ground and creating muddy patches, which is not acceptable in a small area. All the shelduck are very beautiful, but need more space than some others.  A friend had trouble with a common shelduck drake beating up his mate when housed at night.

Whistling or “tree” ducks, of which fulvous (Dendrocygna bicolor) and white-faced (D. viduata) are the best known, are charming. But, they have very broad wings and cannot get enough “lift” to clear any fence lower than 1.8m (6ft) high, even when pinioned.

Second, they are liable to frostbite – susceptibility varies between individual birds of the same species and is partly dependent on situation. If they spend a lot of time on open water your whistling ducks will probably be all right, but I have known them permanently crippled by a few days of frost.

They do not “understand” ice in the way that other species do, and will dive in at a hole in the ice and drown rather than return to the hole they went in through. Confined to a shed on wood shavings, with water in a poultry drinker and an infra-red lamp overhead, they can be let out when the weather has improved.

I would suggest that whistling ducks in a shed in bad weather, or any ducks housed overnight, should not have bathing water provided – a bowl of water soon gets splashed all over the house, creating wet conditions and multiple health hazards.

A galvanised chicken drinker gives them enough water to drink and preen, without making a mess. Wood shavings should be used as litter, because they will absorb spilled water. Straw has a tendency to matt together and stay wet, which is bad for the birds’ plumage, while hay gets mouldy and harbours disease spores.


Philip Schofield is a member of Aviornis, the British Waterfowl Association, the Oriental Bird Club and the RSPB.

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