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Duck breeds are categorized by size - Heavy, Medium, Light, and Bantam. Heavy weight ducks are generally the better meat ducks, and can be the same size as a smaller goose or even a small turkey. Bantam weight ducks are smaller than a standard sized chicken.
Choosing a breed involves deciding what is important to you. Do you want them for meat, or eggs? Do you want them as pets, or as weed or pest control? Do you want a duck that will multiply rapidly, or one that won't? Do you need it to stay close to home, will you pen it up, or do you want them to run half-wild? Are you looking for a preservation breed (a rare breed in need of conservation), or do you just want something common so you can always get breeding stock?
Duck breeds have different behaviors, as well as different features. Some ducks fly a lot, some not at all. Some will forage for the majority of their food, and some won't be very good at that. Some ducks require water for mating, some can be happy with a bucket. Smaller ducks tend to be more active - and the more upright a duck, the more they tend to run around. Larger horizontal ducks will move more slowly and cover less ground in a day.
Color is probably the least important factor, but the most noticeable one. Purely a matter of personal preference, many people look first to color, second to behaviors and productivity. That is certainly a mistake, because a poorly chosen beautiful duck may require care that may not be practical for the new owner. Fortunately, there are lovely ducks in almost any breed - if you choose the breed first, then the color that you like best, you'll be much happier with the outcome.
In general, lightweight breeds are more prolific layers than heavyweight breeds. Bantam weights do not lay particularly well as a rule. Generally, highly prolific layers tend to not be very good meat ducks, and they tend to not brood their own eggs very well.
Top layer ducks can lay as well as chickens, but in general, ducks lay fewer eggs per season than chickens, and may be more constrained by seasonal factors. So a "good" layer duck will lay fewer eggs than a "good" layer chicken, in most cases. The exception are Runners and Khakis, both of which can match the output of production layer hens (if you purchase from a breeder who has bred to maintain that characteristic). Ducks lay larger eggs though, so your total egg volume will be higher than the per-egg count suggests.
Some breeds to consider:
- Ancona - Stays closer to home than some breeds, good layers, excellent foragers, and fairly hardy. A good dual purpose duck, medium weight. This is a rare preservation breed.
- Appleyard - Good dual purpose bird, heavy weight, but lays well. Excellent forager, calm temperament. Rare preservation breed.
- Australian Spotted - A long lived, very hardy bantam weight duck. Considered the best layers of the bantam breeds. They love insects and are an effective pest patrol. Good flyers and they like to fly.
- Aylesbury - Traditional English market duck. Heavyweight meat bird with a deep keel. Not bred for self-sufficiency, but for weight characteristics for meat. Too heavy to fly. Now a critically rare preservation breed.
- Buff - Medium weight dual purpose bird with friendly and calm disposition. Fairly good layer, foraging ability unknown.
- Campbell - Khaki Cambells are the most prolific layers, if they are purchased from a strong laying line (many have been bred poorly). Decent foragers with a lightweight carcass, they are fairly active birds. They produce more meat than Runners, but are generally not considered to be an effective duck for raising meat.
- Cayuga - Medium weight duck, quiet, and very hardy. Beautiful sheen on feathers. Rare preservation breed.
- Dutch Hookbill - Active, lightweight duck, good layer of blue colored eggs. Fairly rare breed.
- East Indies - Bantam weight black feathered duck with blue or green sheen. Good flyers, somewhat shy, and fairly quiet.
- Magpie - Lightweight, very good layer. Very active foragers, great for pest control. Good meat for a lightweight bird. Rare preservation breed.
- Muscovy - Produces the best meat of any duck, heavyweight carcass. Good flyers, federal law now requires that wings be clipped. Prolific reproducers, and fabulous foragers, they love weeds and bugs of all kinds, making them an excellent choice for red meat production in a backyard. Quiet birds, they do not quack. If their wings are clipped, they are fairly slow moving, easily herded, and easily contained in a lightweight fence or pen. Require less water than most ducks, can be raised successfully with buckets of water instead of requiring a pond or pool. Muscovies are broody enough to sit on anything round - ours gathered together a nest of acorns to brood one fall!
- Pekin - The production standard for meat, but not bred for foraging ability or reproduction ability. A heavyweight duck, that has fast early growth. Fairly friendly, and good layers but do not go broody.
- Rouen - Heavyweight general purpose duck. There are two breed lines now, Production, and Standard. Production still has good utility - fairly good layers, can reproduce naturally, will forage fairly well. Standard bred Rouens may have a deeper keel which slows them down, causes reproduction problems, and interferes with foraging ability. It can be very difficult to know what you are getting, since most chicks are not labeled with the distinction.
- Runner - Prolific layers averaging well over 200 eggs per year, runners are very active foragers. They can cover very large distances daily, and will gobble bugs and weeds with great enthusiasm. They have a puny carcass though, don't expect to get much meat off them. They are fun to watch, like a bunch of wine bottles grouped together, leaning slightly forward, running madly this way and that as a group. If put with other ducks, runners may assume a more horizontal posture.
- Saxony - Perhaps one of the loveliest ducks. All purpose heavyweight breed. Excellent layers can lay more than 200 eggs per year, and they will brood and raise their own young. Active foragers, and very adaptable. They are a good meat bird that is not too greasy. A good backyard or barnyard duck for providing utility on the farm. Rare preservation breed.
- Swedish - A very cold hardy duck, and a reasonable all-purpose bird, with a medium weight carcass and good egg production.
- Welsh Harlequin - Light weight dual purpose bird, produces a small but good meat carcass, and are exceptionally good layers. They will go broody and make excellent mothers. Good foragers.
No matter where you live, and no matter what your needs, you should be able to find a duck that meets them. Just research the characteristics until you find ones that suit well, and then narrow down to a final choice. Most of the ones listed above are available in the US, most through major suppliers.
We suggest reading up on the breeds from many sources, so you get more stories and anecdotes from people who actually have them. Be aware though, that breed characteristics vary widely with sloppy breeding, which is fairly prevalent, and that individual ducks in odd circumstances will often behave in an atypical manner.