Cayuga Duck: America’s Heritage Breed

The Cayuga duck is a relatively rare and striking breed of domestic duck and I’m lucky enough to own my own small flock of these beauties. They are one of the few birds that lay black eggs (more on that below) and are a true dual-purpose breed that stands as both a productive layer and a phenomenal heritage meat duck. Developed for the harsh conditions of the finger lakes region, they are a distinctive-looking and hardy breed.

Cayuga Duck Quick Facts

  • Primary use: Dual-Purpose (Meat & Eggs)
  •  Body Type: Medium – Heavy 
  •  Size (Drakes): 6.5 – 8 lbs
  •  Size (Females): 6 – 7.5 lbs
  •  Egg production (Annual): 100 – 150
  •  Starts Laying: Around 26 weeks (6 months)
  •  Egg size: Large to Extra Large
  •  Egg color: Black, becoming lighter through the season to olive green, dark gray, mottled, and white
  •  Origin: United States of America
  •  Conservation Status: Watch

Top Reasons To Choose The Cayuga Duck For Your Flock

  • While the Cayuga was first bred for its flavorful meat, it also lays nearly 150 large eggs yearly, making it a decent all-around breed.
  • Cayuga ducks produce large eggs ranging in color from deep green to olive, mottled, white, and occasionally black. This color is only on the surface of the shell and can be wiped off.
  • These days it is more popular as an ornamental breed due to its striking appearance, and many people keep them as show birds.
  • Cayuga ducks are known to be docile birds, who are generally quiet and friendly, which makes them great for backyard flocks.
  • These ducks are very hardy and can endure cold winters extremely well, thanks to their origin in Duchess County, New York.
  • These ducks live a relatively long life and, if kept for laying or as pets, can reach eight to twelve years.
  • While they can be difficult to pluck, Cayuga ducks have rich, beef-like meat that is considered a delicacy. They are large, meaty birds, good for the table.

As for cons?

If you’re raising ducks for meat, the Cayuga is harder to pluck clean because of the black feathering.

They also don’t lay as many eggs nor do they get as large in size as other dual-purpose breeds.

I raise Cayuga ducks alongside the Saxony, Welsh Harlequin, Muscovy, and Pekin breeds. And soon I’ll be acquiring some Silver Appleyard ducks too.

With the exception of the Welsh Harlequin, which is not a true dual-purpose breed, but rather an exceptional layer — all the above breeds produce more meat and eggs too.

Nevertheless, the meat is truly delicious and worthwhile and I will be continuing to keep Cayuga ducks on my homestead but getting rid of my flock of Welshies.

With their striking black and iridescent beetle-green feathers, these loveable and quiet ducks have quickly become homestead and backyard favorites.

Cayuga ducks were developed in the 1840s. They were originally kept as a meat birds until the end of the nineteenth century when the Pekin took over in popularity due to its size and white feathers which were easier to pluck clean.

Nowadays, more people keep Cayuga ducks in their backyard flocks as ornamental birds due to their popularity as a black duck breed.

It should also be noted that although the Cayuga is entirely black — feet, feathers, and bills — the flesh is not black but just regular white.

(See my article on black chicken breeds if you want to learn about black skinned chickens)

They are also good-natured animals that lay large eggs, so they quickly became a favorite of many small urban farmers.

History & Origins

There’s some speculation about the true origin of the Cayuga duck. One story goes that a man named John S. Clark found two local wild ducks in his mill pond in Orange County, New York, and took these black ducks to the Finger Lakes region of New York, to Cayuga County.

The resulting breed of black ducks with their distinctive green shimmer was named the Cayuga, after the indigenous people of the area.

Some theories claim that the Cayuga does not descend from the mallard, like most domestic duck species, but the American Black Duck. This theory is unlikely, as American Black Ducks are, whereas the Cayuga has black feathers, and the drakes have a distinct tail curl, like a mallard.

Another possible story about the Cayuga’s origin is that it came from a black duck breed from Lancashire in England or could have come from a black strain of Aylesbury ducks.

A different origin story suggests that the Cayuga is descended from the Putian Black Duck from China. They share several characteristics, including plumage color and black feet and bills. They also produce similar-looking eggs.

While we’ll never know the true story of how the Cayuga was developed, in 1874, it was added to the first edition of the American Standard of Perfection and became the number one breed of meat duck in the U.S.

