Muscovies are an excellent asset to the homestead; they are self-reliant, intelligent, disease resistant, friendly, entertaining and require very little human intervention. Muscovies are also prolific. According to one breeder in the Mother Earth News, “a drake and five [female] ducks can produce 100 birds a year for consumption”.
(Guest Post by Agorculture
I first tried Muscovy in the Quartier Latin in Paris. I ordered duck, expecting the fat and texture that is characteristic of the Pekin variety (which constitutes the majority of duck production in the United States). Upon tasting my entrée, I honestly thought that I was served veal by mistake! The flesh of the meat was lean and dark. The waiter insisted that my meal was indeed duck! Silly American! It was only later that I realized what I had was indeed not beef, but it truly was duck!
In fact, Muscovy is one of the best-kept culinary secrets. A local breeder described it to me as the “Cadillac of duck meat”. The Yellow House Farm in Barrington, New Hampshire describes Muscovies as “excellent producers of flavorful meat in an easy-as-pie, hands-off manner, which makes them sine qua non for any serious homestead”.
The scientific name is Cairina moschata, which means the “musky one from Cairo”. Muscovies have also been called the Indian Duck, the Libyan Duck and, in a culinary context, the Barbary Duck. In a case of mistaken origin, similar to Guinea Fowl and Turkeys, Muscovy ducks are from none of these countries- they are native to Central America. The best explanation of the name “Muscovy” is that it derives from the Miskito coast of Honduras and Nicaragua and from their reputation for insect control.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Muscovy ducks are their caruncles- the fleshy growths on their heads and their sharp claws. A female (hen) Muscovy can weigh 8 lbs and a male (drake) can weigh twice as much – 15lbs. Another defining characteristic is that Muscovies rarely quack unless they are distressed. Instead, they whisper and emit a squealing hiss. Muscovies also communicate with each other by nodding their heads and raising and lowering the feathers on the top of their head. Genetically, Muscovies are closer to geese than other ducks. The Muscovy is the only domestic duck that is not descended from the Mallard. Muscovy drakes can be hybridized with Mallard hens to create a Mullard duck, which, along with other ducks and geese, is used in the production of Foie Gras.
Muscovies are leaner than the Mallard derived breeds. Duck fat is a healthy saturated fat and is treasured by cooks and gastronomes for its culinary properties. Unfortunately, a 10 lb Muscovy adult yielded only 4 tablespoons of “liquid gold” after roasting. A duck’s fat content can be increased through diet, but this may require bringing in additional feed. Muscovies are also prolific layers. The average Muscovy hen is said to be a better layer than the best chicken layer. Unfortunately, Muscovies may be seasonal layers, though, in some cases, they have been known to lay year round. (I will have to wait until Spring to confirm this.) Duck eggs are richer than chicken eggs and preferred by chefs in some recipes.
Perhaps the only other drawback to Muscovies, and all ducks, is plucking the feathers and down. Unlike chickens, the scalding method does not work as easily on ducks. It can take hours of plucking to remove the large feathers and, even then, down and pinfeathers may remain. The smallest feathers are singed off while roasting, so it is not necessary to remove 100% of the feathers prior to cooking. (This is where duck sauces come in!)
I have found that a week of hanging the carcass makes plucking a bit easier and vastly improves the flavor. Unfortunately, it still took me hours to pluck and this method requires a cool place to hang the carcass, like an attic. To prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria and for optimum flavor, the hanging space needs to be between 50-55 F (10 – 12.8 C).
Other methods for loosing feathers call for dipping the duck carcass into a hot water with a thin film of wax or paraffin and then dipping the carcass into cold water to harden the wax or paraffin, which is then peeled off, taking the feathers and down with it. The carcass can alternatively, be dipped into a solution of 2 ½ gallons of 160 F (71.1 C) water with 1/8 cup of vinegar and ¼ teaspoon of detergent and ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. I have not tried either of these two methods. I have also been told that rubber or latex gloves also help with feather removal.
Finally, some choose to simply skin the duck, but this removes the best parts- the skin and fat! For additional information on plucking ducks, see this great post and the video linked therein on the excellent Hunter Angler Gardner Cook blog: http://honest-food.net/2011/10/29/on-plucking-birds/.
I also found that a flexible boning knife is indispensable if you want to part out the carcass. One of my favorite ways to serve Muscovy, or any duck, is roasted with very crisp skin and served with a sauce made from Tamari with ginger, garlic and sesame oil and served with scallions. (I like to use South River Azuki Bean Tamari, which is free of both gluten and soy.)
I also like serving the breasts (called magrets) with a compote of shallots, balsamic vinegar and figs or grapes. Use a good quality balsamic vinegar or saba (concentrated grape must) with another type of vinegar if real balsamic is unavailable. The organs are also a delicacy and a nutrient-dense super-food. I recommend cooking them lightly. It is a shame to waste the webbed feet, carcass or bones as they make a wonderful stock or bone broth, which is another nutrient-dense super-food!
