If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck. Or a wigeon, which is also a duck. Ducks are everywhere in Eugene, but they are so much part of our Oregon landscape that we often walk right by them with barely a second glance. But because, through a quirk of history, the University of Oregon’s sports teams compete on the national stage as waterfowl, and through a quirk of Nike the UO has tried to make these spatulate-beaked waddling avians into muscled fighting machines, EW would like to call attention to some of the wonders of Anatidae Anseriformes: the ducks.
According to Kevin Roth, a wildlife biologist at Fern Ridge Wildlife Area, about 20,000 to 30,000 ducks pass by Eugene along the Pacific Flyway each year, and many Lane County residents get up in the dark hours of dawn in hopes of bagging one of these ducks that may migrate along the flyway for 1,000 miles to land in the Beaver State: wood ducks, mallards (the most common one you’ll see, Roth says), American wigeons and northern pintails to name a few. According to Oregon State’s Bruce Dugger, an associate professor of wildlife, ducks are popular as domestic birds; as wild animals they bring a number of ecological benefits, and across the world many are endangered. Dugger wonders what would happen if the UO put its mascot money where its mouth is and started an effort to save the ducks. And as football season draws to an end with the Ducks playing in the Fiesta Bowl, duck-mating season is on the way and that opens up a whole other can of worms about the wild world of ducks.
Duck, duck, webfoot, goose
Dave Holderread of Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center, located in the Cascade foothills outside Corvallis, wrote the book on ducks. Literally. His Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks has been in print in one incarnation or another since 1978. Holderread, who has been raising ducks since he was in elementary school, says interest in farming ducks has increased in the past 10 to 15 years. The city of Eugene has recently begun discussing increasing the numbers of ducks, chickens and other backyard farm animals it allows in response to the increased demand for local food production.
Holderread has about 50 breeds of ducks and other waterfowl on his farm and says, “Ducks are much more versatile than chickens — and I have nothing against chickens.” He says ducks are more resistant to parasites and diseases and “they are a bird that are perfectly happy in a totally wet environment, which chickens abhor. Ducks are out there like, ‘Isn’t this cool?’”
Holderread adds, “It just kind of makes me chuckle the way people struggle with chickens. There’s a bird made for this climate, and it’s not chickens.”
Ducks share the same bird family (Anatidae) as geese and swans. There are no invasive ducks in Oregon, according to Dugger, though there is at least one invasive swan — the mute swan — listed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
Holderread writes in his book that there are two distinct species of duck that are commonly domestically raised — mallards and muscovy ducks. Muscovys are slightly less water repellant and most domestic muscovys can still fly. Muscovys also have “talon-like toenails,” Holderread writes, enabling them to perch in trees. Mallard wing sizes do not increase when the domestic birds are bred to be larger and so most domestic mallards can’t fly. Ironically the UO mascot, derived from Disney’s Donald Duck is the pekin duck, “bred to sleep, eat and grow really fast,” and are so big they don’t get around really well, Holderread says. Pekins, the typical white duck you see portrayed in pop culture, were bred in China from mallards.
GoDucks.com features an explanation of how the UO came to be the Ducks, saying that the students originally called themselves Webfooters after some patriotic New Englanders who made their way west and because the state of Oregon used to be called the Webfoot State before switching to the Beaver State in 1909. But according to a 1952 article in Western Folklore called “The Constant Webfoot,” that’s not quite right. The Webfoot moniker was originally a derogatory nickname Californians gave gold miners from Oregon that was later taken on as a point of pride. The author, Hazel Mills, writes that rather than an official state nickname, the Oregon Development League and Oregon Press Association “jointly condemned the use of ‘Webfoot’ as descriptive of the state” in 1906.
UO students had a publication called “Webfoot” in 1901, a name they later dropped — perhaps due to the anti-Webfoot backlash — but by 1926 the Emerald was calling the football and basketball teams the Webfooters. This lasted until 1932, Mills writes, when the students voted to use the less grammatical Webfoots. At some point in the 1950s, accounts vary, Webfoots was changed and shortened to Ducks; The Oregonian’s headline writers are often blamed. Thanks to a handshake deal with Walt Disney — the proof is in a photo of him wearing a Donald Duck Oregon jacket hanging out with Puddles — the UO mascot became a fat, white Donald-type duck.
