The male Muscovy probably wouldn’t win any domestic duck beauty pageants because of its caruncles, the red, fleshy outgrowths that dominate its face. But that makes no difference to Corine de Wit of Reva, Va., who began raising this species in the 1970s, when she lived in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa.
“Muscovies are perfect for the small farmer,” she says. “They multiply fast — a drake and five ducks can produce 100 birds a year for consumption — and Muscovies are super bug-killers, so they convert pesty protein into tasty protein. Plus they’re fun, friendly and more fun. I just love having these ducks around.”
The Muscovies on farms today trace their ancestry back to the wild Muscovy. They were a perching duck indigenous to the tropical regions of Mexico, and Central and South America. All other domestic ducks are derived from mallard stock. It is often said that the Incas of Peru domesticated Muscovies centuries ago, and kept them as pets to control pests and to supply feathers, eggs and meat.
During the 1500s, conquistadors brought these ducks from South America to Spain. From Europe, the birds traveled to Africa, Asia, Australia and back to North America. Today, Muscovy ducks are not only found hunting bugs in Asian rice paddies but also on American farms, and they’re served for dinner in many villages and fancy restaurants around the world.
Domestic Muscovies are large, well-muscled ducks. Females weigh around 8 pounds and drakes often reach 15 pounds. These birds are extremely self-reliant and will forage for tender grasses, pond and dry-land weeds, flies, slugs, snails, mosquitoes, and even mice, making them very handy to have around. Be very careful to protect young plants: Muscovies mistakenly uproot flowers and vegetables in their effort to locate worms and other soil-dwelling delicacies. They also like reaching up to pick ripe blueberries and raspberries from bushes.
Muscovies have powerful legs, long tails, sharp claws and rounded wings to assist in navigating around trees. If left unclipped, many females and juvenile males fly extremely well and enjoy roosting on lofty perches like barn roofs. When provided an adequate diet, uncrowded conditions and protection from predators, they’re not likely to fly off in search of greener pastures. Unlike the females, the adult drakes are essentially grounded by their hefty size. They also possess feisty temperaments and pick fights with others when territory or females are involved. Many plucky drakes may try standing up to predators much bigger than themselves.
For folks used to the noisy quacking from a flock of Pekins or mallards, the sounds from the Muscovy may come as a pleasant surprise. Drakes make a breathy whistle while the females typically emit a soft squealing noise unless they’re scared or angry. This can be an advantage if you have neighbors nearby who don’t enjoy ducks as much as you do.
Brian Witt of Cassatt, S.C., secretary/treasurer of the International Muscovy Breeders Association, was attracted to this breed in part by their size and soft calls. He and his wife, Wanda, have several hundred Muscovies for showing and selective breeding. They also sell many for their meat.
“I like big ducks – the bigger the better,” he says. “Muscovies also are quiet and not as messy as other duck breeds, and they’re the best mothers for setting. They also take care of themselves and don’t need much human intervention.”
Although these waterfowl love swimming when given the chance, they are usually more terrestrial than other domestic ducks and their feathers appear to have less waterproofing. Because of this, a pond isn’t needed for Muscovies and can potentially pose a hazard during icy winters, as these ducks of tropical origin might become chilled or suffer frostbite.
When deciding whether or not to add Muscovies to your poultry family, remember, like most waterfowl, they are messy. Ducks produce profuse amounts of soft, smelly droppings (which is a great fertilizer for your grass or garden) and they distribute feathers everywhere during molting periods. Also, the Muscovy’s large size, strong wings and sharp claws make catching and holding the birds nearly impossible. Duck-catchers will want to wear heavy gloves and long-sleeves for protection, and constantly hold the bird’s beak away from the face. Never catch your ducks by the legs as it may injure them.
Duck eggs can be used just like chicken eggs when cooking; they have a firmer texture when cooked (making them perfect for angel food cakes) and a higher cholesterol content.
Muscovies won’t produce as many eggs or offspring as most mallard derivatives, but their meat fetches more money per pound and is much leaner due to their terrestrial nature. “People are often rather dismayed that I would eat my Muscovies, since I enjoy watching them so much,” de Wit says. “My answer to them is that I have provided my animals with the happiest possible duck life. I slaughter them humanely and when all is said and done, I know that the Muscovies I’m consuming are far better off than any commercially produced chicken, duck or turkey, most of which are raised under inhumane conditions.”
Basic Care of the Muscovy
Enthusiasts like Muscovies for their self-reliance, but they do need correct daily care to thrive and reproduce. Some duck raisers buy a balanced commercial diet specially made for waterfowl or poultry; others make their own concentrated feed from assorted grains. The Witts do both: They make their own feed from grains and sunflower seeds, and offer unmedicated layer pellets to the adult ducks at laying time. “Medicated feeds aren’t necessary for ducks and can cause health problems,” Brian Witt says.
A basic diet like the Witts use may be supplemented with vegetables, fruit and table scraps. However, be very careful to never offer moldy food items which can cause your birds — especially ducklings — to develop the lung disease aspergillosis. Grit or coarse sand is also needed by ducks to help digest their food, and they always need fresh, clean drinking water. The containers should be deep enough to allow the ducks to submerge and clean their nostrils; they should not be deep enough to swim in.
If you don’t have a pond for your ducks, try providing a child’s plastic wading pool during warmer months. Devise a plan for them to get in and out, such as some big rocks or a concrete block step, and make sure to change the pool water regularly to keep it clean.
Muscovies are strong and hardy waterfowl and they don’t require highly structured housing like chickens. All the same, they do need shelter from freezing or extremely wet weather, and protection from predators such as coyotes, foxes and owls. If your ducks roam free during the day, luring them into an animal-proof enclosure at night will help a lot toward preventing losses from predation. A well-bedded shelter can also help protect ducks from frostbite in colder climates.
“I leave my ducks unclipped, so they can at least have a chance of getting away from dogs and foxes,” de Wit says. “At dusk, we lead them into a pen with a 5-foot wire-mesh fence around it.” She considers roaming dogs to be the No. 1 Muscovy enemy.
Muscovies are very resistant to parasites and infectious diseases when kept in clean and uncrowded conditions, and when provided a proper diet. Vaccinations usually aren’t needed in a small flock, but you may want to ask your veterinarian experienced in avian medicine for his or her thoughts, especially if certain diseases are common in your area. Watch your ducks for any signs of illness such as fluffed feathers, lethargy or poor appetite, then immediately isolate sick birds for treatment. Any newcomers from other farms should be quarantined for 30 days before being added to your permanent flock.
To learn more about this interesting breed, read "Marvelous Muscovies" at Mother Earth News.