For those interested in poultry options beyond the chicken…
Although they do not need to swim, ducks do need regular access to standing water to stay healthy. Ducks need to be able to dunk their heads while feeding to keep their eyes and nostrils clean. With that said, ducks are notorious water lovers, and they thrive when they can wander around a pond. It drowns most pests. It lets them evade predators much better. It allows a duck to be a duck! In an ideal situation, ducks will have access to swim, but at a minimum, they need regular and plentiful access to water. Most breeds of domestic duck don’t fly, but they still have the potential. Fencing that keeps chickens in will typically work well for ducks, too. Just avoid the classic chicken wire, as this can harm the duck’s feet if they try to climb. Ducks are typically thought of as meat or egg or dual-purpose birds. Some ducks can be really large (like the Appleyard, Aylesbury, Pekin, Rouen, and Saxony), some ducks can be prolific egg-layers (like the Runner Duck laying 180-200 eggs per year!), but all ducks are rather beautiful, will lay eggs, and will produce fine meat for the table.
As a boy growing just outside of Miami, I had wild populations of Muscovy ducks living all around me. I can’t even tell you the number of lost Muscovy ducklings I found and reintroduced to a mother. I did a pretty good job of locating the probably mother, but the ducks never seemed to mind if the duckling was close enough in age to their own ducklings. We never thought of these ducks as anything other than nuisances, because they pooped all over the place… our porches, carports, cars, etc. But I do remember a little, old Hungarian widow who lived down the street from us who would collect and eat Muscovy eggs. We thought she was gross and weird at the time, but now I wonder how much “old world” wisdom she could have taught us.
Technically, the Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) is a “dabbling duck” like the other domestic ducks. However, all other domestic ducks originate from the mallard group (the Anas genus), and almost all come from one species, Anas platyrhynchos; whereas the Muscovy is distinct. It is from the Cairina genus. Other than the name and genetics, Muscovies act differently than other domestic ducks. They originate from Mexico, Central America, and South America, so they are not quite as cold-hardy as some other domestic ducks, but they are pretty adaptable. They do graze a bit like geese, but they are wonders at catching flies, other insects, worms, and slugs. While not mute as some would suggest, they are not “quackers”. The ducks will give a quiet “coo”, and the drakes will hiss.
The Muscovy is typically raised for its meat. The carcass is sold in Europe and the UK as a Barbary Duck. And while they are almost all sterile, like the hybrid mule, the offspring of Muscovies and Pekin Ducks are known as Moulard Ducks and are highly prized for a gourmet meal.
Geese need water just like ducks (see above), and their fencing needs are similar as well. Domestic geese originate from two different species. Most descend from the European Greylag Goose (Anser anser), but the African Goose and the Chinese Goose, with their notable knobby heads, descend from the Asian Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides). Geese are raised for their meat and fat. When raised on pasture, as they were designed to live, I firmly believe goose fat is one of the most tasty and healthful fats with which to cook. Geese can be raised on grass alone. They make excellent “watch” animals, as they can be loud and aggressive with whatever they deem as a threat. This is something to keep in mind when taking small children around new geese! When raised in a mixed species flock of chickens and geese, predator loss is significantly decreased. Also note that geese can live for a long time, and a 20-year-old breeding pair is not uncommon.
Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are native to North America, and all domesticated turkeys originate from this bird. Currently, and this may change, all turkeys are considered one breed, and there are numerous “varieties” of that one breed. It is important to note that the commercial turkey is drastically different than the heritage turkeys. Commercial turkeys cannot mate or produce fertile eggs without artificial insemination, they are extremely susceptible to diseases and infections, and would never last long in a pasture on its own. The heritage turkeys are the exact opposite, and these would be the only turkeys I would recommend for a homesteader (commercial or not). Now, it is said even with heritage turkeys that turkey poults (chicks) are very frail and are susceptible to all forms of dying, but that once out of the brooder, nothing can kill them. And this holds true with every single person I have spoken to who has raised turkeys. My advice is to ease into turkeys, and add more birds as your experience and success grows.
The most common guinea fowl raised domestically is the Helmeted Guinea (Nimida meleagris). There are a large variety of colors available, but these birds are all loud and active. They make excellent “watch” animals, and their all-dark meat is delicious. They are known to “go feral”, so it is important to make sure these birds identify your property as their home – there are many techniques for this. Guineas are also voracious eaters of insects, especially known for tick control. I do not feel that these are birds for all homesteads and Permaculturists, but if you don’t have close neighbors and have the time and patience to train the birds to see your property as home, then guineas can be a wonderful addition. The Vulturine Guinea (Acryllium vulturinum) and the Crested Guinea (Guttera pucherani) are two other, less common species that are also kept, and may eventually be utilized on the homestead.
