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July 21, 2011

How Do We Know Pekins Originate from Wild Mallards?

We have read that all domestic ducks (with the exception of Muscovy) originate from wild Mallards.  But how do we know that?

Charles Darwin wrote in 1883 that the middle four tail feathers curl upward in the males of only one breed of wild duck, the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).  This characteristic of a curly feather on the male is in all domestic ducks.  He felt, therefore, there was little doubt that the wild Mallard was the parent of all breeds of domestic duck.

                                       Notice the black, curly feather on the male's tail.

Are there similarities in growth, maturation and body composition between Mallards and domestic ducks?  Yes. 
  • The maturation rate of Mallards and domestic ducks is very similar.  Both can lay their first eggs at about 20 weeks of age. 
  • In commercial breeder operations the ratio of males to females is also very similar - about five females to every male to maintain peak fertility.
  • Both Mallards and domestic ducks achieve mature body weight by about 12 weeks of age when both their primary and secondary wing feathers are mature.
                                Note the white, curly feather on the male Pekin duck.

In the wild, a female Mallard does not actively feed her ducklings and she may travel great distances to find feed.  The ducklings must feed themselves and keep up.  Therefore, thigh and leg muscle and bone, along with webbed feet, must develop rapidly to not only travel looking for food but to swim and escape predators.  Mallards and Pekins are very similar as theynormally achieve 80% of the mature weight and length of leg bones and muscle by 28 days of age!  They need these legs early!

On the other hand, breast meat weight, as a percentage of adult weight, is less than 20% by 28 days!  This is not surprising as Mallards don't have mature feathers until they are 12 weeks of age so there is no rush to get a large breast for flying until then. Pekins are also slow in breast meat development.

If you think of all the variety of domestic ducks, from the large Pekin to the slim, upright Runner, it is astounding that they all originate from the wild Mallard.  A great deal of genetic work has occurred over the hundreds of years to achieve such a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

Much of this information came from an excellent book I just received,  Domestic Duck Production - Science and Practice.   I have ordered ten copies from the publisher in England and will blog its availability once it arrives.  It is written for the commercial egg and meat producer but has fascinating background information on ducks, too.


  1. I am trying to breed an almost 5 month old Peking Drake with 2 of the same age peking ducks. I just read somewhere that the Drake should be at least 10 months old for fertility. I put my first batch of eggs into the incubator today and I was wondering if they will end up as non-fertile eggs.

    1. They can be fertile at five months. But normally the first eggs laid are less fertile than those several weeks later. Good luck!

    2. Yes, I agree with John as last summer, I started incubating my first springs duck eggs and the first 14 eggs were all infertile. It is better to have an egg turner and an air circulating fan and not incubate in hot rooms with no air conditioning as it causes too many heat flutuations. This year, I was able to buy my first egg turner and it is great not having to worry about turning eggs. The temp so far is a steady 99.5 degrees on the 5th day of the first 2013 batch. I hope this 18 eggs gives me a good percentage of hatched ducklings. I also have 7 ducks that were born in about August through Sept of 2012 and they are still not laying their eggs. Do you think they will start when the weather warms better? 3 of last springs ducks are now laying and I have one duck laying continually all winter with an almond shaped egg I used and still use for food only. I collect three each day now and use the two rounder ones for hatching.

  2. Please do not ever speak of ducks in terms of commercial or meat. How can anyone harm someone as adorable as a duck?