With their clawed feet, bizarre-looking caruncles, mohawk-like crest, and lack of quack, Muscovy ducks don’t quite fit the “bill” (if you pardon the pun) for what you might consider a “normal” duck. But on our homestead, these are the only ducks we want to keep because they have won our hearts with both their utility and downright personable natures.
After keeping Runners, Cayugas, and Pekins, I’ve become convinced that Muscovy ducks are the perfect homestead duck. Let me share why, and just see if you don’t agree. If you are willing to look past a warty face or two, you may find that these ducks are a wonderful fit for your property as well.
Muscovy Duck Characteristics
Muscovy ducks are a large breed of waterfowl. With their bright red face mask, they stand out from other domesticated ducks almost immediately. The red, rather warty-looking growths are called caruncles — you’ve seen these before on the necks of turkeys, if the term seems totally unfamiliar.
Males will often sport what some would call a hideous array of caruncles around their bills, eyes, and even extending down their necks. I think of them as endearingly ugly.
Females are usually a lot more subdued with what looks more like a masquerade mask encircling their eyes. They can come in a wonderfully wide range of colors, like iridescent brown, soft fawn, white, lilac gray, and any color in between.
Both sexes can raise an unexpected crest of feathers anytime they are excited by something. The males’ crests are much more pronounced, however. Mature males are huge, usually reaching around 10 to 15 pounds, and as a result, are typically unable to fly. Females are usually half that size at a more petite 5 to 6 pounds and can take to the air as easily as a wild duck.
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They also have a back claw on their webbed feet — a unique feature, in the duck world — that allows them to perch on branches (and anything else they are so inclined) like a chicken. If you don’t clip their wings, you’ll find your Muscovy hens hanging out everywhere: the roof, the top of the cars, the edges of buckets, and the branches of trees!
This is something important to keep in mind when handling Muscovy ducks. If they are tame and familiar with you, gently scooping them up around the belly and pinning their wings is no problem. If you’re a stranger to them, however, they may claw at you.
The “Quackless” Duck
Another distinguishing feature with this breed is the sounds they make … or rather, the lack thereof. Though they’re sometimes called “quackless” ducks (and indeed, they are very quiet for waterfowl) the term can be misleading, as they are not silent.
Females usually make a quiet, musical trill when walking about. When broody, they peep and chirp. I think it’s supposed to be intimidating, but it is adorable. The males make somewhat bizarre, heavy-breathing, huffy sounds. When scared, they can honk like a goose, but that’s pretty rare. Usually, you can’t hear these birds unless you’re beside them.
So, if you have nosey neighbors complaining about how you need to mow your lawn-turned-prairie, or saying your beautiful clothesline is an eyesore, at least you can rest easy that they can’t complain about the noises your ducks are making.
Wait … Are These Even Ducks?
Technically, not really. These unique waterfowl don’t come from mallard stock like all other domesticated duck breeds do. Their scientific name should tip you off. Muscovies are derived from Cairina moschata, a South American native bird, whereas all other ducks are bred from Anas platyrhynchos, the mallard duck (with the contested exemption of the Cayuga which may have some black duck origins).
Some think they are actually closer in character to a goose than a duck. You can think of it this way: Muscovies are to ducks as donkeys are to horses. They are similar and can crossbreed, but they’re not the same animal.
Related Post: Raising Pekin Ducks
And like donkeys and horses, the mixed offspring of a Muscovy and mallard-domestic duck will be a “mule” that is unable to produce offspring. The mule ducks or mulards, are often used for meat production as they grow quickly and robustly.
Getting Started With Muscovy Ducks
Before you bring your first batch of peeping Muscovy ducklings home, you need to prepare for them. No animal should ever be an impulse buy! Always take the time to set up what they need before you take responsibility for their lives.
When you do make your purchase, be sure to get more than one bird as they are social animals and most content with friends. I recommend getting at least six, just in case you lose a few. A trio or quad of one male to several females is ideal for the small backyard starter flock.
The first consideration should be the time of year that you bring them home. Since Muscovy ducks originated in warmer climates, they are especially sensitive to the cold when young — and if there’s no mama duck to keep them warm, they’ll need to be kept in a warm place at night during the early days.
We handled this by raising our first batch of ducklings in the summer so they could benefit from being outdoors all their lives. You may choose to brood them in the garage with a UV lamp or in the bathtub in the house (if you are alright with cleaning poop out of your house every day).
Once the weather is warm enough at night, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or once they are over 8 weeks old, they can stay outside. The big thing to watch for with ducklings is them getting too wet and chilled. Without a mother to clean and waterproof them, they are especially susceptible to getting soaked and dying.
Muscovy Duck Housing
The next thing to have prepared is their housing. Ducklings need good protection from predators, especially at night, but they don’t need anything fancy. I’ve heard of people using a straw-lined dog house with a door, cutting a hole out of a large tub and flipping it upside down, or even just having a safe, penned-in area with a tarp-covered crate to use at night.
If you have a pond, free-ranging ducks may put themselves to bed on logs sticking out of the water or low-hanging branches. Our first Muscovy was not tame in the beginning, wouldn’t come when I called, and spent an entire year sleeping on a tire propped up by the edge of the pond no matter what the weather! She has since gotten used to me, but she showed me just how hardy these ducks can be.
On our homestead, we have a dedicated duck house. As you see in the photo, it is a totally enclosed pen with an overhang shelter on the northern side because that is where most of the bad weather blows. We have problems with roving stray dogs in our area, so having a safe place to shut up our birds gives us peace of mind at night.
