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From Carol Deppe, we incorporated some of her stock in 2010.

Ancona Ducks

The Ideal Free-range Layers for the Maritime Northwest

By Carol Deppe Copyright 2009

The most ecologically well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. I believe we should have a free-range egg industry based upon ducks, not chickens. Chickens make better confinement animals. Bur for free-ranging in the maritime Northwest, ducks have all the advantages. Ducks can free-range year round in our region, forage much more of their diets than chickens, eat a larger variety of natural foods common here (including slugs and snails), are better for garden pest control, and they love our weather. The best breeds of laying ducks lay better than the best breeds of laying chickens. Ducks lay better in winter. Properly cooked duck eggs are delicious and intensely flavorful. (Duck eggs require less cooking than chicken eggs. Many people overcook them and then blame the duck egg instead of the cooking. Duck eggs taste just like chicken eggs except that the flavor is more intense and they are a little richer.)

Chickens have a 26-hr egg cycle, and lay about 2 hours later each day. Ducks have a 24-hr cycle. Ducks lay their eggs about 4 am – 8 am each morning. We manage the laying duck flock by penning them at night and releasing or herding them to their forage area in the morning. This allows us to have all the eggs laid in the nests in the night pen.

Ducks are the easiest of all animals to herd. In Southeast Asia, there is a major free-range duck egg industry based upon ducks penned at night and herded to and from forage in the morning and evening. Once ducks know a routine, they pretty much will just run to where they are supposed to be, and your only job is to open and close doors and gates.

Ducks need much more water and make much more and wetter poop than chickens. They use just a monolayer of their house or night pen. That is, they don't use roosts, and their nests are on the ground floor. They also really need bathing water to be comfortable (whatever the books say), and will quit laying if confined as closely as chickens. For chicken tractors, I recommend chickens. (You need about 4x as much space for the same number of ducks, not counting extra space for bathing water. By the time the quarters are adequate for ducks, they aren't very portable.) I recommend ducks for a more extensive management system in which the layers are confined only at night and have an extensive forage area (with some bathing water, at lease a kiddy pool) during the day.

Ducks can give you year-0round free-range eggs. Here in the maritime Northwest, winter usually provides the best foraging except when temperatures drop below freezing (and keep all the slugs and worms hidden). July and August usually provide the poorest forage unless you have a pond or irrigated area. Only a small part of my night pen is protected from weather with a roof and three sides. The ducks have never bothered to use the protected area during rain or snow. (They just shake the snow off every once in a while.) (The protected area is for nests.)

Ducks are more vulnerable to 4-footed predators than chickens. If your perimeter fencing is inadequate, you may be able to get away with it longer if you have chickens, especially chickens who are competent fliers.

None of the laying breeds of ducks fly very much or very high. I fence Anconas away from gardens with a 2' fence. (2' hardware cloth, which is easy to step over.) A 2' fence will not stop a terrified duck or keep a duck separate from buddies on the other side, however. To keep 4-footed predators away from the ducks, you'll need perimeter fencing good enough to exclude stray dogs and coyotes. Electric poultry net of fencing at lease 4 1\4' high is standard. The night pen or house needs to exclude night predators that climb such as raccoons, possums, and skunks and those that swoop, such as owls.) Poultry wire isn't useful in constructing night pens. Coyotes, foxes, and raccoons can all tear through it.

Ancona ducks are a dual purpose breed of duck that are various colors with a pinto-style whie spotting pattern that makes it easy to tell each individual. Anconas come in black and white, blue and white, chocolate and white, lavender and white, silver and white, and multicolored. Anconas are the best foragers as well as the best layers of all medium-weight duck breeds. Anconas forage as well or better than Khaki Campbells or Welsh Harlequins, which are smaller, skinnier, more nervous breeds. Under a controlled light regime, Anconas lay about 210-280 eggs\year. They lay less with natural lighting, but still lay pretty well. Ancona eggs are huge – mostly jumbo and superjumbo. Some birds lay green eggs. (Many of my strain lay green eggs.) Anconas are especially good winter layers. Anconas are a rare breed, a breed designates as “critically endangered” by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy ( Keeping Anconas provides generous numbers of jumbo and super jumbo eggs as well as helps to preserve a rare and valuable breed.

Compared with Khaki Campbells, Welsh Harlequins, or Indian Runners, the better-known laying-duck breeds, Anconas lay much bigger eggs and are considerably calmer and easier to work with. Campbells or Harlequins lay more eggs that Anconas, but the eggs are of ordinary chicken- egg sizes, considerably smaller than Ancona eggs. Anconas lay much better than most lines of Runners, and have the big egg size as well. All these laying ducks tend to lay well enough and forage well enough to be economical to keep for years, unlike chickens, which are ordinarily economical to keep for only a year or two.