In 2002 Nike apparently thought it would be a good idea to make the UO Duck a little less fat and slow, and “Mandrake,” a black-clad muscled duck creature who sported the Nike “O” and whose costume matched the futuristic football uniforms, was introduced. The tougher duck mascot didn’t last a year and it’s porky Puddles that’s gotten more than six million YouTube hits for his “Gangnam Style” parody. Despite the Oregon team’s roboduck-like appearance, it seems that pekin-duck Puddles, bred for meat and eggs, not for speed, will be their man for the time being. The Disney agreement was made official in 1978 and the Duck was freed of its tie to the Disney trademark in 2010, only three years after infamously tea-bagging the Houston Cougars’ mascot.
A rare breed
Holderread has been raising heritage ducks since before anyone was calling them heritage ducks. Heritage breeds are traditional livestock breeds that have become in danger of disappearing as large agricultural operations concentrate on animals that have high output in a controlled environment. Holderread and his wife, Millie, moved to Oregon in the 1970s and began to breed ducks that had become difficult to find as farming moved from “extensive farming,” where the livestock foraged for much of their feed, to intensive more factory-farm type situations. “It was a struggle because there wasn’t much interest in them, but we made a go of it,” Holderread remembers of his start in saving dying-out duck breeds.
When choosing a duck, he says, “I tell people to choose whatever looks attractive to you in the realm of breeds that are recommended for what your main purpose is.” He adds, “Color-wise, I can never predict what people will like — they are like jewels.” Ducks are raised mainly for their meat and their eggs, though their down is also prized.
Holderread says people often think ducks have stronger-tasting eggs, but he says that depends on what the birds eat. Foragers, ducks will eat plants and seeds, but Holderread says ducks will also eat slugs and snails, small fish and minnows and those “impart a distinct flavor.” Fed a similar diet to chickens, the duck eggs will not taste any different. But, he says, duck eggs are “nutritionally higher in everything than chicken eggs.”
Last year there was a flurry of press about people raising the ancona duck, a heritage breed that was about to disappear when Holderread and Millie got hold of a breeding pair 30 years ago and introduced the breed to the U.S. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy still lists anconas as “critical” on its conservation priority list, but Holderread says their current popularity and increase in numbers led him to sell his flock to other breeders and concentrate on other waterfowl with lower numbers. Holderread says that from saxony ducks to silver appleyard, “basically everything we have at this point we still consider rare enough for there to be some concern over.”
Anconas are spotted, no two ducks alike, and they were popularized by Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. Deppe, also of the Corvallis area, raises anconas she got from the Holderreads and extols their virtues in her book.
Deppe, a biologist, likes anconas in part because she has observed these ducks to be “socially matriarchal,” and Holderread says, “I don’t know if it’s because I am a male or what, but that is not something I would have thought of.”
Given that ducks in the last couple years have been making headlines for their penis size and for “forced copulation” (rape was found to be a bit too loaded a term when you’re talking about ducks), a breed of ducks where the female duck is in charge sounds pretty good for backyard duck farming. Male or female, ducks are all called ducks, but when you are specifically referring to a male duck, it’s a drake.
F*ck a duck
If you want to see wild ducks (or hunt them), Fern Ridge Wildlife Area is a seasonal home to ducks that fly thousands of miles on their migrations, ODFW’s Roth says, and corn and other types of grains are grown for the waterfowl out at the reservoir. When hunting season closes and breeding season begins the area becomes more of a sanctuary. And judging from recent studies on duck mating habits, a little sanctuary might be sorely needed. There are a lot of fun factotums about ducks, OSU waterfowl prof Dugger says. There are 25 species of duck that appear regularly in Oregon (the diversity is highest at migration) where they help disperse seeds in wetlands — bulrush, millet, sedges and grasses. There aren’t invasive ducks here that drive out other fowl, but mallards released elsewhere in large numbers have caused problems. He says that mallards, released in the tens of thousands, may have contributed to the decline of the American black duck.
Dugger says most birds don’t have penises, but ducks do. And not only do they have penises, those penises are sometimes as long as the duck itself. And corkscrew shaped.