Appearance

It’s no surprise that the Cayuga duck became a sought-after ornamental bird after the American Pekin duck replaced it as America’s top meat bird.

These striking birds make a beautiful addition to a backyard flock and are often kept as show birds and pets.

Cayuga ducks are similar in shape and size to the Aylesbury duck, with white skin, black feathers, and an iridescent emerald sheen. The wingtips may shimmer from purple to green depending on how the sunlight hits them.

Cayuga ducks are a heavy, broad breed with long bodies. Their bills should be slate-black, and their legs should be black with deep black webbing. The drakes have a distinctive curled tail, much like a mallard, and the males are less likely to turn white.

They have curved, graceful necks and a slightly elevated carriage.

As the female ducks get older, some of the feathers may turn white, and it seems that the more iridescent the plumage, the more likely it is to whiten with age.

Ducklings have a fuzzy dark brown down on their bellies that will slowly turn black as the mature feathers develop.

It’s considered a breed defect if the legs are orange, and the males get white feathers. Of course, this is the standard for show ducks, and having pet quality Cayuga ducks with orange legs will not affect your duck’s ability to lay eggs or provide meat.

Personality & Temperament

Especially if they are raised from ducklings, Cayuga ducks make docile and friendly additions to the flock. Cayuga ducks are best kept in trios of one drake to at least two ducks.

While they are generally known for being quiet ducks, some individuals seem to have not received this message, so be aware there is a possibility of some noise. They rarely fly, but the females can take a bit of a flight, especially if frightened.

Cayuga ducks will easily live around ten years if they are kept as pets or laying birds, and they will become attached to their owners over this period.

Eggs

Cayuga duck’s distinctive large black eggs are part of their appeal as an egg-laying breed. The eggshell is not actually black, rather a white shell is covered in a black bloom thanks to a special gland that coats the white egg in pigments.

As the season progresses, the eggs will become lighter and lighter, first turning green and then lightening further.

Cayuga ducks lay between 100 and 150 eggs in a season, and the eggs will usually be dark green to dark gray, though sometimes eggs are completely black. Olive green is the most usual color.

As the egg-laying season continues, eggs will become a lighter, mottled green or grey, and eventually, towards the end of the laying season, you can expect eggs to be white.

Duck eggs are much larger than chicken eggs and usually have a firmer texture when cooked.

Meat

As you can expect from a breed primarily bred for meat, Cayuga ducks have tasty, rich meat with an intense flavor comparable to beef.

They have smaller breasts than other meat duck breeds, but the breast is succulent and complex in flavor.

Because of their dark pin feathers and white skins, plucking Cayuga ducks can be tiresome, and it’s one of the reasons the American Pekin displaced them as the top meat breed.

See my recipe for crispy oven-roasted whole duck.

For an older bird, you can turn the breasts in duck prosciutto and the legs into coq au vin.

Down & Feathers

If you plan to keep Cayuga ducks for meat, it’s well worth saving their down feathers.

Duck down is not quite as warm, insulating, or valuable as premium goose down.

However, it is still an incredible and warm material and you can absolutely use the soft insulating down for pillows and similar.

Cold Hardy

Cayuga ducks are one of the best cold hardy species you can get and they are extremely hardy in winter weather.

We keep our ducks and chickens together and all of our coops are managed using the deep litter method.

However, they will need protection from the elements all the same, and in the summer months need access to shade.

The Cayuga duck makes an excellent choice if you’re farmsteading in the northern states and are considered one of the hardiest domestic duck species.

Free Range

Your ducks should be brought indoors at night, into a closed building or tightly-covered shed or coop that is predator-proof.

Learn how to safely free-range your ducks if you intend to go that route. All of our chickens, ducks, and geese are allowed to roam free and forage during the day but it comes with some special considerations.

a deep red shed converted into a chicken coop sits out in a pasture with blue skies and fluffy white clouds behind it
A typical wooden shed on our property where we house chickens, ducks, and geese.

Care

Their hardiness makes Cayuga ducks easy to look after, but they will require some things to stay in top condition.

Housing

If you are keeping Cayuga ducks in free range, ensure they have access to a pond or body of water. Bring your duck flock in at night to avoid being eaten by foxes and other predators.

Provide your Cayuga ducks with adequate shelter from the sun, and give them a place to stay safe. Poultry and waterfowl are generally messy, and ducks are no exception. Check their bedding regularly, and disinfect the shed or coop as necessary to prevent spreading disease and parasites.

