Muscovies at play

There are few things prettier than a duck with natural wings flying around a barnyard. But is it the best decision to allow your ducks to fly free, or should you clip their wings?

(It should be noted that not all domestic breeds of ducks can fly. The only flying domestic breeds are Muscovies, Mallards, and the small bantam breeds such as Calls.)

Most domestically-raised ducks will not leave their home if they are raised there and have a food and water source. But there are some inherent risks to leaving a duck’s wings unclipped.

Risks

  • Hunters. If you have neighbors who like to shoot things, there is always the unfortunate possibility that someone may decide to shoot your ducks–either while they are flying overhead, or if they land on your neighbor’s property
  • Roaming. While ducks usually fly a “circuit” around their home and land again, some may be tempted to land elsewhere to explore a new food or water source. This means your ducks may disappear at any moment and you won’t know when they’ll be back. I had a very unfortunate experience with a female Mallard duck. She went missing during the day and I couldn’t find her by the time I put the ducks away for the night. The following morning, I found her headless body outside the duck house. She had returned in the night only to fall victim to a racoon.
  • Roosting. If you have Muscovy ducks, their natural instinct is to roost on top of the highest place they can find. This may mean your Muscovies will decide to hang out in trees, on the barn roof, or even on top of your house! It is nearly impossible to get these passive ducks to leave their roosting spots, and it makes them vulnerable to night predators.

It’s not all bad, though. There are definite benefits to leaving your duck’s wings unclipped.

Benefits

  • Daytime predators. Ducks who can fly away from an approaching fox or even diving hawk have a better chance of surviving than flightless or clipped ducks.
  • Happiness. Many flying breeds seem to genuinely love to fly. You will sometimes see a duck with clipped wings running along flapping its wings and trying to fly. They do adapt to a “grounded” life, but if it will bother you seeing a duck deprived of one of its natural instincts, it may be better not to clip.
  • Self-sufficiency. If you leave your ducks loose and don’t confine them at night, such as ducks who live on a pond on your property, choosing a natural breed that can fly may give them a better chance of taking care of themselves.

In order to clip a duck’s wings, you simply take a pair of scissors and snip off five or so primary flight feathers from one wing (not both). You can leave the two feathers on the wing tip to give your duck a more natural appearance. Wing clipping does not hurt! Just remember, wing clipping has to be repeated every year after the duck’s molt or they will begin flying again.

There is a more permanent form of wing clipping called pinioning. This procedure can be done to newborn ducklings and some hatcheries offer it. However, I am not a supporter of pinioning. It drastically changes the appearance of ducks (they only have half their wing) and seems cruel to me, since it is essentially a form of mutilation. I can see the benefit for large-scale commercial meat ducks, but for the average backyard flock owner, I would recommend the painless and superficial feather clipping over pinioning.

I personally choose to clip my ducks’ wings, even though I love to see them fly. Since I am very concerned with predators and make sure to lock my ducks up every night, it isn’t worth it to me to wonder if they will go missing every day. I do miss seeing them stare down at me from rooftops, but their safety is more important!

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