Campbells, Harlequins, or Runners weight about 4 to 5 1\5 lbs. Some people dress out the excess drakes of such breeds, but as with light-breed chickens (such as White Leghorns or Production Reds), most people find the butchering to be too much work for the few bites of meat that result. Anconas generally weigh about 6-7lbs, and the excess Ancona drakes have enough meat on them to be well worth the time it takes to dress them out; they make preime roasting ducks.

Anconas have powerful legs and feet that are oversized for the size of the bird, and they rarely have any foot or leg problems. I think this gives them special advantages on slowed, rough, or bramble-infested land.

Anconas forage better as well as lay considerably better than all the other dual-purpose breeds (such as Buff Orpingtons, Swedish, Cayuga, and Crested).

Anconas don't have as much meat on them as the heavy meat breeds, however, only the Appleyard, Aylesbury, Muscovy, Pekin, Rouen, and Saxony). So if you want meat only and not eggs, one of the heave meat breeds is a better choice. Of the meat breeds, however, only the Appleyard and Saxony lay well, and these are such big birds their feed conversion for egg production is low and production of eggs is thus not as economical as for the light or medium weight breeds.

Anconas are capable of going broody and raising the next generation. (Campbells, Harlequins, and Runners don't generally go broody, and if they do, don't do it well enough or persist long enough to hatch out the babies.) About ten eggs seems to be the right number for and Ancona duck to hatch out.

Anconas have more sophisticated flock behavior than most breeds. They usually have female leaders, who may or may not be the dominant ducks(s). (Anconas know that fighting ability and wisdom are two different things.) Having female leaders means that an Ancona flock spends more of its time in the best foraging areas. (Females care much more about foraging than males because of the demons of egg production.) Campbell and Harlequin ducks usually follow the drakes. What drakes care most about is mating. A male-led flock spends most of it's time on and near the bathing pool, the favorite mating spot, which rapidly becomes denuded and isn't good forage. By the time the drakes are all through mating, the worms and slugs have been eaten by someone else or have retreated and aren't available. So while Campbell and Harlequin individual ducks forage as well as Ancona individuals, as flocks, Anconas forage much more effectively.

Anconas have much more sophisticated ability to communicate through body language than other breeds, and can say even such complicated thins such as “Let's you and her fight.” Or “Be our leader.” “No. I've retired. You look like the right duck for the job.” Or “Leave her alone. She belongs. Be cool. You belong too.” Ancona ducks have very distinctive vocalizations that allow you to always know what the flock is up to. My Anconas are much better watch-dogs than the geese I used to have. Anconas have distinctive calls meaning “Major Predator! (Run! Dodge! Even fly! (Help, Person!),” “Minor predator.” (Let's watch and harass it and rattle at it so it goes away and hunts somewhere else), “Follow me.” (Leader calls.) “Where is everyone?” and “We're here.” And my flock also has a distinctive trill I like and repeat back to them that they seem to have decided to use just for me. It seems to mean “Carol, Where are you? Sound off so we know you're around.” There are various foraging calls and softer chirps of various kinds for more private moments.

Anconas are relatively mellow and flexible when it comes to their dominance behavior and they usually just don't care about dominance very much. Even the least dominant Ancona is usually happy and full of self-esteem, is a respected member of the flock, and lays well. (The lease dominant Harlequin is often picked upon and depressed and doesn't bath or lay much of anything. Campbells are somewhere in between.)

Anconas tend to be gently and tolerant toward smaller or younger ducks. I have introduced a baby flock to the adult flock at about 6 weeks. The babies usually make tentative dominance threats to the adults by marching toward them (tentatively) and thrusting out their necks and bills. The adults usually take a causal step backward. (“OK. You've “won” And congrats on your first effort to communicate with us.”) It usually takes the baby flock a couple weeks to figure out that they actually aren't dominant to the bigger ducks and should be at least a little respectful.

My Anconas came from Holderread's originally. For the last few years, I've been selecting specifically for free-range laying characteristics. I select for good layers, especially for good winter layers, big egg size, early laying (so birds can be released early in the morning when the foraging is best), and “nestiness,” that is, tendency to lay in nests instead of all over. (Eggs outside nests are more likely to get stained or cracked.) I've also selected so as to increase the proportion of layers of green eggs. Green eggs are fun, and have at least some of them in each dozen makes the eggs more distinctive when it comes to sales. I've also been selecting for longevity of lay. All the drakes in my flock are descendents of birds who laid well, laid in winter, laid big eggs early in the morning, and laid those eggs in the nests, and who did that for years.