You’ve decided you want backyard chickens. You know you want fresh eggs, you think you would enjoy the backyard antics, and some extra bug control would be great. But what if I told you there was a better option for you than the backyard chicken? What if I told you there was an option that was a better layer, more entertaining, and a straight-up bug assassin? And what if I told you that this option is just as legal in the Front Range cities as chickens, and tolerates our climate better? Such a creature does exist – it is the common, adorable, and highly dependable backyard duck. Read on for my top eight reasons why chickens may be the wrong choice for your backyard farm, and why you should consider ducks instead.
1) Chickens stop laying in the winter, ducks don’t – Chickens lay fewer eggs during the winter due to the amount of sunlight each day. Most chickens stop laying entirely during the deep winter, and start up again around March. Ducks on the other hand lay all winter without missing a beat. If you have three Welsh Harlequin or Khaki Campbell hens, you can generally count on three eggs a day, every day, regardless of the season. Considering the price of feed, getting something in return for your investment just makes sense.
2) Chickens lay smaller eggs than ducks – Ducks eggs are bigger and contain more nutrients and calories than chicken eggs. For those of us who bake on the Front Range, you will notice that most recipes call for an extra egg due to our elevation. If you use duck eggs in the recipe you can often skip the extra egg. Ducks eggs are considered the egg of choice for many high end bakeries.
3) Chickens will destroy your garden, ducks help your garden – No joke here folks – if your chickens get loose in your garden there will be damage. Chickens dig, turn, and scatter soil. This is great after the garden is finished for the season and you would like your chickens to work the beds for you, but this is bad if the garden is still up. Also, chickens have a knack for seeking out the most tender, nearly ripe, and tasty vegetables in your garden. If they find a way into your garden they will strip your vegetables. Ducks on the other hand will do considerably less damage, and in fact can actually help your garden. While I wouldn’t let either my ducks or my chickens loose in my lettuce patch, I do let my ducks patrol my large tomato and cabbage plants for predatory caterpillars and insects.
4) Chickens don’t forage for food as well as ducks – While chickens are adept at wiping out your garden, they are not as good as ducks at foraging for their own food. This is due in part to a ducks very sincere interest in bugs. Ducks head out to hunt, and they are fierce on the bug, mouse, and snake populations. This is not to say that chickens are worthless in this regard – our chickens catch a respectable number of bugs and mice each year. But ducks are more focused on the task, and because of this ducks can often forage a good portion of their diet. Again, with the rising cost of feed, having a backyard animal that can forage a good portion of its food can help keep your feed bill down.
5) Chickens are more susceptible to disease – I don’t understand avian physiology well enough to explain why chickens are more fragile than ducks, though it is rumored that ducks have a stronger immune system than chickens. This is something I have heard repeatedly, and something I have experienced first hand. Ducks are just simply bomb-proof. They don’t get sick, and if they do they often recover. This is not as true for chickens, as many of us chicken keepers have found out the hard way.
6) Chickens cannot rear their own in the cities – All of the cities along the Front Range that allow chickens ban roosters. No roosters, no chicks in the spring. As we all know laying hens only produce well for a couple of years, and then most of us need to rotate in new birds. The new birds that we bring in are often shipped to us, and not raised locally. If you raise ducks, in most cities you can have drakes as well, though there are some cities that have banned drakes outright (i.e. Denver has banned drakes, Colorado Springs has not). The drake is not like the rooster who crows all day, every day. Drakes are very quiet – they are in fact much more quiet than the duck hens. If you live in a city on the Front Range that allows backyard poultry, there is a good chance you can have drakes (sorry Denver, they’re banned for you), which means your hens may hatch out ducklings. Our ducks have hatched out ducklings in our backyard, and while it is not as easy as it sounds, it is a more sustainable method of backyard egg production than buying birds from a hatchery and having them shipped to Colorado.
7) Chickens are less cold tolerant than ducks – On average, chickens cannot tolerate extremes of temperature as well as ducks. Ducks have no bare skin on their faces to subject them to frostbite (with the exception of the Muscovy duck – a bird with fleshy “carnicles” on its face). When the temperatures are extremely cold a duck sits on the ground on its feet and tucks its bill under one wing. By contrast, when a chicken is cold they are often roosted with their heads exposed. This habit of chickens literally exposes them to dangerously cold conditi0ns. When the mercury really dips ducks have the best natural instincts to stay warm and safe.
8) Chickens have less personality than ducks – This is where the feathers really start to fly. There is no actual manner in which to quantify which species has more personality, chickens or ducks. This is really a matter of personal preference. That being said, a baby duck has got to the be the cutest creature on earth, plus these adorable fluff balls grow up into elegant, funny, and easy to handle backyard partners. To all of you chicken lovers out there I know you love your birds and I wouldn’t try to talk you out of that. I am clearly smitten with ducks.
Just to set the record straight, I keep both ducks and chickens. Both birds have advantages and disadvantages (for instance ducks are far messier than chickens). But of the folks I know who keep ducks, myself included, most say they prefer ducks to chickens. Ducks have strong advantages to their avian counterparts, and ducks are really fun to keep. Ducks do require different care than chickens, so if you are considering ducks I would recommend you get yourself a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread. This is far and away the best book on raising ducks; I consider it indispensable reading for all duck owners.
If you are interested in keeping ducks do some research and see what breeds do well here on the Front Range – there are several. Duck breeds were bred to achieve different results, so make sure you know what it is you want from your ducks and pick a breed that will perform that task. And last, double check ordinances that affect your area and make sure ducks (hens, drakes, or both) are approved where you live. Additionally, Muscovy’s are now regulated by US Fish & Wildlife, though I know many folks on the Front Range who keep these amazing birds. If you have questions or information to share don’t forget to leave a comment below – we’d love to hear from you.
Still not convinced that ducks are a better choice than chickens? Check out Lisa Steele’s excellent post on ducks versus chickens. Lisa cited more and different reasons than I did on why ducks might just be the better choice. And check out my video below featuring me with my Cayuga drake “Sven.” One look into those dreamy dark eyes and handsome profile and I think you’ll be every bit as smitten as I am.