Muscovy Duck

Cairina moschata

Muscovy Duck
Photo © Bernard DUPONT/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

A tropical dabbling duck, the muscovy duck is one of only two species – the other is the mallard – from which all domestic duck breeds have descended. Because many domestic and feral muscovy ducks can be found in widespread locations, many birders are familiar with this species even if they have not yet officially added it to their life list.

Common Name: Muscovy Duck, Creole Duck (domestic), Barbary Duck (domestic, culinary), Backyard Duck (domestic), Mute Duck (domestic)
Scientific Name: Cairina moschata
Scientific Family: Anatidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Relatively long, spatulate shape, dark at the base with variable color bands along the length, including white, pale blue-white and a pinkish tip, gray nail
  • Size: 25-35 inches long with 55-60-inch wingspan, heavy build, short legs, long tail, broad wings
  • Colors: Black, white, red, pink, iridescent
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males are overall glossy black or blackish-brown with an iridescent green or purple sheen on their upperparts in bright sunlight. The head shows a pompadour-like crest and may have minor white flecks on the nape. The pale yellow-brown eyes are surrounded by black skin and fleshy red wattles, and a large knob shows on top of the bill. A broad white wing patch is easily visible in flight but may not be seen when the wings are folded, or may only appear as a very small patch or sliver near the flanks. Females are significantly smaller and duller with fewer wattles on the face, lacking the knob on the bill. For both genders, legs and feet are blackish-gray.

    Domestic muscovy ducks come in a wide range of colors, from all white to mottled black and white, tan or other variations with unclear markings. The red wattles are much more extensive, and domestic birds are larger than their wild cousins. Leg and foot color is more variable on domestic birds as well.

    Juveniles are similar to adults but have less white in the wings, a darker grayish bill and far fewer facial wattles.

    Foods: Seeds, grain, plants, leaves, insects, invertebrates, mollusks (See: Omnivorous)

    Habitat and Migration:

    These ducks prefer wet forests and woodland stream areas, as well as brackish ponds, oxbow lakes and agricultural fields. Feral or domestic escapees are frequently found near urban or suburban parks with appropriate ponds and often interbreed with other ducks, creating confusing hybrids.

    Muscovy ducks do not migrate. Their native range extends from the extreme southern tip of Texas and both the eastern and western coasts of Mexico south through Central America and into South America as far south as northern Argentina, though they are missing from the steepest mountain regions. Feral and domestic populations may be found nearly anywhere, but are particularly notable in Florida and elsewhere in the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and New Zealand.

    Vocalizations:

    These are generally silent birds but do have a variety of calls and sounds in their repertoire, including low hisses, grunts, croaks, weak quacks, whistling, peeps and coos.

    Behavior:

    Wild muscovy ducks are shy and wary, and are usually found alone or in pairs. They perch and roost in trees, and use both grazing and dabbling foraging techniques while feeding. In flight, their wing beats are relatively slow. Males can be aggressive and will chase away other males from their territory, including feeding areas.

    Domestic muscovy ducks can be much more gregarious and likely to join mixed flocks with other waterfowl in urban areas. They may also become accustomed to receiving handouts and will approach humans more readily.

    Reproduction:

    These are polygamous birds. They are a cavity-nesting species and place their nest in a large hollow tree or suitable nest box 10-60 feet above the ground, lining the nest sparsely with soft down feathers. Males have little to do with hatchling care or nesting duties, and females incubate the eggs for 34-36 days. The eggs are plain white but may show a greenish sheen or gloss, and 8-10 eggs are typical for each brood. Wild muscovy ducks lay only one brood per year, but domestic breeds may lay 2-3 broods per year.

    After hatching, the precocial chicks are ready to leave the nest quickly, and the female parent continues to care for and guide the hatchlings for 70-85 days.

    Attracting Muscovy Ducks:

    Wild muscovy ducks are not a backyard species, but preserving local habitat and suitable nesting sites can help attract them to an area.

    Domestic muscovy ducks are often purchased as Easter ducklings and can be great pets or farm animals if they receive proper care. In urban areas where the ducks are abandoned or escape, feral colonies can quickly become a nuisance and may be culled by the authorities.

    Conservation:

    Muscovy ducks are not at risk for severe population declines, though hunting activities in their native range can affect overall numbers. It can also be critical to preserve the genetic purity of wild muscovy ducks so the increasing spread of feral colonies does not intrude on the wild ducks' stability.

    Similar Birds:

    • Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus)
    • Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
    • Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)
    • Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
    • Spur-Winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis)