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A Report on the Duck Industry in the USA

Juliet Gellatley (BSc Zoology)
US Editor and Researcher: lauren Ornelas



Viva! has researched and investigated conditions at U.S. ducks farms. What we have found is that today's duck breeding and rearing methods are as cruel and oppressive as those adopted by the post-war chicken and turkey industries. Ducks have been driven out of the fields and into intensive sheds - they have joined the ranks of the other factory-farmed animals.

Most farmed ducks are derived from the wild Mallard, who naturally care for their young for up to eight weeks. Today's commercially farmed ducklings are slaughtered before they even reach that young age - at around seven weeks.

Poultry scientists have 'perfected' selective breeding and have engineered fast growth rates so that this brief period of life offers the maximum profitability - in a species with a potential lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

Intensive sheds house thousands of ducks. Lighting may be both dim and almost constant. According to duck 'growers,' there are two major problems with intensive duck production: feather pulling (also known as feather pecking) and lesions of the feet and legs (1).

The lives of these essentially aquatic birds consist of pushing their way through the mass of other birds to get to pelleted food and water nipples or other drinking points. They can never swim. Webbed feet, evolved for swimming, and bills brilliantly designed to sieve food particles from rivers and ponds, are both entirely superfluous. In the pursuit of profit, the industry has overlooked duck welfare.

Size of the U.S. industry

In the U.S., ducks represent a minor sector of the poultry industry compared to broiler chickens and turkeys. According to the latest figures in 1999 almost 24 million ducks were slaughtered (2) - up from almost 22 million ducks in 1997 (while some 8 billion chickens and around 290 million turkeys are slaughtered annually in the U.S.) (3). According to the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS - branch of the USDA) almost all ducks are raised indoors (4).

An agriculture extension in Minnesota also states that most ducks are produced under confinement on specialized duck farms in a few commercially important duck production areas. (5)

And according to Maple Leaf Farms, the largest producer of duckling in North America, in their first year in 1958 they processed 280,000 ducks. Today, they produce nearly 14 million per year (6). The Duckling Council reports that 95% of duck consumed is Pekin followed by 2-3% Muscovy and 1-2% Moulard (7).

Types of ducks

All domesticated or farmed ducks originate from the Mallard, with the exception of the Muscovy which has distinct origins in South America. Farmed ducks are therefore broadly divided into two types: the Mallard-type (Anas platyrhynchos) and the Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata). The Mollard (also know as Moulard) is used for the infamously cruel production of foie gras (8).


Largely aquatic, wild Mallards are omnivorous, obtaining their food from both land and water. They can fly at speeds of up to 50 mph and migratory ducks travel thousands of miles. Even the domestic Mallard is able to fly for several miles (9).

There are several breeds of ducks bred for meat which have all descended from the Mallard - for example, the Pekin, Aylesbury and Rouen.

The Pekin (the most popular duck eaten in the U.S.) originated in China, where breeding has been carried out over many centuries. This duck has creamy white feathers and the bill and legs are deep orange (10).

The wild Mallard is claimed to be the 'meatiest of ducks' with low fat. In order to increase the size of the Mallard, producers use large breeding strains. Therefore, farm raised Mallards are larger than those in the wild (11).


The Muscovy (or Barbary) originated in South America and is robust and hardy, capable of adapting to varying climates. Muscovy ducks are omnivorous, feeding on plants, worms, insects, fish, amphibians and reptiles. They feed by filtering in water, foraging and up-ending. The wild birds fly, swim and walk well.

The Muscovy grazes like a goose and the males have no curled feathers in the tail, which distinguish the sex in other breeds of domesticated duck. There are no feathers on the face and the skin is bright red. The drake has a knob on his head which gives the appearance of a crest. The feathers come in variations of black, white and blue. Neither sex has a voice and their means of communication is by hissing. They have both claws and webbed feet. The incubation period is 34-36 days, as opposed to 28 days in other breeds. If a Muscovy is mated to other breeds the offspring are sterile.

A feature of this breed is that the male is twice the size of the female. Muscovies bred with Mallard-type birds are more even in size and hardier than the pure Muscovy.

Farmed Muscovies have retained many anti-predator responses such as freezing, alarm-calling, attempting to take off or running rapidly away from danger, and vigorously struggling if caught. Males and hybrids frequently fight, using their claws, wings and beaks (12).


