Rosemary Luff. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, is the most ubiquitous taxon in the subfamily Anatinae of the family Anatidae. It is the ancestor of most domestic ducks, the males of which still sport the ancestral curling feathers of the upper tail (Delacour 1956-64; Gooders 1975; Gooders and Boyer 1986). Because the wild mallard is so widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, it is extremely likely that it was widely utilized by humans and probably domesticated in different areas at different times. The amount of variability in the domestic duck is very small compared with that found in the domestic chicken (Thomson 1964), and it would seem that present-day domestic ducks evolved gradually (Woelfle 1967), in the process becoming larger than the wild type, with much more variety in color, size, and gait (Clayton 1984). Domestic ducks have also lost the ability to fly.

The excellent flavor of duck flesh (as well as the eggs) has been enjoyed from prehistoric times to the present day. An important incentive in breeding ducks for meat has been the fact that they have a fast growth rate and can be killed as young as 6 to 7 weeks of age and still be palatable. A disadvantage, however, is that duck carcasses are very fatty (Clayton 1984).

Ducks are raised in large numbers in many Western countries, such as the Netherlands, Britain, and the United States, although intensive duck production has occurred only in the last 20 years (Clayton 1984). In Britain, most commercial ducks are found in Norfolk (although some are kept in Aberdeen and Dumfries), but these constitute only about 1 percent of all poultry in the country (Urquhart 1983). Ducks are less prone to disease than hens but eat more food. Unfortunately, their eggs are unpopular with British consumers because they are thought to be unclean. Ducks destined for the supermarkets are killed when they are from 7 to 9 weeks old.

It is in the East where fully 75 percent of domestic ducks are found, especially in the Asian countries of Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Burma. Duck meat contains a high percentage (up to 35 percent) of fat, which is in short supply in many Asian diets, and in China, where less meat is consumed on a regular basis than in the Western world, selection is for ducks with a high fat content (Clayton 1984).

Present-day domestic ducks range from the small Call, weighing less than 1 kilogram (kg), to the larger strains of Peking and Aylesbury, weighing up to 6 kg. Ducks can be grouped into three categories: meat producers (Rouen and Aylesbury), egg layers (Indian Runner and Khaki Campbell), and ornamental birds (the tiny Call and Crested ducks) (Delacour 1956-64).The Normandy or Rouen duck is quite similar to the wild mallard and, although common worldwide, is of greatest economic importance in Southeast Asia. The bird has a gamy flavor and in France is traditionally killed by strangulation or smothering, thus ensuring that the flesh retains all of its blood and flavor (David 1970).

Most domestic breeds have a characteristic horizontal posture, but some (as, for example, the Indian Runner), are much more erect, which allows them to run very quickly. The selective pressures that encouraged this erectness are not known, nor are the anatomical changes that brought it about, although droving, common for centuries in the Far East, may be a possibility (Clayton 1972, 1984).

Ducks in the Prehistoric Period

The earliest work on bird bones from archaeological sites was carried out in the mid-nineteenth century at shell mounds in Jutland, Denmark (Steenstrup 1855). Little attention, however, was given to the identification of bird bones from archaeological sites in the Northern Hemisphere until the 1980s, and scant research has been undertaken on the taphonomy of bird bones (Ericson 1987; Livingston 1989). Another problem is that morphological differences between similar bones of different taxa of the Anatidae are not always distinct and clear-cut. Measurements of bones can help to separate them, but frequently no specific identification can be made, especially if the material is fragmentary. Nevertheless, attempts at distinguishing wild and domestic mallard bones have been made, although there are also zooarchaeological problems in such an undertaking. Anatomical differences that may be associated with domestication have been recognized in several late Saxon faunal collections in Britain, including that of Northampton (Coy 1981, 1989). The flattened facet on the anterior aspect of the caput femoris, employed by J. Lepiksaar (1969) for the identification of domestic geese, can also be used for ducks. J. Ekman (1973) applied this technique to remains in seventeenth- or eighteenth-century deposits in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The wild mallard is (and was) highly migratory, with flocks of several thousand birds not unusual (Gooders 1975). Ideally, wild birds are hunted in the late summer and early fall, just after they have grown plump on summer feeding, and prehistoric fowlers generally took the birds at this, their most defenseless period, or while they were molting or nesting in the spring (Clark 1948).

