Cayuga Ducks

Craig Russell

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 2010, 15(3):3-4

Several British writers have recently weighed in on the Cayuga's history. Mostly, they have pointed out that a black Cayuga-like duck was found in Lancashire, England, during the 19th century. While some of these ducks may well have reached America and some may even have become amalgamated with Cayugas, there is no reason to doubt the traditional version of the Cayuga's history.

Jonathan M. Thompson bases his attack on the traditional view largely upon an undated account of a Reverend Dr. John Bachman, of South Carolina. Reverend Bachman obtained eggs of the Black or Dusky Duck in New York State and apparently bred them extensively and spread them to other poultry keepers. Bachman considered young Black Ducks far superior as table fare "to the more celebrated Canvasback Duck." Bachman also reported that he had three female hybrids between a male Black Duck "and the common domestic duck." While they all laid eggs, "the following spring, not one of these proved impregnated." Thompson points out that "this evidence has never been included by any writers on the history of the Cayuga Duck."

According to Mr. Thompson, the traditional view of the origin of the Cayuga is that "it is descended from either pure America Black Ducks (Anas rubripes; syn. A. obscura) or a result of hybrids between that species and the Mallard or some domesticated variety."

Obviously, if the hybrids are not fertile, the traditional view is wrong. Even the idea that Cayugas are simply selected Black Ducks fails, since Cayugas are fully fertile with other Mallard-type domestics. However, there is a reason American writers have excluded Reverend Bachman's account. Those that were familiar with it knew enough about Black Duck domestic hybrids to know that the Reverend's results were not typical. Such hybrids not only are usually fertile, but they also show hybrid vigor. It is probably worth noting that Reverend Bachman does not describe the common domestic duck and in 19th century South Carolina, they could have been Muscovys. If so, the expected results would be as the Reverend describes.

While I have no reason to doubt either the Bachman or Thompson accounts, Thompson's view of the traditional view covers more ground than is usually traditional. I had not previously heard the idea that Cayugas were simply selected Black Ducks. While such ducks would be fully fertile with Mallard derivatives, the idea fails because Cayuga drakes have curled sex feathers, like Mallards; Black Ducks do not. The Mallard X Black Duck cross, while common even in the wild, are simply intergrades of the wild patterns. I have had experience with Black Duck domestic hybrids and can tell you that such hybrids, with white domestics, are the basis for Cayuga development. This is confirmed not only by the recent (more or less) experiences of myself and others, but also by the fact that many early Cayugas are reported to have shown considerable white.

My personal experiences with such hybrids began in 1961. Until that time my only ducks were Muscovys. Late in the summer between 6th and 7th grades, friends brought me other ducks. Folks from the strawberry farm where I picked in the spring had found a lost Mallard duckling by the Susquehanna River. I had not seen "Duck" since June, but when they dropped her off, the dark coloration and purple wing bar told me this Mallard hen was a Black Duck. The next day another friend brought me his Easter Pekins, Donald and Daisy, who turned out to be Donald and Donald. I added them to the duck yard, where Duck seemed pleased to have company that was rather like herself. I had never planned it, but a Cayuga project was quickly taking shape.

In the spring of 1962, I had to separate Duck and one of the Donalds for fear that she would be hurt under two battling drakes. I had already been thinking about a Pekin hen, so when I took some chicken eggs to Fairview Hatchery, I asked Mr. Arndt if he would sell me one of his breeders. Tony took me out to his duck pen and pointed out a light colored commercial Rouen standing by a Pekin and said he had just received them as "a gift" and if I wanted them, I could have them. I noted they were smaller than his breeders, but the price was right and two is better than one. The second Donald was thrilled and I built another breeding pen. Actually the Rouen's offspring add some insight to the Cayuga story

Duck laid 14 eggs in her nest box and went to setting. The result was 14 black ducklings, shading lighter on the lower body. The other hens laid lots and lots of eggs, some of which went back to the hatchery and a good many of which went to breakfast. Both finally went broody and were given good-sized clutches, but the Pekin only hatched a few and the Rouen hatched 7 or 8 and raised 7. The Pekin ducklings were, of course, yellow; the crosses were black with yellow fronts. When they feathered out, as adults, they were black with white bibs that, in most cases, ran well up the necks. These birds were dull black except for the heads of the males, which had a green sheen. Duck's kids varied from completely black to pied birds, with more or less white. The placement of the white was rather random, and in all cases, black predominated. All black areas had a green sheen, and it was absolutely brilliant on the males. The males had an indication of sex feathers, but they were not as well developed as those of a Mallard or Mallard derivative. It was Duck's ducklings that convinced me I had a Cayuga project on my hands.

From 5 drakes and 9 hens, I kept the 2 pure black drakes and 7 hens, excluding only the two with the most white. In 1963, the F2s varied in size and color. Some were almost as small as Duck and some were almost as large as Donald. In color, I had everything from wild colored (like Duck) to mostly white. However, most were either solid colored or a mixture of black and white. Perhaps because I had used solid black males, I never did get a pure white duck among the F2s.

For 1964, I kept the pure black F1s and most of the large, solid black F2s. Some of both sexes had brown under the wings and some hens had wild colored feathers on the lower body. I also kept only the males with the curled sex feathers. After 1963, I never had even a partially white bird, or a male without normal sex feathers.

I had considered using some of the Rouen crosses in my Cayuga project, but because of the relative lack of sheen, did not do so. However, I did do a breeding with those crosses and got white ducks, mostly white ducks, Rouen-colored ducks and a lot more black ducks with white fronts, but never produced a solid black bird.

It was during this time that I became enrolled in the "Bruce Lentz-Dale Rice Feed Bucket School of Poultry Selection." When they came each fall to help me cull my young stock, they took great interest in my Cayuga project. Dale and Bruce knew another breeder in York County who had already established a Cayuga strain in much the same way, using a Black Duck drake with an injured wing and Pekin females. He had then obtained a Cayuga drake to breed to his cross females, which is but still another example of what Black Ducks and white domestics can produce.

In retrospect, I probably could have started both my own Black East Indies strain and a large-sized Black Duck-like population, but I was thinking of Cayugas and that is what I did. By 1965, I had established a typical Cayuga population.

I probably should add that after a few years, the females started to develop areas of white and some long-lived girls were pure white, except for dark bills and feet.

Further evidence of why these ducks are called Cayugas and not Lancashires dates to 1966. That year, I went to Canada with a church group for a canoe trip. On the way, we stopped at a picnic area along Lake Cayuga. The ducks looking for a hand out were mostly Blacks, but the flock included a few Mallards, Pekins and a good number that looked like my hybrids at home. Cayugas may only be half Black Duck and dating at least to the early 1800s, and the originals were probably not part Pekin, however they are true Americans.





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