Muscovy Duck – Cairina moschata
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The Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) is a large duck native to Mexico, Central, and South America. Small wild and feral breeding populations have established themselves in parts of North and South America as well as in?New Zealand, Australia, and in parts of Europe.
They are a large duck, with the males about 76?cm?long, and weighing up to 7?kg. Females are considerably smaller, and only grow to 3?kg, roughly half the males’ size. The bird is predominantly black and white, with the back feathers being iridescent and glossy in males, while the females are more drab. The amount of white on the neck and head is variable, as well as the bill, which can be yellow, pink, black, or any mixture of these. They may have white patches or bars on the wings, which become more noticeable during flight. Both sexes have pink or red wattles around the bill, those of the male being larger and more brightly colored.
Although the Muscovy duck is a tropical bird, it adapts well to cooler climates, thriving in weather as cold as ?12??C and able to survive even colder conditions. In general, Barbary duck is the term used for C. moschata in a culinary context.
The domestic breed, Cairina moschata forma domestica, is commonly known in Spanish as the pato criollo (“creole duck”). They have been bred since pre-Columbian times by Native Americans and are heavier and less able to fly long distances than the wild subspecies. Their plumage color are also more variable. Other names for the domestic breed in Spanish are pato casero (“backyard duck”) and pato mudo (“mute duck”).
All Muscovy ducks have long claws on their feet and a wide flat tail. In the domestic drake (male), length is about 86?cm?and weight is 4.6?6.8?kg, while the domestic hen (female) is much smaller, at 64?cm in length and 2.7?3.6?kg in weight. Large domesticated males often weigh up to 8?kg, and large domesticated females up to 5?kg.
The true wild Muscovy duck, from which all domesticated Muscovys originated, is blackish, with large white wing patches. Length can range from 66 to 84?cm, wingspan from 137 to 152?cm and weight from 1.1?4.1?kg in wild Muscovys. On the head, the wild male has short crest on the nape. The bill is black with a speckling of pale pink. A blackish or dark red knob can be seen at the bill base, and the bare skin of the face is similar to that in color. The eyes are yellowish-brown. The legs and webbed feet are blackish. The wild female is similar in plumage, but is also much smaller, and she has feathered face and lacks the prominent knob. The juvenile is duller overall, with little or no white on the upperwing. Domesticated birds may look similar; most are dark brown or black mixed with white, particularly on the head. Other colors such as lavender or all-white are also seen. Both sexes have a nude black-and-red or all-red face; the drake also has pronounced caruncles at the base of the bill and a low erectile crest of feathers.
C. moschata ducklings are mostly yellow with buff-brown markings on the tail and wings. Some domesticated ducklings have a dark head and blue eyes, others a light brown crown and dark markings on their nape. They are agile and speedy precocial birds.
The drake has a low breathy call, and the hen a quiet trilling coo.
Male Muscovy ducks have spiralled penises which can become erect to 20?cm (7.9?in) in one third of a second. Females have cloacas that spiral in the opposite direction to try to limit forced copulation by males.
The term “Muscovy” means “from the Moscow region”, but these ducks are neither native there nor were they introduced there before they became known in Western Europe. It is not quite clear how the term came about; it very likely originated between 1550 and 1600, but did not become widespread until somewhat later.
In one suggestion, it has been claimed that the Company of Merchant Adventurers to New Lands traded these ducks to Europe occasionally after 1550; this chartered company became eventually known as the Muscovy Company or “Muscovite Company” so the ducks might thus have come to be called “Muscovite ducks” or “Muscovy ducks” in keeping with the common practice of attaching the importer’s name to the products they sold. But while the Muscovite Company initiated vigorous trade with Russia, they hardly, if at all, traded produce from the Americas; thus they are unlikely to have traded C. moschata to a significant extent.
Alternatively?just as in the “turkey” (which is also from America), or the “guineafowl” (which are not limited to Guinea)?”Muscovy” might be simply a generic term for a hard-to-reach and exotic place, in reference to the singular appearance of these birds. This is evidenced by other names suggesting the species came from lands where it is not actually native, but from where much “outlandish” produce was imported at that time.
Yet another view?not incompatible with either of those discussed above?connects the species with the Muisca, a Native American nation in today’s Colombia. The duck is native to these lands too, and it is likely that it was kept by the Muisca as a domestic animal to some extent. It is conceivable that a term like “Muisca duck”, hard to comprehend for the average European of those times, would be corrupted into something more familiar.
