One of my absolute favorite things to do in winter is to search for which breeds of chickens and ducks I’ll be investing in for the upcoming year. I enjoy this task so much that it competes with winter activities such as hunting snowshoe hares and ice fishing, which is really saying something.
It wasn’t always this way. When I first began this exciting escapade, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and mistakes were made. So, get a head start by learning through my trials and errors about how to go about buying birds for your flock.
The first time we invested in birds for our backyard flock, my partner and I agreed that we wanted to begin with four ducks. We had read that Indian Runners were a breed that laid eggs prolifically, and so these seemed like a good bet. A few online searches later and we found a seller who claimed they had four Indian Runner ducklings just waiting to find their forever home. It was a long drive to get them but sure as the sky is blue, the cute little ducklings were waiting there for us and came to live at our new homestead.
As they grew up though, it became perfectly clear that what we ended up with were, in fact, not Runner ducks at all. They retained the same exact patterns from when they were ducklings straight into adulthood—a trademark attribute of another breed called Magpie Ducks—after some research we discovered that’s exactly what they were. We got lucky, and it worked out in our favor, but we didn’t think to do more research into what we were getting. This would be a lesson that would plague us again until we learned the next lesson.
I wholeheartedly cannot stress how important this lesson is. It might be the most critical of any of them. Asking questions is what will get you what you want, how you want it, and when you want it. Two years ago, we were in the market to expand the size of our flock of ducks, and I had my heart set on a breed called Silver Appleyard ducks. A beautiful bird with great parental instincts that would add a level of broodiness to our existing flock.
I found an ad online posted by someone who claimed to have purebred Appleyard ducklings for sale, the price of which was significantly above what I was hoping to pay. When I did a little fact-finding through gentle interrogation, it turned out that what I would be paying for was not what I wanted. The birds weren’t purebreds at all. When I declined to embark on the two-hour drive to buy his substandard ducks, the seller became exceptionally irritated and stopped communications altogether.
Building your ideal backyard flock isn’t just an investment; it’s a means to achieving the dream of being a homesteader. Because of that, you should never settle for anything less than what makes that dream come true. I would have inadvertently done just that if I didn’t know what questions to ask, such as the lineage of the breed being sold, or asking to see photos of the parents (this is the question that set off alarms during this particular occasion). Do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you see fit.
This is a lesson that I’ve heard absolute horror stories about but never have experienced firsthand, but I’ll tell you about a cautionary tale from a good friend of mine in Ohio.
She had bought a dozen chickens called Wheaten Americanas, from a farm that had birds all over the place. The hens looked to be in good enough shape, exhibiting no signs of ailment that she could see, so she felt no need to worry.
This was her first time buying this many birds from an outside source and was pleasantly surprised to see the six hens in her current flock get along surprisingly well with the new birds. This didn’t last long though, and within two weeks she was left with 18 dead chickens that, as it turned out, had died from H5N1 (the strain of the bird flu that swept across North America last spring and continues its spread). This extremely unfortunate circumstance could have been avoided if a few biosecurity measures had been taken.
For example, when bringing new adult birds home, it’s a very good practice to quarantine them for a minimum of two weeks somewhere that the rest of your flock can’t access them. After two weeks, any illness would have revealed itself, so you can incorporate those healthy birds into the flock. This measure isn’t necessary with chicks and ducklings because you’ll have them in a brooder for multiple weeks before they’re allowed to mingle with your other birds, though segregating one batch of chicks from another that weren’t born together is also a smart practice.
For those wondering, the flu that killed her birds was traced back to the sellers’ domestic Pekin ducks that contracted it from wild waterfowl that shared a pond together during their northern migration. The sellers’ ducks made out fine, exhibiting no signs of illness, but the chickens and a small flock of turkeys they owned didn’t fair as well.
This kind of ties into the whole “do your research” category, but not entirely. When I buy my birds, I have plans and backup plans, starting with how many males versus how many females will be sticking around. Generally, as a means to save space, money, and feed, we cull the vast majority of the male birds from our flock, only saving one or two for specific breeding purposes. That doesn’t mean that the females of any given breed are safe from the freezer, either. Aggressive behavior is often a one-way ticket to the butchering block around our homestead, especially if it’s toward our dogs or us. But it’s also important to understand that when we buy birds, they’re all destined to become food for us eventually, with very few exceptions.
So, we buy birds based on that. Which breeds are dual-purpose birds? I don’t want a chicken that will reach eight pounds in six weeks but can no longer walk by the time it gets there. I want a breed that will put on weight, lay eggs, forage voraciously, retain a calm disposition, and potentially go broody so that I don’t have to buy birds next year. That’s what I want to accomplish, and there are breeds out there that will do this, but it took three years for me to pinpoint exactly what it was I hoped to achieve, and through a lot of trial and error.
If you have your heart set on something, be prepared to wait for it. This is especially true if your goal is sourcing hard-to-find breeds specifically. I wanted Cayuga ducks but had to wait almost a year and a half to find the right ones, but it was more than worth the wait. They’re gentle giants that lay charcoal-colored eggs and are unbeatable on the dinner table—they ended up being better than I ever expected. I was happy I waited.
Next year I will almost certainly invest in turkey poults, rabbits, and a breed of chicken called Buff Orpingtons, but only if I can find them within reason. Patience is a virtue, and the one thing that any of my misfortunes have taught me is that mistakes are made when things are rushed.