Here in the northernmost tip of North America’s temperate rainforest, Alaska’s infamous cold meets some of the wettest weather in the world. Our hometown of Cordova, Alaska, receives an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year — more than 13 feet of water.
In addition to the intense rainfall, we also see some very cool summer temperatures, with an average high of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13°C). As you might logically deduce, we don’t see a whole lot of that big yellow thing in the sky that makes gardens grow. This land is dominated by evergreen trees, moss, and mushrooms. Also, we grow some pretty epic slugs.
I have been trying to garden in this ridiculously inappropriate climate for six years. If you can find a crop that will mature in three months of cold rain, get the seed planted between storm fronts, and manage to germinate it, the slugs will come in like a cloud of locusts and mow the tender seedlings to the ground.
When I read Bill Mollison’s much quoted “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency,” I took it to heart. I have kept laying hens for a few years, and greatly enjoy the way they benefit my garden. But the possibility of a resident slug hunter was just too alluring.
I began my research in the middle of last winter. On paper, ducks appeared to be superior in every way to chickens. The traditional meat breed ducks grow almost as fast as hybrid chickens, and much faster than any traditional breed chickens. Laying duck breeds surpass even the best hens, both in quantity and size of eggs. Ducks tend to have fewer health problems than chickens. Ducks are hardier to cold and need less elaborate shelter. They can be contained by lower fences and can even be herded around from pen to pen. But most importantly for my setting, whereas chickens hate rain and are prone to lung problems in damp conditions, ducks love rain and are perfectly suited to a wet climate.
And yes, according to my research, full sized ducks would be able to eat even the largest slugs!
Quite excited, I ordered an array of ducklings from the Holderread Waterfowl Farm — the heavy Silver Appleyards for meat, Welsh Harlequins for eggs, and Bantam Appleyards to provide mothering services for next year’s flock (the large breeds are unreliable mothers).
From the moment I moved my batch of chicks out to the coop, and moved the new batch of ducklings into the brooder, the important caveat to all that duck awesomeness became apparent. I had read about it, several times, but it just couldn’t sink in until I was faced with it. Ducks are unbelievably messy. Truly, you cannot imagine it until you see it.
Ducks don’t just drink water, they frolic in it. The books recommend that you set their waterer up on a grate over a catchment basin, which I did. What I couldn’t have foreseen was that the catch basin would fill up with nasty water every day, and that the bedding throughout the brooder would still be completely soaked.
Furthermore, duck poop is much wetter than chicken poop, and rather than continually managing their own bedding by scratching, as chickens so conveniently do, ducks’ webbed feet just pack it down into one big poopslick.
Standard duck care involves cleaning the coop out every few days, then composting it in a separate space. But as a permaculturist, I seek to minimize work by following nature’s lead. Also, I’m lazy. I had already been spoiled by years of keeping hens on deep bedding. When you add enough carbon to a chicken coop, you hardly ever have to see, smell or even think about poop. Once a year you harvest beautiful compost by cleaning out the coop, and that is the extent of the work involved.
If you are seeking to emulate a natural system, then ducks need to be kept on a large pond. That would be the end of the heartache and hard work right there. Poop goes straight into the water where it fertilizes aquatic plants, which in turn feed the ducks. Brilliant and simple — if you have a very large pond. The recommended stocking rate is just 8-15 ducks/acre of pond to maintain healthy conditions. Obviously not appropriate for a backyard.
Through creative thinking and a lot of work, I am sure that a filtering system could substantially increase the stocking density. I envision something like a natural swimming pool meets aquaponics — a very small pond which feeds into a series of living filters, harvesting all the nutrients to feed aquatic plant foods (such as duckweed) along the way. There is a small group of folks experimenting with what is sometimes called quaquaponics, and it is very inspiring.
Nevertheless, I fear that ducks just don’t fit into backyard permaculture as easily as chickens. Note that I did not say they don’t fit! Just that working ducks into a small-scale system takes a bit more effort.
Ducks are worth it though — they really do offer a splendor of benefits in return for that work. Everything that I had read, the many advantages I listed above, has turned out to be true. Beyond their high productivity, low input needs and voracious slug hunting, ducks are an incredibly pleasant animal to be around. They’re gentle and curious and their intense flocking behavior is downright heartwarming. They go everywhere together, quack loudly with alarm when they get separated, and then chatter happily when they are reunited, as if to say, “Where were you? Oh, I’m so glad you’re back. You’ll never believe what happened!”
Ducks are devoted foragers, snuzzling into the greenery in a most charming way. They don’t tear anything up, scratching like chickens — an important quality in a small space. And, being able to herd the flock in and out of the pen is an incredibly useful thing, particularly in a backyard setting.
The good news is, we don’t have to choose between ducks and chickens — maximize diversity, and keep them both! In my next article I will explain: the benefits I have found in keeping ducks and chickens together in the same coop, a few tricks for ducks on deep litter, and a full report on my experiment with creating a worm farm right in the bedding of my coop!
Dave Holderread’s first book, Raising the Home Duck Flock, is available for free viewing online, and is a fantastic introduction. His next book is still in print, and is an expansion of the first. If you have decided to bite the bullet and get ducks, you will want to have Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks on hand for reference.
Harvey Ussary, although not a professed permaculturist, is at the forefront of integrating poultry into the homestead system. He is also a huge proponent of deep litter. His website is an amazing resource, full of free articles of the highest quality. His book The Small Scale Poultry Flock is well worth the money, though it is predominantly about chickens.