Domestic Ducks: How We Got Here

A muscovy duck looking at the camera outside.

Updated January 31, 2020

There’s A Difference?

It may not seem apparent to many folks, but the Domestic duck is actually quite a different animal from its similar-looking wild counterpart. Originally, the duck was domesticated in South Asia, likely from a breed of wild mallard. The other primary wild relative to many Domestic ducks is the South American native Muscovy Duck (whose Domestic relative looks very similar). Some assert that Domestic ducks have been around in China for at least 3,000 years! To this day, one of their jobs include being released into rice paddy fields to eat the insects that threaten crops. Primarily, they’ve been bred for people to eat their eggs and flesh. The most common breed of Domestic duck is the Pekin, which looks not unlike Donald Duck. Other very common Domestic duck breeds include Rouens (domesticated Mallards), Cayuga (black with a green sheen), and Khaki Campbells (which look like light brown Mallards). Hybrids of Muscovy ducks are commonly used for foie gras, where they are typically force-fed so their distressed liver can be later eaten by humans.

Health And Human Challenges

Ducks share many of the same plights in commercial farming as chickens, with some unique challenges as well. Over years of selective breeding, the Domestic duck has been bred so that their body grows much larger and quicker than their wild (or earlier Domestic) relatives. Commercially bred Pekin ducks reach 90% of their adult weight (which is their “slaughter weight”) in just seven weeks of age. They are killed en masse long before their 6-10 year lifespan. These animals are largely kept packed together in group confinement without access to the outdoors for their entire lifespan. Many are killed by disease or complications due to ammonia from a lack of sanitation. Others die from bill-trimming, a painful physical mutilation performed without anesthesia. Due to the increased size of their body and their unnatural living quarters, many ducks in captivity develop significant foot problems, sometimes requiring amputation. Like other animals raised for their flesh, Ducks are offered no legal protection from the United States government under the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Ducks bred for their egg-laying ability suffer many of the same reproductive diseases as chickens including peritonitis, egg yolk impactions, and malnutrition. Some have been bred to lay up to 290 eggs in a year, compared to about a dozen laid annually by their wild relative.

Although they are classified as waterfowl and have an inherent need to swim, the majority of ducks bred by humans do not have regular access to water, which is both incredibly distressing to the bird and also a health risk as it keeps them clean and more resistant to disease. Because ducks also use water to keep their body temperature regulated, a lack of water regularly leads to overheating.

Domestic ducks also have the misfortune of being widely bred as pets, especially doled out as ducklings for seasonal events and holidays like Easter. Some ducklings are dyed pastel colors for the occasion. These ducks are typically not cared for properly and either die due to unintentional neglect, or are killed or abandoned when they grow into adulthood.

Crucially, most Domestic duck breeds have have lost their ability to fly. Their feathers are typically not long enough for flight and their muscles aren’t designed for it either; and some breeds are far too heavy for flight. In short, due to their inability to fly and, depending on the breed, their color, Domestic ducks are ill-suited to camouflage themselves or get away from predators, leaving them extremely vulnerable to predation. Domestic ducks, like all domestic animals, rely on humans providing their food and shelter and are not equipped to survive in the wild.

Domestic Meets Wild

If released into the wild by well-meaning humans, Domestic ducks face many serious issues; not only do they face malnutrition and starvation, but inappropriate food from park-going humans such as bread and crackers can teach them poor foraging habits and can quickly deteriorate their health. Ducks require vegetation and protein, not sugary simple carbohydrates.

A Domestic duck still has the ability to mate with wild ducks, which creates hybrid ducklings that are ill suited genetically and instinctually for both the wild world and human care. Wild ducks regularly migrate seasonally in order to follow food and warmth. Domestic ducks do not have this luxury and regularly starve to death or succumb to the elements. Wild ducks coming into contact with Domestic ducks face many diseases which they lack immunity to, including fowl cholera, paratyphoid, avian tuberculosis, bird flu, and West Nile Virus, which kills scores of wild birds each year.

These animals are stuck in a gray area, as most shelters do not consider them companion animals, and wildlife rescue organizations do not consider them wild. Many veterinarians lack the training to help abandoned injured ducks.

Like any other domestic bird, ducks require special care and attention, with a nutritious diet and a safe shelter. Just because you’ve seen one floating around your local pond, doesn’t mean they belong there!

SOURCES:

Domestic Ducks | Cornell University

The Welfare Of Animals In The Duck Industry | Humane Society

The Plight Of Domestic Ducks And Geese | United Poultry Concern

Ducks In The Historical Period | World History

Egg Problems | Call Duck Association 

Releasing Domestic Ducks Into The Wild | Poultry Keeper (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on October 27, 2020

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