by Amy Grisak — Title photograph by Mark Vogel
Ducks can be helpful, colorful little characters in your garden patch, providing a measure of truly natural garden pest control – and the eggs they lay taste delicious! Here are some fun facts about a few heirloom breeds.
Indian Runners are comical-looking ducks that stand tall and attentive. They’re a small to midsized breed, and they possess a sweet disposition – though they are a bit skittish and startle easily. They can’t fly well but if startled can hurdle 2-foot fences (and run over plants as well). The Indian Runner presents an example of natural pest control: In China, they have been used to pick fields clean of bugs for nearly 2,000 years. The farmer would herd a group into the field to feed on snails, insects and scattered grain, then take them back to shelter at night – where they laid eggs for the next morning.
Khaki Campbells originated in 1898 in England as a cross between an Indian Runner and a Rouen. They are an upright, medium-sized breed in a pretty buff, almost caramel, color. Khaki Campbell ducks typically are pleasant and are excellent foragers, making them ideal for your garden. They produce an average of 340 eggs annually. Their one main drawback as a candidate for duck raising is they sometimes fly away, but this can be remedied by clipping their wings.
Welsh Harlequins are among the most stunning of duck breeds! Their reddish-chestnut coloration, adorned with accents ranging from greenish-black to cream, lives up to their harlequin moniker. A descendent of the Khaki Campbell, the Welsh Harlequin is a little larger, with a charming personality and a similarly prolific egg-laying ability.
Muscovies display mottled colorations in black and white or shades of brown and gray, and red skin on their faces. They’re a hardy breed that doesn’t quack; they hiss. If raised from young chicks, they bond well with humans. The Muscovy is a large duck and like the Khaki Campbell duck, they represent a great form of natural garden insect control, making great foragers. They’re also popular for their eggs and meat. Muscovies will need clipped wing feathers to keep them from flying away.
Mallards Provide Natural Pest Control in the Garden
I didn’t plan to have a mallard duck as a pet. I wasn’t even interested in keeping ducks until a mallard duckling adopted me. We were creek fishing one weekend when this tiny ball of fluff whizzed by in the fast-moving water, hit the bank and waddled right on up. I avoided touching her, as I thought her family would be along shortly. After awhile, it became apparent she was on her own and not equipped to survive in that predator-filled area. The mallard duckling that adopted me came home to live with us.
My stepson named her Little Peep Peep, and she lived with us all summer. As she matured, Peep Peep gardened with me, muddling in the post-precipitation soil and dining on slugs while I weeded. That is how I realized how helpful these little characters are in the vegetable garden.
Peep Peep feasted on myriad snails concealed beneath our broccoli and cabbage plants, enjoying them like fine cuisine during her first year. As it was nearly impossible for me to keep up with the slimy pests, I appreciated her help.
I later discovered that ducks will eat almost any pest. Grasshoppers, which can destroy a garden, are quickly eaten when in reach of a hungry duck, as are Japanese beetles, grubs, June bugs and even mice. Ducks will also catch flies and dig their larvae out from fresh manure and decaying vegetables.
To use ducks as a living bug zapper, Kim Kimbrell of Cyngbaeld’s Keep Heritage Farms in Thrall, Texas, recommends placing your duck pen near a garden and at night, have a hanging light nearby. Kimbrell says, “Put a pan of water underneath the light, and you will get more bugs.” Having ducks feast on them is much preferred than listening to an electrical bug zapper.
Keeping ducks as a form of natural pest control works excellently, but you’ll want to keep ducks out of a freshly planted garden – or you might end up losing new seedlings. Kimbrell says, “They will eat things like lettuce and young corn, and may pull up what they don’t eat.” Plus, they may inadvertently snuggle down on a new plant, so it’s best to keep them away until plants are mature.
Once your garden is established, let your pet ducks graze during the day, with some supervision. Friends warned me to cover my strawberry plants. Their mallards had eaten their berries, and by the time they were finished, the hens looked carnivorous with red juice around their bills. Every duck is different, so it’s hard to say if one might develop a taste for a certain crop, even though they usually snack on insects, earthworms and other tiny creatures.
If you are in the market for a lively companion that will not only entertain, but also put food on the table and help care for the garden, ducks are a great choice. These hardy little birds will consume small critters, weeds and grass; produce eggs for you; and, in the process, may quite possibly end up as the center of your entertainment.
No, I didn’t plan to hae a mallard duck as a pet, but chance taught me that keeping pet ducks can be an excellent form of garden pest control, getting rid of Japanese beetles, grasshoppers, garden slugs, June bugs and other insects.