Imagine the inverted handle of an umbrella atop a bowling pin (or a wine bottle, if you will). That’s the svelte profile of a Runner duck, named for the waddle-free gait imposed by a thighbone so short, the birds stand always erect.
Runner ducks originated in Indonesia. Their erect carriage was particularly well suited for their daily commute to the rice paddies, where they foraged for insect pests without disrupting delicate seedlings. The breed was imported into England around 1835 and later into the United States.
Today, John Reynolds pastures his Runner ducks among 100-plus varieties of organically managed fruit trees on Daring Drake Farm, in New York’s Finger Lakes. “I wanted a breed able to forage with not a lot of input from us, that would still produce a fair amount of eggs,” he says. “Being that they’re so light, their consumption of supplemental feed is pretty low.”
The duck’s taste for slugs and bugs has also made it a vital weapon for curbing the plum curculio, a weevil that overwinters in soil or ground litter. “It’s one of the worst pests for apples and plums,” says the orchardist, who has kept Runners for more than a decade. “After the ground thaws, you can see the bill divots--the ducks will scratch down 2 inches to get those insects in the early spring.”
When they arrived in the United States late in the 1800s, Runners claimed just two hues: white and fawn. What they lacked in feathery pizazz, however, the hens made up with their egg-laying prowess. At an average of 300 eggs annually, their productivity rivaled that of the best chicken breeds. Today, these hearty descendants of the Mallard boast plumage in black, chocolate, and even blue, but selection for flashy plumage over the past century has come at a cost: Today’s top layers produce just 200 eggs in a year.
Even so, says Reynolds, the thrifty breed earns its keep. With shells in pearly white, blue-green, and even the occasional sooty black, the eggs fetch top dollar at farmers’ markets. And unlike some of the other breeds in his flock, the Runners’ excitable nature lends itself to herding. “That works to your favor,” says Reynolds. “They don’t become as tame, and they run from perceived threats, including me. At night I just have to get behind them and walk them toward the barn door.”
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, December 2013/January 2014