Mollard (also known as the Moulard) is a cross between the Muscovy and the Pekin or other common ducks. This is the type of duck used for foie gras (or liver pate). They are a sterile hybrid because of the difference in chromosome sizes between the two parents (13). Birds such as ducks and geese are used in the production of foie gras.

The birds are force-fed in order to increase the size of their livers (14).

According to a 1991 investigation carried out in New York, three times a day, workers entered small duck pens in a factory-farm building. The workers grabbed the ducks one at a time, held them down, forced open their bills, and shoved a long metal pipe down their throats all the way to their stomachs. Each worker was expected to force-feed about 500 birds three times a day. Many ducks died when their stomachs burst from overfeeding (15).

Intensive confinement

In intensive sheds, a duck's life is largely confined to finding feed and water points. Often these are close together, requiring little walking. The consequent lack of exercise can cause stunted bone growth and this is frequently observed in young ducks. The size of the shed can also have a bearing, as ducks are very active and tend to move through the whole area. This is, however, influenced by flock size. Traditionally, a maximum flock of 200 was advised, as larger flocks were known not to perform as well as smaller ones. Flock sizes of thousands are now common (16).

According to one recommendation, "for the first three weeks, allow 2 square foot of space per duckling on wire and 1 square foot per duckling on litter. If confinement rearing is practiced, increase the floor space to 2.5 square feet per duckling through 7 weeks of age. Ducks should be given at least 1.5 linear inches of feeder space and 0.5 linear inches of waterer space per duckling at all times (17)."

Stranded ducks. In crowded conditions, ducks get knocked over by other birds and are often unable to right themselves. Even when put back on their feet they take some time to reorient themselves and they need to be watched for a while to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again. In the packed conditions of a shed containing up to 10,000 birds, it is likely that stranded ducks go unnoticed. They may be trodden underfoot by other ducks and die from injury or starvation. Cannibalism may follow, either before of after death. Cannibalism is caused by stress.

Bill trimming (debeaking)

Factory farm conditions cause ducks to feather pull (or peck). Ducks pull and eat feathers from one another, although ducks have also been observed pulling their own feathers. This can occur in semi-confinement systems but is more common in total confinement systems (18). New feathers which grow from the follicles from which the feathers were pulled are difficult to remove.

In an attempt to deal with this problem, bill heat treatment (BHT) or bill trimming is practiced (commonly known as debeaking). BHT and bill trimming result in the shortening of the upper bill relative to the lower one, which prevents the duck from grasping feathers.

BHT burns end of the upper bill by bringing it in contact with a stationery blade on an electric debeaker. It is performed when the duck is hatched. However, bill trimming may still be performed once ducks are older if the upper bill has partially regrown (19).

Bill trimming is done by cutting at the upper bill with a blade on an electric debeaker or with scissors. This is supposed to be done when ducklings are about 7 days old and have established their eating and drinking habits (20). Scientists have shown that the duck's bill, including the very tip, is richly innervated (supplied with nerves) with sensory receptors and so this procedure is "traumatic to the bird" (21).

The UK government's Ministry of Agriculture states that beak trimming is carried out to stop feather pulling, the causes of which are "overcrowding, lack of water, sporadic feeding and use of pellets" - all directly due to factory farming (36). The Ministry acknowledges that "the affected ducks can suffer pain." (36)

It is known that "the use of outside runs considerably reduces pecking" (21), however, rather than change the conditions under which birds are kept to reduce aggression, the mutilation is sanctioned despite powerful evidence that it causes birds acute pain and seriously affects their behavior. It can lead to a reduced effectiveness of pecking, reduced feedback from the beak, and general inactivity.

In regards to the Muscovy, the Institute for Small Animal Research states: "trimming of the beak, involves an operation on a sensitive region which is painful and may be assumed to cause restrictions to the function of the beak, at least until the wound has healed." They found that even if wounds heal, "there is no functional substitution for lost structures. The loss of Herbst's corpuscles and blood sinuses severely impaired the function of the beak as a probing organ (22)."

Another form of pecking can occur in flocks of breeding Muscovy ducks. This pecking is directed at red regions, namely the cloaca. In addition, it is becoming "increasingly common to observe females harassing males by nipping their penis, sometimes to the point of irreversible mutilation, before it has retracted after mating." It is believed that this abnormal behavior is caused by a poor environment and overcrowding (23).