“Why on God’s Earth would you have a corkscrew-shaped penis?” Dugger asks. He says out of the scientific context, the penis-measuring work might seem a little pervy, but it’s actually pretty cool. He says the theory is that female ducks evolved corkscrew-shaped vaginas in order to avoid unwanted advances from males.
“Most people in a park have probably seen forced copulation,” Dugger says. Or if you see three ducks flying by erratically and “it looks like they’re drunk” and you looked at them through binoculars it would be two males and female: “Her and her mate and this other guy trying to cause problems.”
“We used to say ducks are monogamous,” Dugger says, “and by and large that’s right,” but female ducks can lay a clutch of eggs that were fertilized by more than one male. Not only that but Dugger says some ducks don’t lay all their eggs in one basket — they will deposit eggs in other duck nests to be raised by other mothers. He says this could be due to the mother not being in good enough physical condition to hatch her eggs, or because she is in such good shape she lays too many eggs to hatch by herself.
A Yale professor named Patricia Brennan and Kevin McCracken of the University of Alaska have done a lot of the duck sex research, Dugger says. Brennan used high-speed video to capture the “explosive eversion” of the corkscrew muscovy duck penises. The ducks keep their penises tucked away, “nothing hanging down,” Dugger says, and then forced eversion means it “essentially explodes, and takes less than one second to go from zero to 6 inches.”
Brennan got the ducks to explode those penises into mineral-oil-lubricated glass tubes where she discovered that “duck vaginal complexity functions to exclude the penis during forced copulations, and coevolved with the waterfowl penis via antagonistic sexual conflict.”
Or in other words, female ducks have complex vaginas — complete with dead ends — in order to keep unwanted males from having sex with them and making ducklings. The corkscrew penises also have “keratinized ridges and spines” on them to help the drakes hold on. Receptive female ducks contract and release their oviduct walls in the same way as they would if they were laying an egg, which Brennan speculates helps the “preferred males to achieve full penetration.”
Another of Brennan’s studies showed that some breeds of duck, like the lesser scaup and the ruddy duck, grow longer penises when in competition with other males. The penises then waste away at the end of the breeding season and regrow for the next one.
Ducks for ducks
Dugger’s duck studies may not be as sexy, or to be precise, as sex-oriented, as his duck research counterparts’ penis-measuring work, but one area of his research is on the endangered Hawaiian duck. He says duck populations in Oregon are in reasonable shape, but that’s not the case elsewhere. Dugger might be a Beaver, but he thinks the Ducks could be doing more for ducks.
He points to the University of Missouri’s Mizzou Tigers for Tigers program that works to save endangered Bengal tigers. He says the program, launched in 1999, caught on with other universities that have tigers as mascots and created some momentum for tiger awareness. “I’ve always thought that UO could do that,” he says, calling it a “pretty cool model.”
Oregon may not be the only college with a duck for a mascot — Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. has a duck, too — but it’s the most famous, so why not save endangered animals with that popularity? There are plenty of species of duck that are in trouble, Dugger says, and saving endangered ducks is “an opportunity for a more direct connection to that mascot.” The university could even create an endowed chair for waterfowl studies.
Among the world’s most endangered ducks are the Brazilian merganser, a river duck that faces gold mining, cattle ranching and timber harvesting, and the Madagascar pochard, which was once thought extinct. Duggers’ Hawaiian duck faces loss of wetland habitat and interbreeding with feral mallard ducks.
“Universities could be doing more for raising the status of their mascots around the world,” Dugger says.
Ducks for ducks? It could happen.
Want to buy a duck? A what? A duck. Does it quack?
If you’re interested in raising, collecting eggs from or eating heritage ducks, Boondockers Farm, formerly in Creswell, now in Beavercreek, sells ancona ducks in any size, as well as hatching and eating eggs. Farmers Evan Gregoire and Rachel Kornstein, who purchased all of the Holderreads’ flock of anconas three years ago, say they are down in Eugene every two weeks for dropoffs. You can also find them on Facebook.
To purchase ducks from Holderread Farm and Waterfowl Preservation Center, or find out more about heritage ducks, go to holderreadfarm.com.