Some Danish Mesolithic wetland sites demonstrate human exploitation aimed almost solely at birds and, in certain cases, seasonal exploitation of just one or a few species. For example, the Mesolithic site of Aggersund on the Limfjord was a specialized camp for the procurement of whooper swans (Grigson 1989).

There are two distinct types of Danish Mesolithic sites. One is the inland bog, associated with the Maglemosian culture of the Boreal age, whereas the other is the coastal midden of the Ertebolle culture of the Atlantic age. The chief Maglemosian sites on Zealand (Mullerup, Svaerdborg, Holmegaard, and Øgaarde) have yielded bird bone assemblages in which the most abundantly represented birds are wild ducks and mute swans. Also represented are grebes, coots, and some sea birds, including cormorants, gulls, and divers of various species (Clark 1948). Marine birds are more strongly represented in the Ertebolle middens. Because of a lack of winter migrants, the Maglemosian sites were probably occupied only during the summer months, but fruitfully so, as evidenced by the presence of cranes and numerous mute swans, as well as young cormorants and sea eagles.

The mute swan and mallard are both resident taxa and remain very common in present-day Denmark (Grigson 1989). Mallards breed all over inland Denmark and molt during the summer in most wetland habitats, usually in small flocks, but occasionally several hundred individuals congregate on large lakes and in densely vegetated marshland.

In addition to the work done in Denmark, we know from efforts in Germany (at Friesack, Land-kreis Nauen) that the Mesolithic (9,700 to 7,000 years ago) bird bone assemblage is dominated by the mallard in all phases (Teichert 1993). In Neolithic eastern Europe (western Russia, the northeastern Baltic region, and northern Poland), numerous bird bones have been excavated from wetland settlements. It is thought that some of these may have been specialized waterfowling sites (Zvelebil 1987). Eighty-nine percent of the bone sample at NarvaRiigikula 3 is composed of waterfowl, mainly ducks. The site is situated on a sandy dune separating a lagoon from the open sea and is on the route of the annual migration of waterfowl between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their winter quarters in southern Scandinavia and northwestern Europe. These wetland sites are of immense importance in preserving bone and plant remains as well as food-processing tool kits—in this case, wooden projectiles with blunted tips—thus making it possible to reconstruct the subsistence strategies of forest-zone hunter-gatherers in a much more comprehensive way than at dry sites.

As was the case in Poland, the wild duck was the chief quarry of the Iron Age inhabitants of Glaston-bury Lake Village in Somerset, England. There, the birds were probably dispatched by clay pellets (also excavated from the site) that were well adapted for use with a sling (Andrews 1917).

Ducks in the Historical Period

The Evidence of Domestication

Southeast Asia is claimed to have been a major center of duck domestication (Zeuner 1963; Wood-Gush 1964), especially southern China, where the birds were kept during the Earlier Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220).The first written records of domestic ducks date back to the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) (Weishu 1989). But according to one authority, the Chinese have had domesticated ducks for at least 3,000 years (Yeh 1980, cited in Clayton 1984), and it is the case that Chinese pottery models of ducks and geese, dating from about 2500 B.C., have been excavated (Watson 1969). However, archaeological evidence of a faunal nature is also needed before any firm conclusions about the antiquity of domestic ducks in China can be reached.

As already noted, Southeast Asia continues today as an important duck-raising area where domestic ducks surpass chickens in economic importance (Zeuner 1963). The duck thrives in watery environments, which promote clean plumage and increased disease resistance. Moreover, in warm, humid climates, with abundant rice paddies and waterways, ducks forage more successfully and produce more eggs than do chickens, which are not fond of this sort of environment (Clayton 1984).