I mention quail for a few reasons. Quail have great meat and eggs. They are easy to keep in small places. The biggest issue I have with keeping quail is that almost every system for raising them seems so unnatural. Almost every single system is a cage system. I hate caging chickens, so I have a hard time with treating quail the same. Yes, I understand that keeping any animal in a fenced area and providing some or all its feed is not entirely “natural” either, but I think most people can see a marked difference between the life of a pastured chicken and that of a cage-confined chicken. Now I have seen some pastured quail systems that look like they should work, but I have not seen anyone doing this long-term, so I don’t know if it is truly sustainable. Also, these systems are all designed for raising quail for meat, which I have no issue with at all. But I do like quail eggs. Unfortunately, quail have been so domesticated that they lay eggs anywhere, whenever the urge hits them. Because of this, most cage systems are set up with a slanted floor allowing the eggs to role to one side for collection. This is a very convenient system, but again, not very natural. I have not seen a practical, non-caged system for quail egg production yet. If anyone has some good information on non-caged systems, or caged-pastured systems (similar to Joel Salatin’s chicken tractors) that have been continued for more than one or two seasons, and therefore proving that the system is sustainable to the birds and the producer, I would love to see it.
Pigeons and Doves
Ever since I saw dovecotes being used when I lived in Turkey, the idea of raising pigeons and doves has intrigued me. They are primarily raised for their meat (young birds are called squab). For more information on pigeons and doves, please see my article A Brief Intro to Dovecotes and Raising Doves and Pigeons on my old site.
Pheasants and Partridges
The Common or Ring-Necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), the Hungarian Partridge (Perdix perdix), and the Chukar (Alectoris chukar) are the most commonly raised. These birds are actually all part of the Pheasant Family (Phasianidae) which also includes chickens, quail, and peafowl; however, most people group these birds together because they are primarily raised for hunting. The Common Pheasant is considered a delicacy, while most others are considered fair flavored. I have not heard of anyone raising these birds in any sort of Permaculture model, but it is possible for sure.
Peafowl and Swans
While both peafowl and swans can be used for meat, they are generally only used for ornamental purposes. These elegant birds can easily live for 30+ years. While these birds don’t typically fit into Permaculture systems, adding a few of these birds for their beauty alone may be worth it if you have the time and the space.
There are quite a number of ostrich farms around the world. Meat, eggs, feathers, and skin (leather) are all products these animals provide. Ostriches can weigh over 300 lbs (135 kg) and stand up to 9 feet (almost 3 meters) tall! Ostrich meat is quite good, very similar to beef. I have never had an ostrich egg – one ostrich egg is equivalent to 20-24 chicken eggs! Like most commercial/modern agricultural operations, most ostrich farms are not ideally suited to producing the healthiest products or the happiest animals. I do think ostriches can play a role in certain sustainable systems, possibly even in rotational grazing systems with mixed species. We need some innovative thinkers to work on solutions for this.
This native of Australia has been farmed for their meat, oil, leather, and their beautiful, dark green eggs. These birds are smaller than ostriches, but are still the second tallest bird on Earth, standing at just over 6 feet (2 meters) tall. From my limited knowledge of these birds, they may be a better option for those not wanting to deal with birds as large as ostriches. The oil, rendered from the birds large stores of fat, can be used in a variety of applications, but mainly cosmetics and health products. Because of this, many emu farmers only raise the birds commercially for their oil. The eggs and leather are sideline projects, and the meat is only used by the farmers themselves. This allows a farmer to raise the birds for a product, but not have to worry about all the red tape surrounding food products.
There are not many people raising this South American native right now, and they seem to be a bit more difficult of a bird to keep than the ostrich and emu. They are only a fifth of the weight of an ostrich and stand about 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) tall. Rhea farming, primarily for meat, is a growing agricultural pursuit. As with the ostrich and emu, I think it will take an innovative Permaculturist to design a sustainable system for managing and working with these birds.
Imagine birds over 10 feet tall (3 meters) and weighing almost 900 lbs (400 kg) with a single egg 160 times the volume of a chicken egg. These were the Elephant Birds, a generic term describing species in the Aepyornithidae Family. It is believed that the famous explorer Marco Polo wrote about these birds, and this is likely considering that these enormous birds only went extinct in the 1600′s (maybe even the 1700′s!). Sadly, we will never see these birds alive again let alone consider farming with them. But could you imagine the possibilities?