Waterfowl are wonderful birds to have in a home flock. They are very ornamental and also provide delicious meat and eggs. Geese are very good guard animals and will raise a loud racket if strangers enter the property. They have been known to attack, beating with their wings and pinching with their bills.
DUCKS, GEESE OR BOTH?
If you are primarily interested in eggs, select a breed of duck noted for their egg-laying characteristics. Khaki Campbell and Indian Runner ducks are both noted for egg production. Neither breed is particularly good at sitting and brooding, however, so if you want ducklings, you will have to incubate the eggs. Geese do not produce huge numbers of eggs and are raised primarily for meat. If you do want some goose eggs, select Emden’s, large white birds, who will lay 35-40 eggs during the breeding season.
Breeds of duck raised for meat are more numerous and include Rouens, White Pekins, Aylesbury, and Muscovy’s. Rouens look like large mallards and are especially handsome. If you are interested in small ducks, try Calls. They come in a huge variety of colors and have plump meaty bodies. Though small, a single bird per person is a serving, they eat less, make less mess, and are very good layers and setters. In addition to Emden’s, there are Toulouse geese, large gray and white birds, Africans, and Chinese. The latter two breeds are the noisiest and belligerent of the large geese.
There are other breeds of ducks and geese, but they are considered more ornamental than utilitarian. These breeds are raised mostly for show and are either too small or too un-muscled to make good table birds. Another factor costs; strictly ornamental breeds will be costly.
Ducks and geese usually get along fine in a mixed flock and if you have enough room, you might want to have both. Ducks are not good at sounding an alarm if danger threatens the flock, so a few geese as an alarm system is always a good idea.
The easiest way to start with waterfowl is to order young birds from a professional hatchery. Expect to pay a few dollars per bird and there will be a minimum order so that the young animals will be able to stay warm during shipping. As a general rule, the larger the birds the fewer you will have to buy. Ducklings usually come in lots of 25 but goslings can be purchased in smaller lots of 10 or 12.
If you only want a few birds, check around locally and see if you can purchase adult or young adult birds from a breeder. This way you will be able to see what the birds look like when grown and be able to select the ones you like best. A good place to meet breeders is at a state or county fair. Often they will put up “for sale” signs at the local feed store, too. If you decide to go with grown birds, expect to pay a great deal more. Breeding pairs and trios will cost upwards of $25 for utility grade birds.
Many feed stores will order in large quantities of day-old birds in the spring. They usually require that you pre-order anything unusual but this way you may not have to buy a set number of birds. Ask at your feed store in early spring and find out when they plan to order.
Ducks and geese are waterfowl and are most at home in the water. They usually breed in the water and become depressed and dirty if they cannot swim in something everyday. If you don’t have a pond for them, they will need a child’s wading pool or some other large container for water. If you do not give them a pool, they will often make one out of a water trough or their water dish.
If you do not have a pond, remember that any swimming pool that is used by waterfowl will have to be cleaned regularly. Besides the obvious reasons for cleaning, ducks and geese like to play in the mud with their bills. They make holes looking for worms and bugs and then carry mud into their swimming pool. These birds will life gobs of mud in their bills and swish it around in the water and can spend hours doing this. The water will get very dirty, expect to clean it at least weekly, depending on the number of birds, and more often in summer.
Unlike chickens, who need a place to roost at night, waterfowl usually huddle up on the ground to sleep. They like a shelter in extremely bad weather, but as often as not, will still stay outside, sleeping on the ground. You should provide a shed or house for them to use during the breeding season and for ducks to lay eggs in. Small plastic dog houses are good for this. They are easy to keep clean and light-weight for moving around. If you do not provide a nesting house, ducks and geese will make nests on the ground and the eggs will get dirty.
In most parts of the country it will be easy to get pre-mixed waterfowl feed. Pelleted feed is best for ducks and geese. This form of food is readily accepted by the birds and will not blow around in the wind like mash. Ducklings and goslings should get a starter diet containing 22% protein. After about two weeks of age you can drop down to 15-18% protein feed. Do not buy feed that contains antibiotics or other medications. It is not necessary for waterfowl and birds raised on feed with additives do not qualify as “organic.” Ducks and geese, in general, are very resistant to most diseases that affect chickens.
Geese like to supplement their diet with grass and other forage and duck also, to a lesser extent. A special treat for waterfowl is to throw a bucket full of duck weed into their pool. This floating plant grows in ponds and is fairly easy to establish in a large pond, even if duck and geese live on it. Chopped lettuce or spinach is also a nice treat. You should supply your waterfowl with chopped greens if they cannot forage for grass and weeds.
Geese can be allowed to wander in the garden once the vegetable plants are well established. They will do a good job of weeding for you and fill their tummies at the same time. Birds that are allowed to graze on grass and weeds can be called “free-range” and certainly will command a better price if you plan on selling them as meat. Free-range birds will tend to be less fatty than birds that are only feed commercial feeds. Part of the reason for this is that they get more exercise browsing in the pasture.
Whole or cracked corn is always appreciated by ducks and geese and they will eat it readily. This is not a balanced diet, however, and is too high in fat and low in protein to be healthy alone. Naturally, most waterfowl appreciate stale bread and other baked goods, but, again, these should not be fed in large quantities but only as treats.
You do not need a male bird to get eggs from chickens, but with ducks and geese, you are more likely to get eggs if you have a few boys running with the flock. Trios are usually successful as breeding groups, one drake or gander with two ducks or two geese. If you want ducklings and goslings you must have male birds.
Always be careful introducing new ducks to a flock. Ducks are very territorial and will attack a stranger and kill it if possible. If you bring in a new male or female to set up a breeding group, introduce them gradually, with a barrier between, until everyone is acquainted. Otherwise you may find the new arrival dead the next morning.
Not all ducks and geese are good setters. Many will lay lots of eggs but never settle down to hatching them. If you want to hatch these eggs, you will have to set up an incubator or encourage a chicken to hatch them for you. Ducks and geese require 28 to 36 days to hatch, depending on the breed. Call ducks and Muscovy ducks are very good setters and become broody as soon as they have a nice clutch laid. Calls will usually raise two broods a season, Muscovys seems to breed almost year round.
Birds that are to be slaughtered should be deprived of food the night before. Catch them up and keep in clean wire pens so that they do not get covered in manure. It is alright to give them water, but no food for 12 hours.
Remove the bird’s head and suspend it by its feet to bleed out. After bleeding, scald the carcass and begin plucking. Ducks and geese have a layer of very soft down feathers under their outer feathers. These can be saved and used to stuff pillows or quilts.
After plucking, singe off the hair and remove the intestines (reserve liver, heart, and gizzard), cut out the oil glands at the base of the tail, and chill down. The bird can now be cooked or frozen for use later.