In China, ducks are particularly important in the control of land crabs (which can devastate rice crops); the birds eat the crab nymphs that eat rice seedlings. Ducks are also released into paddy fields to consume locust nymphs, which, unlike adult locusts, are unable to fly. The recognition that ducks are effective instruments in combatting insect pests is probably of great antiquity (Needham 1986).

The main duck taxa winter in southern China and, except during the breeding season, move in large flocks, each consisting of hundreds—or even thousands—of birds. Although many different species of domestic duck have evolved in Jiangsu and other provinces south of the Yangtze River, where duck raising is common, their shapes, colors, and wings still bear much resemblance to those of their ancestors. The well-known Peking duck, for example, evolved through domestication of the mallard. Its feathers have whitened over a long period, but the curling central tail feather shows that the bird is descended from the same ancestor as the domestic ducks in the south (Weishu 1989).

True domestication elsewhere, however, seems to have come much later. Surveying the limited textual evidence (from Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. up to the ninth century A.D.), J. Harper concluded that ducks did not become fully domesticated outside of China until possibly the Middle Ages (Harper 1972).

The pintail (Anas acuta) is the most frequently represented taxon of waterfowl in ancient Egyptian art and hieroglyphics (Houlihan 1986), and such illustrations include depictions of pintails being force-fed. These birds can be tamed easily and remain able to breed (Delacour 1956-64). The widespread marshes of the Nile Delta would have provided excellent wintering grounds for both ducks and geese and, therefore, fowling opportunities for humans. But although geese, chickens, and pigeons are frequently mentioned in Egyptian papyri from the fifth century B.C. onward, ducks are noted only rarely.

Aristotle discussed only chickens and geese in his Natural History, and although Theophrastus mentioned tame ducks, he failed to indicate whether they were bred in captivity (Harper 1972). F. E. Zeuner (1963) has asserted that the keeping of domestic ducks in Greek and Roman times was unusual, though not unknown. Duck-shaped vases have been recovered at Rhodes and Cyprus, both centers of the cult of Aphrodite; they were dedicated to the goddess and to her companion, Eros. Ducks may have been on these islands for religious purposes only.

Several species were kept in captivity by the Romans, who maintained aviaries (nessotrophia) of wild ducks, probably to fatten them for the table (Toynbee 1973).Varro, writing in 37 B.C., was the first to mention duck raising by the Romans, pointing out that ducks should be enclosed to protect them from eagles as well as to prevent their escape (Hooper and Ash 1935). In the first century A.D., Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella provided advice on keeping ducks (mallard, teal, and pochard) and other water-fowl in captivity, which was considered much more difficult than caring for more traditional domestic fowl (Forster and Heffner 1954).

Columella, along with Marcus Tullius Cicero and Pliny the Elder, recommended that the eggs of wild ducks be gathered and placed under hens to hatch. Columella claimed that ducks raised in this way would breed readily in captivity, whereas birds taken as adults would be slow to commence laying. He also stated that duck keeping was more expensive than the raising of geese, which fed mainly on grass (Forster and Heffner 1954). Marcus Porcius Cato mentioned the fattening of hens, geese, and squabs for the market, but not ducks (Hooper and Ash 1935).

Moving from Rome to other parts of Europe, we find that metrical data from Colchester, England (from the first to the fourth centuries A.D.), indicate that length and breadth measurements of mallard wing and leg bones are within the range of variation for wild mallards (Luff unpublished). Similarly, measurements of mallard remains from the Roman fort of Velsen I in the Netherlands were considered to be of the wild variety; length and width measurements of the mallard bones fit perfectly within the ranges of recent wild mallards studied by H. Reichstein and H. Pieper (1986; also see Prummel 1987).