Viva! ends duck debeaking in Britain

In December 1999, Viva! launched the Ducks out of Water campaign in the UK. Within six months, Viva! ended the debeaking of Muscovy (Barbary) ducks. Six national supermarket chains withdrew all meat from debeaked birds, meaning that no UK chain now sells it. The UK supplier of Muscovy duck meat has been forced to make changes to their production systems as a result of consumer pressure. At the beginning of Viva!'s campaign, Kerry Foods stated that debeaking was 'essential' because of the 'aggressive and wild' nature of Muscovy ducks. However, in July 2000, the company did a U-turn, stating that: 'debeaking is not necessary'!

By offering a little environmental stimulation and breaking up flock size, Kerry Foods have managed to reduce aggression amongst birds without resorting to cutting off their beaks. This painful mutilation was unnecessary from the start. Unfortunately, Muscovy ducks are still intensively reared and suffer greatly (38).

Wire flooring

Most floor designs in total-confinement duck housing use either wire mesh, or litter and wire mesh. The wire mesh is usually placed over a concrete pit with a sloping design so that washing down or collecting manure is easier (24).

Keeping ducks on wire results in abrasions, bruises and tears in the area of the hock, shank or foot pad. Painful staphylococcal and streptococcal joint infections are the common result (25).

The factors that determine the extent of injury on these surfaces (wire floors or other non-resilient or abrasive surfaces) are the body weight and length of time the ducks are kept on them (26).

Slatted floors

Worse than wire floors are slatted floors, which increase leg deformities (27). In 1994, the journal, International Hatchery Practice, reported a visit to the Grimaud Freres (Farms) company, based at La Corbiere in France. All ducks reared for meat were being kept on slatted floors for their 12-week lives (28). Grimaud Farms of California imports 3,000 eggs every 18 months from France to insure the genetic superiority of their breeding stock in the U.S. (29).

Food and drinking water

There are various systems for providing drinking water. Recommendations are that the ducks be allowed free access to feed and water at all times, and that it is given to them through means of feeders, water pans and water nipples (30).

Water nipples were devised for chickens and are not suitable for ducks - an aquatic bird that needs to drink larger amounts and to be able to use the water for cleaning. Water nipples are small protrusions from a pipe that dribble tiny amounts of water at any one time. They prevent the ducks from being able to fulfil the most basic need of taking up water in the beak so that it can be shaken over the body. Water nipples are often used by the duck industry so that birds do not wet litter and increase ammonia emissions.

Many other countries, including the UK, do not use water nipples for ducks.

The European Unions Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals for Farmed Purposes 1999 states: "Access to an outside run and water for bathing are necessary for ducks, as water birds, to fulfil their biological requirements. Where such access is not possible, ducks must be provided with water facilities...designed to allow water to cover the head and be taken up by the beak so that the duck can shake water over the body without difficulty. The ducks should be allowed to dip their heads under water." (37) The U.S. duck industry is lagging behind other countries in providing basic welfare.

Ducks naturally feed on seeds, plants, insects and worms on land and planktonic organisms from water. Farmed ducks are fed a monotonous diet of pelleted corn and soybeans fortified with vitamins and minerals (31).

Water denied

Producers in the U.S. do not supply intensively-reared ducks with water for swimming. Recommendations are to give them plenty of drinking water but to "use waterers that the birds cannot get into and splash." They add that swimming is not necessary (32).

Because of their aquatic nature, water deprivation represents a serious welfare problem for ducks. Not being able to rinse their eyes in water contributes to opthalmia, a low-grade infection in one or both eyes often called 'sticky eye' (33).

The UK government's Ministry of Agriculture states that if ducks cannot immerse their heads: "their eyes get scaly and crusty and, in extreme cases, blindness may follow" (36).

Behavioral patterns

Sadly, ducks are able to fulfill few of their natural behavioral patterns. In the U.S., intensive duck production in total confinement housing is most common (34). They can never swim or carry out the many other activities to which water is essential and for which they have evolved over millions of years. In some systems, they cannot immerse their heads in water.


Preening is an important behavioral pattern in all birds and in ducks involves immersion in water. Feeding is followed by bathing, after which they carry out a variety of shaking movements to remove the water from their bodies. Cleaning movements then remove foreign bodies and an elaborate sequence is carried out to distribute oil on the feathers from the uropygial gland above the tail. This is necessary for waterproofing and heat regulation. Preening is often followed by sleeping for a short period - and the sequence of feeding, preening and sleeping may be repeated a number of times during the day. Important elements of bathing are the immersion of the head and wings in water and shaking water over the body (35).