If you follow the deep litter method as I do, you need to be more diligent with ducks as they poop more.

Give them fresh water to paddle in if they cannot access a large pond. A simple plastic kiddy pool will suffice and although it is not a necessity, they will absolutely love it and use it daily.

Their water drinking container also needs to be deep enough for the ducks to be able to submerge their beaks, as this is how they clear their nostrils out.

Feed

Free-range Cayuga ducks will happily forage and get the bulk of their food this way in the warmer months. They will eat slugs, snails, insects, greens, and grains.

You may supplement their food with quality duck or chicken feed and ensure they have access to fresh water.

Ducklings

Do not feed your ducklings on medicated chick feed–they are likely to overdose on it. Instead, feeding them the necessary levels of vitamin b3, also known as niacin, would be best. Without this, they may be stunted and weakened and struggle to walk.

Give them extra clover, peas, millet, and whole grains, or offer them brewer’s yeast at feeding time.

Adult Ducks

Adult Cayuga ducks are omnivorous; if they have enough land to free range, they can get almost 90% of their food by foraging. Foraging helps your ducks get a varied diet and keeps them occupied and happy.

If you don’t have enough land to give them all their food needs, you can supplement their diet with kitchen scraps like vegetable trimming, rinds, fruit, and oatmeal will all go down a treat.

Do not feed your ducks things like white bread too often.

If you decide to get commercial duck feed, you may find it hard to get waterfowl-specific food, but a good all-around crumble or pellet will do.

We choose to feed chicken grower to everyone to make things simple, but there are some considerations you need to keep in mind if doing this. I outline this in detail in my article on feeding ducklings and ducks.

Where To Buy Ducklings

Cayuga ducklings can be obtained from several breeders across America and Canada.

I recommend you start joining duck groups on Facebook and asking around for reputable breeders and sellers of eggs, ducklings, and ducks.

Incubating Eggs (Video)

I have successfully incubated and hatched Cayuga, Saxony, Welsh Harlequin, Muscovy and Muscovy cross ducklings.

You can watch a Cayuga duckling hatch in my short sped-up video on Instagram which will also show you the ducklings as they start to grow and start to live outside.

If you incubate chicken eggs, know that incubating duck eggs requires slightly different conditions.

Final Thoughts

Cayuga ducks make excellent choices for both the homesteader and the backyard keeper looking for an interesting, attractive duck that produces both eggs and meat.

These charming ducks also make good pets and show birds; their friendly nature is a huge draw. While the Cayuga duck was listed as a threatened species not that long ago, the Livestock Conservancy moved them to the watch list in 2020.

Regardless they are still hard to come by in many places, and there is much bad genetic stock out there too so do your homework.

FAQ

Do Cayuga Ducks Lay Black Eggs?

Yes! Cayuga ducks lay very dark eggs at the start of the laying season; sometimes, these eggs are black. It’s more common for the eggs to be olive green in color. As the egg-laying season continues, eggs will become lighter.
The pigment is only a bloom on the egg’s surface and can be wiped off. Ducks that lay darker and black eggs are highly prized and fetch much higher prices.

Are Cayuga Ducks Friendly?

Cayuga ducks are very friendly and make good pets. When raised from ducklings they can become very tame and eat out of your hand. They are sociable and should be kept in groups of other ducks. It is cruel to keep only one duck and it also cruel to keep too many male ducks with female ducks

Will Cayuga Ducks Fly Away?

While they are heavy birds and unlikely to fly away, it is possible. The likelihood is rather low as Cayugas will prefer to stay home. My flock will free range all day, sometimes seeming to completely disappear, but they always return at dusk for their food and the shelter of their coop.

Are Cayuga Ducks Loud?

Cayuga ducks are generally known to be a quiet breed of duck but sometimes can be noisy, especially if they are kept in too small a space and become bored and irritable. As with all ducks, the females are much louder than the males. Most of the time ducks are loud because they are HUNGRY and want YOU to feed them.

Can You Eat Cayuga Ducks?

They are known as tasty meat birds but can be difficult to dress and prepare because of their black feathers. Ducks also have pin feathers that can be dificult to remove if slaughtered at the wrong time. The rich, dark meat is delicious and often compared to beef. The fat is of very high quality and makes tasty gravies and roasted vegetables like potatoes.

When Do Cayuga Ducks Start Laying?

Cayuga ducks start laying between five and six months of age just like most other ducks.

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