Muscovy Ducks

IMG_0891The Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) – also known as Musky Duck or Barbary Duck –  is a large, hardy perching duck Most people are  curious about them; some dislike them for their messiness, aggression and odd appearance, while others appreciate them for their intelligence, friendly and trusting personality and their distinctive appearance. For these reason alone, Muscovies are increasingly kept as backyard pets and even exhibition birds. The origin of the Muscovy’s name is unknown. It is not from Moscow; and even though  it is commercially known as “Barbary Duck,” it is also not native to Barbary. Ducks or Geese? Many believe that Muscovies are more geese than ducks – in fact, often they are referred to as “Muscovie Geese”  for the following reasons:

  • Muscovy ducks don’t  quack as is typical of other duck species and are generally quiet.
  • Their eggs take longer to hatch than other duck eggs—35 days. Unlike all other breeds of ducks.
  • All domesticated ducks originate from the Mallard, with the exception of the Muscovy which has distinct origins in South America.

Muscovy facts

  • Muscovy Ducks usually live for 7-8 years; however they can live up to 20 years or more if they have access to good nutrition and don’t fall victim to an accident or predation.
  • The males can be very aggressive towards other birds. They are often observed in  fights, using their claws, wings and beaks.  They will chase away other males and pursue unwilling females in order to forcibly mate with them. The dominant male may even force himself on other males, particularly when the females are busy brooding eggs or raising their ducklings. This being said, they are generally quite friendly with people.
  • Muscovies communicate with one another by wagging their tails and raising and lowering their heads at one another.
  • Unlike other ducks, Muscovies don’t swim much as their oil glands are quite under-developed compared to other duck species.  However, they still fly (low flight mostly), swim and walk fairly  well.
  • Unlike most domestic waterfowl, Muscovies will often fly up   into trees to  roost.
  • Muscovies  graze like  geese.

Muscovies are  native to Mexico, Central and South America – but they  originated in  Brazil. This non-migratory (resident) species normally inhabits forested swamps, lakes and streams. At night, they often roost in trees. Some domesticated muscovies have escaped into the wild and now breed outside their native range,  including in Western Europe and the United States.  They are particularly well known in the town of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

DescriptionP1060906

The most distinctive feature of the muscovy ducks is the  featherless, bright “lumpy” red mask around their eyes and above the beak, which is larger in the male. Muscovies have a “crest” on the top of their heads that they can raise at will. Males will  raise this crest to fend off other males or he raises his crest to impress the females. The male is easily identified by his face mask alone – but also by his generally larger size – in fact, the adult male is usually twice the size of the female.  The female’s appearance is generally more slender than that of the male.

Size

The adult males can weigh up to  10-15 lbs (4.5 6.8 kg). The male measures, on average,  31 inches or 79 cm. Most of the females are 5-7 pounds (2.3 – 3.1 kg) but can, in rare instances, reach up to  10 lbs (4.5 kg). The female measures about  23.6 inches or 60 cm ColourationP1070677 The original colour of the Muscovy is glossy blackish/brown and white, and most of them still are that colour – with varying degrees of white, black or brown (“pieds”). Some of them are very light coloured (mostly white), while others are mostly black/brown. The black / dark brown patches have an attractive iridescence to them that can only be seen in the right light conditions. Many other quite exotic colours have occurred – mostly in domesticated breeds, such as blue, blue and white, chocolate, chocolate and white,  lavender and calico. Dark coloured muscovies have brown eyes. Whites, lilacs and blues usually have grey  eyes. They have  webbed feet and strong sharp claws for grabbing tree branches and roosting. Their tail is fairly short, flat and wide.. Juvenile muscovies are as cute as can be. Most of them are variably yellow and brown; a few are all yellow and others all brown. They lack the bumpy face masks of the adults and have a  more slender appearance. They are very curious and friendly and will readily approach people looking for food (a somewhat trained response, as many people will gladly feed them to get a close-up look of them). They are mostly seen following their mother as she is foraging for food. Calls / Vocalizations Muscovies have very different vocalizations from other ducks. Male Muscovies have a dry hissing call – often  “wagging” their tail and fluffing up the feathers on their crown at the same time. The female’s make  quiet trilling  “pip” sounds. It is reminiscent to  a flute quickly alternating between the notes F and G.