The Saxons may have had domestic ducks, but as yet the evidence is unclear. Remains unearthed at Saxon Hamwih (Southampton) could have been those of domesticated ducks but could also have been those of wild birds (Bourdillon and Coy 1980). However, J. P. Coy (1989) has suggested that the low proportion of wildfowl at Saxon sites in Britain is indicative of the economic importance of domestic birds such as ducks and chickens.

A bit later, in Carolingian France (the eighth to the tenth centuries A.D.), estate surveys listing payments due feudal lords indicate that chickens and geese served as tender far more frequently than ducks (Harper 1972). Similarly, in Germany, the Capitularium de Villis grouped ducks with ornamental birds such as peafowl, pheasants, and partridges, but not with chickens and geese, kept for purely economic reasons (Franz 1967).

The scarcity of wildfowl was most likely significant in hastening domestication. Early medieval England, for example, had apparently witnessed a wholesale slaughter of wildfowl in spite of Acts of Parliament specifically aimed at their conservation, and in 1209, King John, finding insufficient game for his personal falconry, issued a proclamation forbidding the taking of wildfowl by any means (Macpherson 1897). Statutes were also passed by Henry V, and again by Henry VIII, against the destruction of wild-fowl. Interestingly, in the price controls of the Poulters’ Guild in London, dated to 1370, a distinction was drawn between wild and tame mallards (Jones 1965).Wild mallards were more expensive than tame ones, which suggests that wild birds were more prized than farmyard birds and indicates their general scarcity at that time.

Jean Delacour (1956-64) has suggested that the mallard may have become truly domesticated in Europe only in the medieval period—although, of course, prior to the distinction made by St. Hildegaard (twelfth century) between wild (silvestris) and domestic (domesticus) ducks (Figure II.G.9.1). Certainly, the latter were being reared in France by the end of the fourteenth century, when the Ménagier de Paris (c. 1390) also distinguished between wild and domesticated ducks (Prummel 1983).

Nonetheless, ducks of domestic origin are uncommon in archaeological contexts of the medieval period (Eastham 1977; Maltby 1979). At early medieval Dorestad (Netherlands), some ducks were larger than others, indicating that they might well have been domesticates (Prummel 1983). However, the majority of remains at that site probably derived from wild specimens, because their measurements fall within the range for modern wild mallards (Woelfle 1967). Many mallard remains from late medieval Amsterdam measured even larger than those from Dorestad, once again suggesting the presence of domestic ducks among the Dutch (Prummel 1983). But by contrast, at Haithabu in northern Germany, duck remains have been firmly identified as deriving from the wild variety (Requate 1960; Reichstein 1974), which was also the case at eleventh- and twelfth-century Grand-Besle, Buchy, Normandy (Lepiksaar 1966-8).

Although domestic ducks are often identified in archaeological deposits from the sixteenth century onward, they did not increase dramatically in size until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when distinct varieties were recorded. Methods of rearing ducks were modeled on those mentioned by classical authors. G. Markham, for example, in the seventeenth century described ways of keeping wild mallards, teals, widgeons, shellducks, and lapwings that were very similar to those mentioned by Columella (Markham 1614).

In the eighteenth century, breeders began to promote and further develop certain traits for frequent egg laying or rapid growth for meat production, and sometimes breeds were crossed to produce hybrids suitable for both purposes (Batty 1985). Other varieties were used mainly as ornamental birds to decorate gardens and park ponds.

Aspects of Domestication

S. Bökönyi has emphasized the differences between “animal keeping” and “animal breeding,” with the former occurring without purposeful selection or the control of feeding, whereas the latter involves the deliberate selecting of specific traits for animal breeding and also control of nutritional intake (Bökönyi 1969).

There are a number of possible reasons why duck domestication in the West lagged so far behind that of the goose and chicken. One is that goslings accept the first living creature that they see as their mother, whereas mallards, who imprint through sound, do not do this. For them it is the call note of the mother that is important in identifying her (Lorenz 1964). Consequently, ducks were much less amenable to domestication, and the Roman idea of placing wild duck eggs under hens to hatch them into domesticity was off the mark because it did not go far enough.

