Can’t Duck the Issue: The Runner Duck Has a Lengthy Past but an Uncertain Future

April 16, 2010

The mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the most colorful and common ducks in the United States, being found in wetlands as well as city ponds. Many of the ducks migrate across the United States, while others are supported year round by duck enthusiasts.

Since the mallard duck is the largest of the puddle ducks, it was an early candidate for domestication. Unlike the chicken, which was almost certainly domesticated in India, it is not clear that the mallard duck was domesticated in one place. Rather, it is far more likely that there were multiple domestication events, the descendants of which were transported around the world producing most of the domestic breeds of duck which now exist.

Some of these breeds, known as call ducks, are more compact and louder than their ancestors. In contrast, many of the breeds raised for meat are many times larger than their wild ancestors. Some of the domestic breeds have coloration which is similar to the wild mallard, while others vary in colors from pure white to teal green.

There is one domestic form of the mallard, the Indian runner duck, whose appearance is different from all the other breeds of domestic duck. This duck was domesticated in Java thousands of years ago in a region which was distinguished by its intense rice cultivation. It seems that the original motivation in raising these ducks was to use them to clear the rice paddies of vermin. While ignoring the rice, these ducks would energetically hunt the insects and snails which could ruin the entire rice crop if left unchecked. After eating their fill, the ducks were then kept for the night in cages which were suspended over water. In the morning eggs were collected and the ducks went back to the rice paddies. An abnormal placement and construction of this duck’s femurs resulted in it having abilities which would have been fatal in nature but were much prized by the rice farmers of Java.

The runner duck, unlike its ancestor the mallard, does not waddle but rather it walks. It is not encumbered by its own bulk and is able to travel over great distances at considerable speed. As a result, it was easy to herd these ducks from their housing to the rice paddies which contained the most vermin. The runner duck stands upright, which allowed many more to be housed in small cages than would be the case with the more horizontal ancestors. The runner duck was bred for elongated features allowing the bird to maneuver in the rice paddies, stretching its neck between the stalks and consuming the snails and insects nestled in the most hard to reach places. The vertical construction of the runner duck also facilitated the ducks having one of the highest rates of egg production in the United States, although constantly competing with chicken breeds such as the Rhode Island red and the Leghorn.

In the early 1900s, the runner duck was a popular breed in the United States. It was said that some of the ducks were able to sustain an egg production as high as 300 per year (certainly enough to rival a chicken). However, runner ducks need much more protein in their diet than chickens. It is estimated that it is five times more expensive to produce a duck egg than a chicken egg. With the decline of small farms and the falling costs of eggs, people began to stop raising these ducks. Currently, very few of these birds are raised in the United States, mostly by hobbyists who are intrigued by their unique features.
OU certified companies have considered raising these ducks and their hybrids. Before certification could be given it was necessary to purchase a pair to evaluate their kosher status. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the white Indian runners which were known to be of pure ancestry are almost non-existent in the United States (although other varieties are more common). Of the less than one dozen breeders who had significant flocks, only Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Center in Oregon had a pair available. This pair was purchased by the OU and evaluated by the rabbinic authorities. It was determined that the birds were of mallard stock, and like the mallard the white Indian runner duck as well as its eggs could be certified kosher.

The runner ducks were delivered to my house in Long Island. In order to evaluate their permissibility, it was necessary to take the birds to the rabbinic authorities at the OU office in Manhattan. I take the Long Island Railroad to work every day, and since there is no policy regarding the transportation of ducks I decided to try my luck on the train. To make sure the ducks didn’t get out of control, my neighbors and colleagues at the OU, Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler and Rabbi Michael Morris, assisted me.

As we were sitting on the train with a pair of runner ducks, as one might imagine we attracted quite a bit of attention. I don’t know if it was three rabbis seated together, the ducks, rabbis with ducks, or perhaps some sort of combination of these factors. People began to ask questions and we explained that we were transporting very rare domestic ducks to the OU office so that their kosher status could be evaluated.

People began to notice how beautiful and docile the runner ducks were. As people began to gather and ask questions about what made these birds special, I described their unmatched level of egg production as well as their long history as domesticated birds. As the train pulled into the station, we began discussing how these ducks would probably be gone in the next few years, along with so many other breeds which have long been raised by people.
The next day, one of my neighbors sat next to me on the train and told me that he had been thinking about the ducks. Placing some bills into my hand, he asked me to further research the possibility of using these ducks to teach people not only about kosher food but also about conservation. With the money, I purchased a Sportsman Egg Incubator. Skeptical about the whole process, in particular whether these incubators were appropriate for amateur breeders, I collected eggs every day and following advice gleaned from the Internet, placed the eggs in the incubator in fourteen-day intervals.

This was a mistake and the hatch rate was rather low, but over time dozens of ducklings were produced. They were donated to children’s zoos in various camps and summer retreats in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York. They were raised by the zoo staff or the campers and served to help large numbers of children (and maybe their parents as well) learn about Jewish law, nature and conservation.

Two pairs are currently maintained by the OU to be used in presentations teaching people about the identification of kosher avian species. These ducks continue to lay eggs, which go straight into the incubator to be sent to schools and camps waiting to adopt, raise and learn about these birds.
Rabbi Chaim Loike, OU’s bird specialist, serves as OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator servicing egg, spice and chemical companies. His fascinating BTUS features on the pigeon, partridge, peacock and birds of the Bible continue to elicit much interest and positive feedback. Rabbi Loike co-stars with his exotic birds in the much acclaimed DVD “Kosher Birds: Who Are They?” as part of OU Kosher’s expanded educational outreach. He has also visited many schools as part of the “OU Kosher Coming” programs, as well as many of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus colleges, where he enthralls students and faculty alike with his birds and knowledge.


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