Like all animals, Muscovies require clean water, however, Muscovies require much less water than other ducks. A children’s “kiddie pool” is sufficient and a smaller feeding trough would work as well. In Winter, I use a rubber pet bowl that I can step on to remove the ice. Muscovies only need enough water to submerge their nostrils. Muscovies would, however, welcome deeper water to swim in. Like all ducks, Muscovies are messy and tend to slosh water and foul it. A kiddie pool should be changed at least once a week, if not sooner. The fouled water is rich in nutrients and excellent for irrigating plants.
Muscovies should be fed a protein rich crumbles or pellets. It is absolutely essential that the feed be free of any medications. Younger ducklings should be started on crumbles and not given any whole grains until they are one month old. The ducks should also be given grit to enable their gizzard to grind the food. Greens should make up 1/3 of the diet. I let my Muscovies free range, so I only give them enough commercial feed to keep them coming back at night. You should keep them out of the garden and away from vulnerable plants, however. I hope one day to get away from commercial feed. I also give them table scraps. When writing this article, I read about Muscovy owners who set out solar LED lights to attract flying insects solely to feed their ducks.[v] (Gotta try that!) Every evening, they see me and run towards me. They are like puppies, looking happy and wagging their tails! I then put a pail with a small amount of feed in their pen, the Muscovies run inside, and I close the door. In this regard, they are much, much easier than chickens. The following morning, I let them all out for water. I can’t keep the water inside or it would make a huge mess. One thing to be ware of is that Muscovies do not fear vehicles. Several times, I have heard cars honking at the clueless ducks- just standing in the road! I am lucky that I do not have canard à la presse!
Ducks are covered in an insulating layer of down, but their feet are still vulnerable to the cold. Their pen should have a thick layer of clean, dry straw or wood shavings to protect their feet. In the summer, ducks will need water and shade. Clean water, sanitation and space, along with good nutrition are essential to the health of any animal. Muscovies are much hardier than chickens and more resistant to disease.
To protect Muscovy Ducks, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed regulations that banned Muscovy ducks and called for their removal and destruction. (Go figure!) This was done after Muscovy ducks were found crossing the border into three counties in Texas. Fortunately, the public outcry was loud enough to make the FWS make an exception for food use. However, the new regulations do not make it lawful to release Muscovies into the wild. According to the FWS:
The Muscovy duck now occurs naturally in southern Texas, so it has been added to the list of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This species has been introduced in other areas throughout the U.S. where it is an exotic species, and it is widely raised in captivity for food. To control the spread of Muscovy Ducks in areas outside their natural range, new Service regulations allow for control of feral Muscovy ducks, their nests, and eggs in areas outside their natural range (50 CFR 21.54). Other regulations finalized at the same time as the listing and Control Order that restrict possession of Muscovy Ducks and require a permit to sell captive-bred Muscovy Ducks for food will not be administered at this time because the Service plans to revise those regulations in the near future. Read the fact sheet and the final rule.
In addition, state and local jurisdictions and even homeowner associations may also restrict Muscovy ownership. So, check your local laws and continue to check for updates in federal regulations as well.
Muscovy ducks are an excellent form of natural pest control. One theory holds that their name is actually derived from the Miskito coast of Central America. The Muscovies’ reputation for insect control alone may be why it has been introduced all over the world. Muscovies have been noted to snap insects out of the air until they are so full that they cannot move![viii] Muscovies are commonly used for insect control in barns. I have even noticed a difference on my property- the areas frequented by the Muscovies are almost free of mosquitoes. The far side of my property is not frequented and it is intolerable during parts of the summer. Muscovies eat practically any insect they can catch, some snakes, slugs, snails and even mice! To paraphrase Geoff Lawton – a slug problem is really a duck deficiency! Muscovies have also been derided for leaving waste excrement all over areas where they frequent, but I prefer to think of them as fertilizer machines.
Acquiring Muscovy ducks
Muscovies are common and can be purchased through mail-order suppliers of day-old hatchlings, from farm supply shops, chicken-swaps and classified ads, like Craig’s List (where I purchased mine). Prices range depending on age and can range from $3 for a day old hatchling to $6 for a two-week old duckling. Since the Muscovy has been domesticated for centuries, there are different strains that highlight their foraging capability, cold-tolerance, friendliness, aggressiveness, meat production capabilities, egg laying capabilities and visual aesthetics. Homesteaders should look for strains that retain their self-sufficient traits (i.e. not selected for commercial food production or show) or wild/feral strains. For your flock’s next generation, Muscovy eggs hatch in 35 days. Muscovies tend to make excellent brooders and mothers, and are even better than an incubator. They will successfully hatch other duck eggs and chicken eggs, also. If you are acquiring hatchlings or ducklings, do not let them get rained on or allow them to go swimming for the first six weeks as they lack the oils to shed water. Ducklings brooded by a mother duck, however can go swimming as mother sees fit since her oils will transfer to the ducklings.