Reading time: 5 minutes
BREED: The piebald duck is a light, versatile, heritage breed, a challenge for exhibitors, but well suited to breeding.
ORIGIN: First developed in England and Wales around the 1920s for eggs and meat; we don’t know what races were included in their foundation. However, their shape, hardiness and markings suggest a mixture of Indian Runner and an old Belgian breed, the Huttegem.
In the 1970s, a similar breed, the Altrheiner Elsterente (Old Rhine Pie) was developed in Germany. It is considered the same breed as Magpie in Europe, although it probably has a different foundation.
Belgian duck breeding and origin of the type
English poultry authority Edward Brown wrote about the Huttegem duck in 1906, after visiting Belgium. He considers that it evolved during the 1800s from the crossing of the old local heavy-meat breed, the Dendermondse (or Dendermonde), and Runner-type ducks.
Duck farming was a popular cottage industry along the Scheldt and around Oudenaarde in East Flanders, first for eggs, then later also for meat. The grasslands along the river were marshy until 1920 when the land was drained. Farmers could raise ducks on the rich, watery grasslands inexpensively, as the ducklings could get all their food from the land. Hatched in the fall and put out to pasture when a few days old, the ducklings were expected to survive snow and ice with minimal straw shelter when the wind blew through. These hardy ducklings made excellent foragers and families took the time to trample the ground to raise worms for their greedy appetites. When a new sluice and drain dried up the surrounding land, the breed was abandoned, except for a few enthusiasts who keep herds for show. Now the Huttegem and the Dendermondse are extremely rare.
How the magpie motif evolved
While Belgian farmers were colour-blind, focusing on productivity and hardiness, standards initially accepted blue and white markings, which predominated, and later black and white. Waterfowl expert Dave Holderread agrees that Brown’s description of the Huttegem’s head, beak, body, and carriage is correct for the magpie. He considers that the genes of their white bib and Runner pattern would have produced offspring with magpie markings.
These traits suggest that Huttegem stock was used to develop the magpie, whose breeders sought white breast plumage to avoid dark stumps when picking. In the 1920s, duck eggs were popular in Britain, so magpies were kept for both meat and eggs. The breed was later standardized to feature clearly defined and symmetrical markings in 1926.
In 1963 Magpie ducks were imported to America and picked up by a small number of breeders in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota. A standard was accepted by the APA in 1977. The difficulty of acquiring desired markings may have discouraged fanciers and limited the breed’s popularity. However, the birds became more available from 1984 onwards and farmers found them hardy, adaptable, productive and fun to keep.
A rare heritage breed with hardy genes
CONSERVATION STATE: The Livestock Conservancy lists them as an endangered duck breed, and very low numbers are recorded by the FAO.
BIODIVERSITY: Their hardiness indicates a long-established adaptation to harsh conditions, probably learned from Northwestern European breeds, while several traits, including pattern, shape and position, indicate Indian Runner genes. With the Ancona duck, magpies can retain rare genes from old Belgian breeds.
The color pattern varies widely, making it difficult to replicate to standard for the show. Even if the parents have the desired marking, the offspring show variation, with lighter males and darker females with each generation. Therefore, good breeding stock with unsuitable markings for show can be used to produce show birds. Pied ducklings hatch with markings that approximate how their plumage pattern will develop, allowing exhibitors to choose their show birds earlier.
Characteristics of the piebald duck
DESCRIPTION: A light, medium-sized duck with a long body and neck. The body is moderately broad and deep, and carried 15–30° above the horizontal when relaxed.
The plumage is piebald, with white face, neck, breast, undercarriage and primaries and secondaries. The crown of the head and the back from shoulder to tail are solid color. When the wings are closed, the dorsal markings ideally resemble a heart shape. As birds age, parts of the colored areas gradually turn white, especially in females. Old females often lose their colored crown and may turn completely white.
The eyes are dark. The beak is long, orange or yellow, with some green mottling or shading that expands and darkens with age. Legs and feet are orange, often mottled with black, and more so with age.
VARIETIES: The Black and the Blue are the original and most common varieties. There is a Dun in Brittany, and a rare Chocolat.
SKIN COLOR: White
Big piebald duck eggs and other useful traits…
POPULAR USE: Besides being bred for show, Magpie ducks make excellent dual-purpose birds or pets, while cleaning the garden of weeds and pests. They can rid a garden of slugs and snails, or a pasture of snails carrying liver flukes. Being lightweight, they cause little damage to soil or plants.
EGG COLOR: White, cream or green-blue.
EGG SIZE: Large/2.3 oz. (65g).
PRODUCTIVITY: 180–290 eggs per year and long life.
LESTER: Adult male 5–7 lb (2.3–3.2 kg), female 4.5–6 lb (2–2.7 kg), depending on strain. Merchant weight: 4 to 4.5 lbs (1.8 to 2 kg).
TEMPERAMENT: Friendly if handled since young and very active. Drakes have a high libido and need at least five mates to avoid tiring females.
ADAPTABILITY: Pied ducks tolerate most humid climates well, from cold to hot and humid. As hardy, active foragers, they can sustain themselves on pasture with little supplementation, eating grass, seeds, insects, slugs, snails, and aquatic life. They thrive when they have space to romp around and enjoy swimming. They must at least have access to water for bathing. Generally non-flying, they can launch themselves over a three-foot barrier if alarmed. Females usually do not brood, but those who raise their young well.
Overall, they make ideal free-range poultry for children, novices and farmers, but require expert husbandry for show.
ESTIMATE“I have raised other breeds of domestic ducks, and none of them have enjoyed grazing or been as active as the magpie ducks…These ducks have fantastic personalities and are really friendly and captivating to watch and enjoy in the backyard!” Matthew Smith/APA.
Originally published in the April/May 2023 issue of Backyard poultry and regularly checked for accuracy.