It would be mistaken to assume that the lack of water for swimming has bred-out the instinct to preen. Given the correct conditions, ducks quickly revert to natural behavior and keep pristinely clean, unlike the often heavily-soiled ducks in factory farms.

References (part one)

1. Scott, Milton, Ph.D. and Dean, William F., Nutrition and Management of Ducks (Ithaca, NY: M.L. Scott of Ithaca, 1991), 17.
2. Ducks and Geese Slaughtered in USDA Inspected Establishments Period: FY 1999. Information obtained through a FOIA to FSIS (June 2000).
3. United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Agricultural Statistics 1999, (United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1999).
4. United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Consumer Education and Information, July 1996. www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/duckgooos.htm.
5. University of Minnesota Extension Service, FS-1189-GO, Reviewed 1994. www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/livestocksystems/DI1189.html.
6. Maple Leaf Farms, About Maple Leaf Farms, duck facts. www.mapleleaffarms.com.
7. Duckling Council, White Pekin 101, www.duckling.org.
8. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 50 and Maple Leaf Farms.
9. The Guinness Book of World Birds (ISBN 0851 12 8912).
10. Ducks and Geese. MAFF, Reference Book 70. 1986.
11. Maple Leaf Farms, www.mapleleaffarms.com.
12. Council of Europe - Recommendation Concerning Moscovy Ducks & Hybrids of Muscovy & Domestic Ducks, Article 2h, 1999.
13. Ibid, Article 2i
14. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 50 - 51.
15. "The Grief Behind Foie Gras," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. www.peta-online.com.
16. "Influence of walking distances and flock size on performance of ducks," World Poultry-Elsevier, 15, no. 4 (1999).
17. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University, College of Agricultural & Life Science, Poultry Science Facts, Feeding Ducks, 4/90, 10/2/98. www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/techinfo/4Fact02.htm.
18. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 27.
19. Ibid
20. Ibid
21. Raud, H. & Faure, J.M., Welfare of Ducks in Intensive Units, Rev. Sci. Tech. Off. Int. Epiz., 13 (1), 125-129, 1994.
22. Matthes, S. & Marquardt, G., Histology of the Moscovy Duck's Beak with and without Trimming, Institute for Small Animal Research, Dornbergstr 25-27, 3100 Celle, Germany.
23. Raud & Faure, Histology of the Moscovy Duck's Beak with and without Trimming.
24. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 16.
25. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 17.
26. Ibid
27. Ibid
28. International Hatchery Practice, Vol. 8, No. 7, 1994.
29. Grimaud Farms of California, Company History. www.grimaud.com
30. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University, College of Agricultural & Life Science, Poultry Science Facts, Feeding Ducks, 4/90, 10/2/98. www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/techinfo/4Fact02.htm.
31. United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Consumer Education and Information, July 1996. www.fsis.usda.gov/oa/pubs/duckgooos.htm.
32. Geiger, Glenn and Biellier, Harold, Department of Animal Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia, Brooding and Rearing of Ducklings and Goslings, 1999. http://muextension.missouri.edu/xplor/agguides/poultry/g08920.htm.
33. Holderread, Dave. Raising the Home Duck Flock, A Complete Guide (Charlotte, Vermont: Garden Way Publishing, 1978, 1991), 131.
34. Scott and Dean, Nutrition and Management of Ducks, 12.
35. European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, Domestic Ducks, Article 3e.
36. Ducks and Geese. Ministry of Agriculture UK, Reference Book 70. 1986.
37. Council of Europe Standing Committee of the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes, Recommendations Concerning Domestic Ducks, 22 June 1999.
38. Ducks out of Water, Viva! UK, 1999.


Report Contents

Part One

Size of the U.S. industry
Types of ducks
Intensive confinement
Bill trimming (debeaking)
Viva! ends duck debeaking in Britain
Wire flooring
Slatted floors
Food and drink
Water denied
Behavioral patterns
References (part one)


Breeding ducks

Amount of living space
Sexual patterns
Forced molting
Duck eggs
Parent stock
References (part two)


The Government and ducks

The legal position
References (part three)



Electrical stunning
Stunner failings
Boiled alive
References (part four)


Disease patterns

Medicated feeds
Global diseases
Diseases of intensification
References (part five)


Duck suppliers

Maple Leaf Farms
Grimaud Farms
Metzer Farms
Culver Duck
Some of the Major supermarkets stocking duck meat
References (part six)


Global resources

References (part seven)