Sure, backyard chickens are popular. In addition to giving you a constant supply of omega-3-rich eggs, they make really cool pets. But so do ducks, which can be a perfect addition to your backyard flock if you like to garden and love eggs—and if you hate bugs.
They're great animal companions, surprisingly enough. I've had a flock of ducks on and off almost my entire life, and I have happy childhood memories of ducks hoovering up grubs and other wigglies from my father's asparagus patch, and of my mother's ritual of sharing her doughnut-and-coffee break with an expectant semicircle of dogs and ducks at her feet. Mom would break off and hand a bite of doughnut to each in turn, which was daintily accepted by an assortment of pink and black noses and yellow bills, eat the last bite herself, and then drink her coffee until she couldn't take the intensity of all those bright, hopeful little gazes any longer and go around again with a second donut.
If that isn't enough, here are four more reasons I highly recommend raising ducks for your family:
#1: They produce tastier eggs.
If you like chicken eggs, you will really love duck eggs. They are even richer and contain more protein, calcium, iron, potassium, and pretty much every major mineral than chicken eggs. The yolks are big and orange and the whites pure white. They are tops for baking, making cakes rise high and airy; are divine cooked soft boiled, poached, or over easy (the yolks are like satiny custard); and are just as good as chicken eggs for everything else. Plus, many breeds of ducks lay more eggs per year than most breeds of chickens do. On top of that, though you'd want to check with your doctor first, some people who have allergies or sensitivities to chicken eggs are able to eat duck eggs with no issues.
#2: They're low-maintenance.
Ducks thrive on the same foods as chickens, but they will graze and forage for a higher percentage of their own food than chickens will, which means less work for you. They also don't take up much space. You'll need a secure shelter in which to house them and protect them from wildlife (and neighborhood dogs), but just three to four square feet per hen is enough.
#3: They're good for your garden.
Ducks are relentless hunters of pests, including—or, perhaps, especially—slugs and snails, which can destroy your tomato plants. Let them into the shade garden and they will keep the hostas free of slugs. Sic them on the tomato patch and there won't be a hornworm in sight. Unlike chickens, which love to scratch in the dirt and upend your garden soil, ducks generally won't disturb garden plants. Two exceptions are lettuces and ripe strawberries, both of which are duck favorites. And they will trample seedlings when their large, flat feet act like mini steamrollers across unprotected beds.
#4: They're fun to watch.
OK, any bird is fun to watch. But ducks can be truly entertaining. They love to swim and will have great fun in anything from a dishpan to a kiddie pool, but all they actually need is a water dish that is deep enough to dip their entire head into, which they will do with great gusto and frequency.
Convinced? Here's what you need to get your brood started:
• Plan on a pair. Ducks are social creatures, and one will be very lonely unless it gets to pad around with you all day (which can get old, even if you are home). You probably don't want more than four, as too many ducks in too small an area can result in smelly poop slicks in their favorite places. Start with two and see how it goes.
• Know your breeds. There are at least a dozen breeds of domestic ducks in the U.S. My favorites are called Runners, so named because they are a long, skinny and stand up almost like bowling pins when they run. Runners are smallish birds and come in a variety of colors: fawn and white, chocolate, blue (gray), and black. They lay white or bluish eggs. I love them because they look really cool and are terrific workers. My second choice is the Khaki Campbells, medium-brown ducks that are a little larger than Runners with have a more typical duck shape. They almost always lay white eggs and are among the most prolific layers in the duck world, laying more than most heritage breed chickens.
• Find a breeder. Metzer Farms in California ships ducklings all over the country and has a great duck breed comparison chart on it website so you can learn all about the different types. This particular hatchery will ship you as few as two ducklings—just be prepared to spend extra on a special shipping carton and heat pack to keep the wee birdies comfy on their way to you—but in most cases, minimum shipping numbers are usually in the 10 to 15 duckling range. So you'll need to team up with a few friends or sell the extras. You can also find local breeders willing to sell you ducklings or even adult ducks through the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. And if those places fail you, there's always Craigslist!
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.