Bug Control

The major benefit associated with having these ducks in urban areas is that they help keep insect populations down, such as  mosquitoes, roaches, flies, spiders (including poisonous ones) and even ants. They will  basically eat any bug they can find. Muscovies also eat maggots and mosquito larva in the water, thus making a huge difference when it comes to insect control. They  catch bugs flying around and those they find on the ground or under rocks.

Weed Control

Muscovies are efficient weed eaters. But on the downside, they will also go for your vegetables and fruits — so those need to be protected.

Rodent Control

Muscovies eat all the excess food laying around that would otherwise attract mice and rats.

P1070754Breeding / Nesting

Both males and females reach reproductive maturity when they are about one year old; although at that young age,  they have not yet necessarily attained their full body mass. This species, like the Mallard, does not form stable pairs. Forced  intercourse has been observed in  feral populations.     Popular males are often seen with up to four females – potentially the entire female population in the group; while the remaining  males “hang out” in bachelor groups. However, the female may also mate with other males. The hen lays a clutch of 8-10 white eggs and communal nests may contain up to 21 eggs. The nest is usually situated in a tree hole or hollow, which are incubated for 34 – 36 days, as opposed to 28 days in other duck breeds. Muscovy hens can produce up to three clutches a year.P1070736 The mother duck will keep her brood of ducklings together to protect them from predators. The eggs and ducklings are preyed upon by raccoons, large turtles, birds of prey, large fish and snakes. Ducklings can fly within 5 – 8 weeks. Their feathers develop very fast. Nesting is  facilitated by the use of nest boxes. They will readily accept a wide range of nesting boxes, from large wood duck-like boxes with 6″ to 8″ diameter entrance holes to igloo-shaped half barrels, to l’ by 2′ ground nest boxes with either side or end-entry holes, to naturally occuring hollow trees and stumps.

Hybrids

If Muscovies are mated to other domestic breeds, they produce young that are commonly known as  Mulard Ducks (“mule ducks”) – in reference to their sterility. Male  hybrids produce abnormal sperm and are, therefore, mostly sterile; however, about one  out of every thirty male is able to produce young. The females are always sterile.  

Domestication

The Muscovy Duck had probably been domesticated for  centuries by South American Indigenous cultures at the time of its introduction  to European colonialists. The Domestic Muscovy duck is  descended from  the wild Muscovy Duck. While the majority of its ancestors were  also wild Muscovy Ducks, the males of two other wild species also contributed  their genepool. Muscovy Ducks as pets are very popular because raising them  is inexpensive and less time consuming. Muscovy ducks don’t generally  like to be over  handled by humans (unless they were raised by them); however, they can grow very confiding. Muscovies are less prone to illnesses as compared to other ducks. As Muscovy Ducks lay large clutches and can be encouraged to  produce up to three clutches of offspring a year, the selective breeding  regimes of the South American Indian cultures were successful in producing  dramatically larger domestic muscovy with unusual colouration making individuals  recognizable. This is critical in the development of domestic breeds. At some point, Europeans and/or their Asian neighbours either  inadvertently or purposely hybridized the now critically endangered White  Winged Wood Duck to their domestic Muscovy Ducks. The White Winged Wood Duck is  much closer related to the Muscovy Duck than the Comb Duck. Fertile male  offspring were bred back into the domestic Muscovy Duck gene pool in high  enough numbers to introduce a number of new traits into the populations of  founders that reached African and European Shores.

All the photographs on this page were taken in our garden on Isleham Marina, where a pair of male Muscovy ducks live.  They are wild but come and visit every day for a feed.  There were three until recently, but sadly `Albus’ our white Muscovy recently passed away (March 2013) .

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