We raised our ducklings in this closed space until we decided they were big enough to free range, and then trained them to come back at night. I call them with a special sound just for them and give them seeds as a reward when they return. It may take some herding to get them to get used to the idea, but once they figure out that returning to the duck house means food, they won’t be able to waddle back to you fast enough!
During the summer, they spend most of the long daylight roaming and eating, and I make sure to provide them with clean straw in the covered part of the duck house. As a bonus, this straw doubles as super-fertile garden mulch. In the winter, I layer the straw very deeply in the duck house so that they can nuzzle in and protect their feet from frostbite.
Their warm, protective down takes care of the rest of them. Our Ozark winters often have just a few weeks around the single digits, so I’d be curious to hear the experience from Muscovy-keepers in northern places like Canada!
Food And Water Requirements
When it comes to food and water, Muscovy ducks are relatively simple. You can reference my earlier article on how to feed ducks here, but keep in mind that the needs of Muscovies are even more simple.
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Our small flock feeds itself entirely from our land. We have a pond teeming with larvae, fields full of clover, mice, and bugs, grit in abundance, and worms and slugs after every rainstorm. On the rare days when we travel and I have to keep them cooped up while we’re gone, I provide a pan full of whole seeds and a huge bucket full of grass and weeds torn up from the surrounding area.
Muscovy ducks aren’t nearly as wild about water as mallard-derived breeds, but they still need plenty of clean water daily. Give them a pan deep enough that they can clean their whole face in it, but rest easy that they’ll leave it a lot cleaner than a Pekin or Appleyard duck. They will absolutely delight in a pond if you have one, but a kiddie pool where they can clean themselves and play is also sufficient.
How To Sex Muscovy Ducks
As they grow, you will find that there are some subtle ways to sex your growing ducks. In my experience, the females grow their adult wing feathers much faster than the males, even though the males may grow larger, body-wise, than the females. Though the male caruncles are much more prominent than the females, they take some time to develop.
Related Post: Raising Baby Chicks: A Guide For First-Time “Parents”
I have found the most surefire way of sexing Muscovy ducks is to listen to the sounds they make. At some point, they’ll stop their cute baby peeps and start making more adult sounds — the females will make those sweet musical trills, and your males will suddenly declare themselves by inexplicably huffing and puffing.
Potential Problems And Diseases
Muscovy ducks aren’t very disease prone. I suspect it is because they are a little closer to their wild roots than other domesticated ducks. The biggest problems I’ve ever faced with our flock have always been cold related.
I learned the hard way about motherless ducklings getting chilled. We once lost two ducklings after a hard rainstorm because I didn’t dry them off in time, and I’m much more careful now!
6 Reasons Why I Love Muscovy Ducks
Once you get your ducklings raised, I think you’ll be amazed by how useful and hilarious these ducks can be. Every duck breed has its fans, and I am unabashedly in Team Muscovy. These are the pros to this breed that have unendingly benefited my homestead.
1. Pest Control
The first night you let your ducklings out, you may notice that they are bug-hunting machines. Muscovy ducks are superb hunters, able to nab flies and mosquitoes straight from the air, constantly ruffling through the grass for crickets and other bugs, and even taking out any mouse they find. I would keep this breed for its fly-controlling abilities alone!
2. Good For Free Ranging
The main reason we got rid of our first mallard-derived flock was because they developed a bad habit of wandering far and wide. With a pretty high-use road bordering our land and neighbors that we really wanted to respect, ducks that weren’t content to stay on our 12 acres just weren’t an option. Our Muscovy ducks have been far more content to stay home, and we’ve never had a problem with them leaving.
3. Less Mess
I find that they create far less mud-mess than mallard-derived ducks. My earlier flock of Pekins, Runners, and Cayugas would create boggy puddles in the yard after every rain — destroying patches of ground — but my Muscovies politely sip up the water that they find and then move on.
Additionally, they don’t gunk up their waterers either — I only have to fill it once a day. I sometimes replaced my mallard flock’s water four times a day because it was so filthy. When you get all your water from rain catchment or a hand-pump like we do on our off-grid homestead, saving that much water really makes a difference.
4. Super-Jumbo Eggs
Muscovies don’t lay year-round, but when they get going in the spring, they can provide you with dozens of absolutely huge eggs. One healthy, well-fed hen can usually produce 150 eggs a year.
The eggs are excellent in baked goods. I usually use one Muscovy egg in place of two or three of my chicken eggs. They normally lay their eggs in the early morning, so cooping them up in a duck house at night could make your egg hunt a lot easier.
Additionally, Muscovy hens haven’t lost their good mothering instincts. If you let them pile up enough eggs in a nest — usually 8 to 12 — she’ll incubate them faithfully and rear them kindly.
Keep in mind that Muscovy ducks take far longer than chickens to hatch — somewhere around 35 days. The only issue you may face is figuring out where the nest is. I like to encourage duck-house nesting by piling lots of clean, fragrant hay in the quietest corner.
5. Delicious Meat
I can’t speak from experience on this one, but Muscovy meat is supposed to be excellent. Some compare the lean, flavorful breast meat to veal or a sirloin steak.
6. Just Plain Fun!
Muscovy ducks waggle their tails like dogs when they’re happy to see you. I can’t ever get over that delightful fact. The sight of our small flock meandering through the clover, nabbing endless bugs, brings me a quiet joy every day. I love watching our gray-backed hen incubate eggs so tenderly, or laughing at our iridescent brown male as he huffs around my feet begging for treats. I can’t imagine our homestead without them.
So, even though there are “prettier” birds out there, would you be willing to accept a red-warted face in exchange for the most hassle-free, beneficial poultry you’ve ever kept? What’s your take on these not-duck ducks? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories below.