Though it was hardly a masculine name, I couldn’t help but refer to our male Cayuga as “Lisa Frank Duck.” He may have looked like a simple black duck in the shadows, but as soon as he waddled into a shaft of sunlight, a dazzling array of rainbow hues burst across his glossy feathers. And like his take-a-second-look plumage, the Cayuga duck breed is deserving of time in the limelight. These ducks are useful, fascinating, and beautiful to boot!
A Bit of Cayuga Duck History
The origins of these beetle-black, black-footed and black-billed ducks is a little cloudy. The general consensus, though it is not substantiated and often debated, is the Cayuga is an American breed derived from a wild population of Black ducks in Cayuga County, New York (hence the name).
The males display the curled sex feather that is indicative of some mallard origins, however, so even though that feature doesn’t help clarify their genetic backgrounds, at least it makes the adults easy to sex.
They were raised on large farms as a premier meat breed until the light-feathered (and therefore, easier to process) Pekin punted it from its throne in the 1890s.
Related Post: Raising Pekin Ducks
That loss of popularity made Cayuga numbers spiral downward for several decades, but it seems this breed is (thankfully) not headed the way of the dodo. Formerly a threatened breed, the Cayuga got promoted to the “watch” list of the Livestock Conservancy — a hopeful sign that waterfowl keepers around the world are seeing the beauty and utility of this fascinating duck.
Cayugas on the Homestead
A source of huge, nutrient-dense eggs, companionship, meat, down, and manure, these birds have a lot to offer the homestead willing to give them a home.
Duck eggs are huge, dwarfing even large-sized chicken eggs. When cooked, they make a firmer texture then hen eggs, making them perfect for baked goods. Cayugas lay about 100 to 150 of these delectable delights in a year. Many resources will tell you that the Cayuga hen will lay black eggs, and while this is sometimes true, I imagine that many folks will share my experience and get olive-hued eggs instead.
They were no less beautiful, however! If you enjoy unusual egg colors and do end up with a black egg-layer, enjoy it while it lasts. As the season progresses, her eggs will get lighter and lighter, ending up a near white color by the time she stops laying for the fall.
Related Post: Chicken Breed Guide
Unlike many domesticated ducks, Cayugas can be fairly good mothers and may brood their own eggs. There are few things cuter than the sight these shadowy-black, peeping ducklings following after their Mamma duck through the clover!
I never butchered any of my Cayugas, so I can’t speak from experience. However, Slow Food USA reports ” Although it is difficult to clean and prepare, it has very high-quality meat with an intense beefy flavor. The breast, while smaller than that of other more conventional duck breeds, produces a succulent deep red meat with a complex taste.”
Males usually reach 8 pounds, and females grow to about 7 pounds at maturity. If you do butcher your own birds, consider saving their beautiful down for use in homemade pillows.
Duck manure is a hugely valuable soil-amendment for the garden. Unlike chicken manure, which needs to be composted, duck manure is “cold” which means it can be applied straight to the soil you’re enriching.
Personality-wise, the Cayuga is docile and quite friendly if raised from a duckling. Even though I bought mine as adults, they still ran up to me when I called. The treats may have had something to do with it, but I like to think they were happy to see me.
Well-kept Cayugas may live for longer than a decade, so the relationship you build will be one to last. As they age gracefully, your Cayugas will start to turn white with every molt, resulting in a dappled duck that looks like shadows on the water. Their feet will also start to take on an orange tinge.
Some websites say that they are quiet. I scratch my head at that and shrug because my Cayuga female was quite the talker, and a loud one at that — louder even than my Runner ducks. I loved the sound of my noisy flock, but if you’re expecting a quiet homestead, maybe you should go with some near-silent Muscovy ducks.
Resources also say that the Cayuga is too heavy-bodied to fly and will happily stay close to home. Again, I shrug because I have personally watched one of my Cayuga ducks fly off into the sunset, never to return. To be fair, it was her first day on the homestead and she had been scared as we tried to transfer her from a dog crate to the duck house.
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None of the other ducks made an escape attempt, but I would still recommend clipping the flight feathers of one wing on any new, adult duck that you bring home … just to be sure they stick around during the adjustment period!
Caring for Cayuga Ducks
Keeping ducks is a relatively simple endeavor, as long as you have the space for them. Provide your Cayuga flock with a safe place to sleep at night, room to forage, and clean water, and you’ll be enjoying them for years to come. Cayuga ducks don’t necessarily need a pond to thrive, either — just be sure to provide them fresh water in a pan that is deep enough to submerge their head, and you’ll be good to go.
Related Post: What Do Ducks Eat?
As a nod to its potentially wild background, the Cayuga is quite weather-hardy and happy to forage. If you have the space to allow your ducks to free-range and forage, they will be excellent at finding the bulk of their own food. If you need to provide the majority of your flock’s food, their needs are simple.
For an in-depth answer to that question, I wrote a long article about what to feed ducks — and you can find it here! The short answer to this question is that ducks love greens, grains, and grubs. If they have access to forage and the bugs hidden alongside, they will be absolutely fine with some simple birdseed in a pan they can visit from time to time.
Just make sure you don’t give your ducklings medicated chick food because they’ll overdose on it. And don’t give your adult ducks white bread or junk food. If you already know it’s bad for you, it is guaranteed to be bad for them!
Related Post: What to Feed Ducks Instead of Bread
If you start your flock from hatchlings, your ducks’ beginning days will need a little bit of extra care. Ducklings can be raised outside in mild weather within confinement provided they have a dry, sheltered area to sleep at night and during wet weather. Some people give their ducklings outside excursions starting at 3 weeks old but in any case, without a watchful hen, you need to be the one to keep them safe.
They won’t be waterproofed and able to stay warm until they have feathered out, so as long as they are fuzzy and cute, keep them out of the rain and cold. You can allow them to swim in a kiddie pool or the bathtub every now and again after about 5 weeks, but you will have to help them. Like human kids, ducklings will swim until they’re too tired to get out on their own.
Once they have adult feathers, however, they will be good to go for the wide-open world. Some folks have ducks share the coop with their chickens, but in this homesteader’s opinion, it’s best to keep them separate, especially if you have drakes. They may try to mate the chicken hens with fatal results. Let’s just say their hardware is a lot different from a rooster.
So, if this spring has you ready to add some new ducks to your flock, why not go for the under-appreciated, yet totally valuable and beautiful Cayuga? Or, if you already get to share life with these amiable birds, share your stories below!