The Miskito Indians of the Miskito Coast in Nicaragua and Honduras relied heavily on this domestic species. The ducks may have been named after this region.
“In English, it is called The Muscovy-Duck, though this is not transferred from Muscovia [the New Latin name of Muscovy], but from the rather strong musk odour it exudes.”
In English however, musk duck refers to the Australian species Biziura lobata.
In some regions the name Barbary duck is used for domesticated and “Muscovy duck” for wild birds; in other places “Barbary duck” refers specifically to the dressed carcass, while “Muscovy duck” applies to living C. moschata, regardless of whether they are wild or domesticated. In general, “Barbary duck” is the usual term for C. moschata in a culinary context.
This non-migratory species normally inhabits forested swamps, lakes, streams and nearby grassland and farm crops, and often roosts in trees at night. The Muscovy duck’s diet consists of plant material obtained by grazing or dabbling in shallow water, and small fish, amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, insects, and millipedes. This is a somewhat aggressive duck; males often fight over food, territory or mates. The females fight with each other less often. Some adults will peck at the ducklings if they are eating at the same food source.
This species, like the mallard, does not form stable pairs. They will mate on land or in water. Domesticated Muscovy ducks can breed up to three times each year.
The hen lays a clutch of 8?16 white eggs, usually in a tree hole or hollow, which are incubated for 35 days. The sitting hen will leave the nest once a day from 20 minutes to one and a half hours, and will then defecate, drink water, eat and sometimes bathe. Once the eggs begin to hatch it may take 24 hours for all the chicks to break through their shells. When feral chicks are born they usually stay with their mother for about 10?12 weeks. Their bodies cannot produce all the heat they need, especially in temperate regions, so they will stay close to the mother especially at night.
Often, the drake will stay in close contact with the brood for several weeks. The male will walk with the young during their normal travels in search for food, providing protection. Anecdotal evidence from East Anglia, UK suggests that, in response to different environmental conditions, other adults assist in protecting chicks and providing warmth at night. It has been suggested that this is in response to local efforts to cull the eggs, which has led to an atypical distribution of males and females as well as young and mature birds.
For the first few weeks of their lives, Muscovy duckling feed on grains, corn, grass, insects, and almost anything that moves. Their mother instructs them at an early age how to feed. Feral Muscovy ducks can breed near urban and suburban lakes and on farms, nesting in tree cavities or on the ground, under shrubs in yards, on apartment balconies, or under roof overhangs. Some feral populations, such as that in Florida, have a reputation of becoming nuisance pests on occasion. At night they often sleep at water, if there is a water source available, to flee quickly from predators if awoken.
Muscovy ducks had been domesticated by various Native American cultures in the Americas when Columbus arrived in the Bahamas. The first few were brought onto the Columbus ship Santa Maria they then sailed back to Europe by the 16th century.
The Muscovy duck has been domesticated for centuries, and is widely traded as “Barbary duck”. Muscovy breeds are popular because they have stronger-tasting meat?sometimes compared to roasted beef?than the usual domestic ducks which are descendants of the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). The meat is lean when compared to the fatty meat of mallard-derived ducks, its leanness and tenderness being often compared to veal. Muscovy ducks are also less noisy, and sometimes marketed as a “quackless” duck; even though they are not completely silent, they don’t actually quack (except in cases of extreme stress). The carcass of a Muscovy duck is also much heavier than most other domestic ducks, which makes it ideal for the dinner table.
Domesticated Muscovy ducks, like those pictured, often have plumage features differing from other wild birds. White breeds are preferred for meat production, as darker ones can have much melanin in the skin, which some people find unappealing.
Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic preparation made from Muscovy duck liver and heart manufactured by the French company Boiron; similar products are also available from other manufacturers. Typically diluted with lactose and sucrose to 1:10400 (far less than one in one googol), they are advertised to relieve influenza-like symptoms, but no evidence has been found of its efficacy.
A study examining birds in northwestern Colombia for blood parasites found the Muscovy duck to be more frequently infected with Haemoproteus and malaria (Plasmodium) parasites than chickens, domestic pigeons and domestic turkeys, and in fact almost all wild bird species studied also. It was noted that in other parts of the world, chickens were more susceptible to such infections than in the study area, but it may well be that Muscovy ducks are generally more often infected with such parasites (which might not cause pronounced disease though, and are harmless to humans).