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Chickens vs. ducks as garden helpers

| 13 Feb 2012 | 03:53

If you like fresh eggs, a steady supply of organic fertilizer, and efficient bug patrol you might consider raising a flock of chickens or a bevy of ducks. Both make wonderful pets with distinct personalities if given ample personal contact and training from an early age.

Over a dozen years of raising chickens, and now ducks, have taught me that like other pets, these birds can be trained through repeated verbal commands and gestures. This is not a mere circus act, for it is a great advantage to have these birds come to you each evening in order to put them safely indoors away from predators.

But before you rush out to purchase birds, check that you comply with zoning ordinances and have enough acreage to provide your birds with ample space for foraging, adequate shelter and proper manure management. I recommend avoiding roosters unless you plan to breed your flock. No, hens do not need a rooster to produce eggs. The pre-dawn crowing loses its charm quickly, and most roosters are aggressive toward hens as well as their human caretakers.

Drakes are far less belligerent than roosters, and their paddle bills do less damage than the pointed beaks and sharp talons of chickens that uproot plants and tear at flesh. Ducks forage by shoveling their beaks from side to side in search of slugs and insects. Other favorite foods include mosquito larva and aquatic plants, which ducks efficiently keep in check. As waterfowl, ducks are naturally predisposed to swim but can be raised without a large body of water. They do need to dip their bills in water to clear their nostrils, so a water source at least three inches deep is preferable.

Which breed and how many to buy will be determined by whether you want to eat the eggs and/or the bird. Certain breeds are prolific layers, while others have been selected for quick growth and large body stock. Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Australorps are hardy chickens and reliable layers. My favorite chicken is the hybrid Araucanas/Americanas. They have beautiful feather markings, lay pastel blue eggs, and are intelligent. Their slender build resembles a hawk’s and allows them to fly better than heavier breeds, an asset when escaping from predators.

Bantams are a category of diminutive chicken and duck breeds that require half the space and consume far less food than their standard counterparts. My favorite bantam chicken is the Silkie, which resembles a feather-legged puffball with its mature fluffy down. Originally from China, these may be the “chickens with fur” that impressed Marco Polo. Regardless of feather color, Silkies are black-skinned and highly sought after for their curative power. Although not the most bountiful layers, the Silkies’ broody inclination renders them able setters for other breeds.

In duck breeds Campbells and Runners are prolific layers. The Runners’ bottle-shaped silhouette and upright stance is amusing to watch as they run rather than waddle. Terrific foragers, Runners can be easily trained to come at a visual or audible cue. I am raising several rare duck breeds to preserve these endangered lineages. Saxony, a beautiful, large bird, is my favorite for it is good-natured and less flighty than other descendants with Campbell genes.

Some say duck eggs are more nutritious than chicken eggs. My feeling is that the flavor and nutritional quality of an egg is determined by the diet and living condition of the bird. Given ample sunlight and pasture to forage for insects and worms, ducks (like chickens) thrive on fresh vegetation supplemented with mixed grains, and produce delicious eggs with deep orange yolks. A diet of fish, however, would result in an off-tasting duck egg. I feed my birds copious amounts of chopped greens from my garden, their favorites being collards, dandelion, kale, lettuce and parsley. To my surprise, the ducks are less inclined to eat kitchen scraps that my chickens would have devoured with relish. In fact, if chickens hold an advantage over ducks, it is that the former’s voracious and non-discriminating appetite makes quick work of kitchen and garden waste.

By Gar Wang