Published: 1983-06-19

We mentioned in the last issue that both Frank Martin with the USDA and Fred Harder with the Heifer Project had told us that for really efficient meat production in the tropics we should be looking at Muscovy ducks. I asked if any of our readers could help us out from their own experience. We received some interesting replies.

FREMONT REIGER in Botswana wrote that "Along with our rabbits and a few laying hens, we kept quite a few Muscovy ducks in Zaire. We had duck as our favorite Sunday dinner. We found them much more hardy than chickens -- once you got them past the early few days. As hatchlings they were very susceptible to drowning in waterers, rain, getting killed by predators, etc. But once they were a week or two old, they were almost disease free, and grew very rapidly. We fed them chicken mash and often had a hen and her new brood on grass in a false bottom pen/house combination that we moved each day over new grazing grass. I have seen Muscovy ducks in many countries under varied conditions. They seem to thrive everywhere. Taboos against duck meat were a problem in Zaire with some groups. Fencing is easy because ducks normally require a quite low fence. An occasional one may take off and end up outside the pen. We had to build some small pens to keep drakes away from new ducklings, for they would kill them. They do not need water to swim in, but need lots of water to drink, which they dirty quickly by mixing feed in their water. Setting hens also need water to wet their feathers to maintain incubation humidity conditions."

CHERYL CAMPBELL wrote from Zaire. "I have had good success with Muscovies. Unlike rabbits, cattle, goats and local chickens, the ducks need no veterinary products or special feed requirements. Where we work we can never count on medicines or feed supplements. Muscovies like water but survive well on only a dish pan full. They breed readily on land and are not as well equipped for swimming as are other ducks. There is no need to make a pond for them. They are better foragers than most ducks. Here in the village they survive quite well on foraging only. They take much less care than rabbits. They come in various colors. Ours are black and white. The Africans think the black ones are less susceptible to hawks. We started with one male and two female adults. After 8 months we have had about 25 eggs to eat and 45 ducks of various sizes to eat. We had losses from drakes killing ducklings until we separated them. You must keep the ducklings out of the rain and tall wet grass. I keep them penned up in the rabbit house at night. In fact, I raise the ducks with rabbits because they clean up all the feed that the rabbits spill. Make sure that the feeder and waterer are close together and that the waterer is shallow enough that they cannot get trapped in it and drown. I use a basin with a small log in it so they can get out. They need to have enough water to keep their noses clean. Feeding can be just a nice lawn if you don't mind them wandering. They usually will return to their pen before dark. They eat insects and grass enough to keep them healthy. I supplement my older ducks with manioc flour mixed with very little millet and corn. Or I feed millet if I have a lot. They can survive from scavaging around the yard, but grow very slowly. When I can feed them a high protein ration with soybean flour or dried fish in a millet base during the first 2-3 weeks, they grow much faster.

Nesting boxes should not be anything fancy. Just a corner in a dry place. No floor or ceiling is needed. Let them nest on the ground -- fowl eggs often need the extra moisture. Provide a little dry grass or straw for nesting material, then partition them from any disturbances in a 3-sided box. They lay about 9-16 eggs, then set for 33-35 days.

Spacing in the pens is important because too many ducks can result in cannibalism. You will know when there are too many ducks because there is a definite pecking order, with the youngest the most affected. After 3 age groups were put together we noticed the fourth group was not well accepted. So we put all the older ducks in a new pen and start to fill the old one again. Once they are old enough to defend themselves we can add them with the older ducks. Drakes especially tend to fight more if they are crowded. In other words, it is nice to have an extra pen.

GEOFF CLERKE in Papua New Guinea sent us an excellent 8 page mimeographed article called "Muscovy Ducks for PNG Villages". We will send you a copy of this upon request. Let me mention a few highlights. The Muscovy is ideally suited for PNG village conditions where farmers rely on natural incubation and foraging. You need good shade, because the ducks may get sick if they stay in the sun for a long time. Do not put them near a pig fence because hogs kill and eat ducks. If possible, feed commercial feed for 6 weeks. A duckling will eat about 3 kg. In the highlands you might need a brooder for extra heat for the first two weeks. To do this, make a small round enclosure about 1 meter in diameter with flat iron, woven bamboo, cardboard etc. and cover it with old bags, leaving an uncovered strip about 30cm wide in the middle. Put a kerosene lamp inside in the strip not covered by the bags.

After 6 weeks, ducks can be fed entirely on locally produced food. Sweet potatoes, taro, banana, pumpkin, choko etc. Ducks will eat anything that humans eat. But it must be cooked. Follow this rule to know how much feed to give them. If they eat everything within half an hour they are still hungry. Cook more the next time. If they start to wander away from the feed after half an hour and some is left, they have had enough. Feeding locally produced feed is not enough. They must be able to graze daily in order to get enough protein. This is mainly from insects and grass seeds which are not found on bare ground or in short grass. A big, even a very big fence, is not enough because as soon as all the grass is finished it will become bare and hard from grazing and trampling. There must be no fence around a duck house. A fenced in project is a project that will fail. It is better to have a few ducks lost to dogs or other predators than to have the whole flock dying due to protein deficiency. Lack of protein will result in poor growth, never getting heavy enough to eat. Also, lack of feathers will let it get cold and die. Finally, they will never lay eggs.

In selecting breeding stock, choose the heaviest drake with a belly parallel to the ground. Do not keep any drake which looks like it is standing with the breast much higher than the belly. Do not keep more than 10 ducks for breeding. Otherwise it is probable that the garden produce will be in short supply to feed the flock and all the birds will do poorly. Hens can be kept for 3 years and drakes 2. Ducks start to lay at 8 and 1/2 to 9 months. The first eggs are small and should not be used for hatching. They are likely to be either sterile or to give small and weak birds. If a duck does not lay eggs, it should be eaten or sold. It can be recognized because (1) it is heavier than the other birds, (2) the flesh around the eyes is red, like a drake, instead of being pink or orange, (3) the space between the two pelvic bones is about 1 finger wide instead of 2 or 3. Eat or sell ducks at 4 months unless they are to become breeding stock. [There is much more practical information like this in the PNG write-up.]

Where can you obtain Muscovy ducks? Try to obtain ducks in your own country. If this is not possible, you might ask the Heifer Project for help. Dr. Jim DeVries at the Heifer Project said that Muscovy ducklings are especially difficult to ship, even in the States. If they do not receive special care within 48 hours, the losses will be high. It would probably be best to ship eggs. This would cost 64 cents each plus shipping. They are very difficult to hatch in an incubator. He would recommend that you hatch them under a chicken or duck. They would need to be ordered in January for spring shipment. If you need their help, write to Jim, telling him something about your plans and stating that you would be ready to pay the full cost of purchase and shipping, and will assume all risks. I would suggest that you send a substantial down payment. They will arrange the shipment and send you a bill for any balance. Write Heifer Project, P.O. Box 808, Little Rock, AR 72203 USA. [UPDATE: We find that muscovies periodically swing through planting areas eating young vegetables. We fenced in the pond and clipped their wings to keep them in, but then predators killed most of them.]