Interestingly, the Comte de Buffon (Georges Louis Leclerc), who authored 32 volumes of Natural History, explained how such a procedure did work:

Eggs taken from the reeds and rushes amidst the water, and set under an adopted mother, first produced, in our farm-yards, wild, shy, fugitive birds, perpetually roving and unsettled, and impatient to regain the abodes of liberty.These however after they had bred and reared their own young in the domestic asylum became attached to the spot and their descendants in process of time grew more and more gentle and tractable, till at last they appear to have relinquished and forgotten the prerogatives of the savage state, although they still retain a strong propensity to wander abroad. (quoted in Bewick 1826)

Another reason for what appears to have been tardy domestication in the West has to do with temperature. S. Bottema (1989) has pointed out that domestic fowl in the Near East always have larger numbers of young than those in more temperate regions, which is the result of a higher survival rate connected not with greater clutch size but with higher temperatures.

Temperature, in turn, is linked to diet. If eggs of the teal (Anas crecca) are hatched when temperatures are low, the young may not survive, even though teal ducklings in the wild are not affected by cold weather. The reason is that a natural diet in the wild compensates for a lack of body warmth, but in captivity, with a suboptimal diet, a warm temperature becomes a critical factor (Bottema 1989). In fact, it is for this reason that Bottema (1989) has proposed that areas with high spring temperatures (such as much of Asia) would have been the locus for initial duck domestication.

Charles Darwin (1875) was one of the first researchers to deal with morphological changes in domestication. Using a small sample of wild mallard, Aylesbury, Tufted, Penguin, and Call ducks, he found that: (1) In comparison with the wild duck, the domestic duck experienced universal but slight reduction in the length of the bones of the wing relative to those of the legs; and (2) the prominence of the crest of the sternum relative to its length was much reduced in all domestic breeds. In addition, E. Brown (1906: 5), citing Edward Hewitt’s breeding of wild ducks in 1862, has commented that “the beautiful carriage of the wild mallard and his mate changes to the easy, well-to-do, comfortable deportment of a small Rouen, for they at each reproduction become much larger.”

Yet although most researchers, such as Darwin and Brown, have equated domestication with a size increase, E. P.Allison has suggested that there was a size decrease in mute swans from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age in Cambridgeshire, and that the birds were, on average, significantly larger than recent specimens. This phenomenon is not related to climatic change (Northcote 1981, 1983). But it is related to confinement, which can produce smaller birds that have not been selected for intentionally, such as the shellduck (Tadorna tadorna) or the male pintail (A. acuta). It is also related to food conditions in captivity, which can bring about a size decrease (Bottema 1989).

Confinement and food conditions in captivity may also have affected ducks in ways we have yet to understand. Another confounding factor in faunal analysis of mallards from riverine urban sites is that they may have arisen from a number of different populations, including wild, domestic, and scavenging ducks, with the latter most likely to interbreed with the former (O’Connor 1993). Thus, it is debatable just how pure the strains of present-day river mallards are, as they are obviously the product of considerable inbreeding. Ducks can hybridize (doubtless this was responsible for genetic contributions to domestic stock), and, in fact, all breeds of domestic duck can interbreed.

Also bearing on the history of duck domestication has been the birds’ fussiness (much greater than that of chickens), which forestalls their development in caged coops because they have large appetites and because their feet are not tolerant of the wire f loors. Ducks produce proportionately larger eggs than gallinaceous birds (and their young seem more resistant to starvation) (Marcström 1966), but selection under domestication has been for a larger bird and not for a larger egg. Moreover, duck eggs, as already noted, have never been in high demand in Europe; they are strong in flavor and lack the palatability of hens’ eggs (Brown 1930).This is unfortunate, as ducks are naturally prolific layers and the eggs are highly nutritious.


Current evidence suggests that the origin of duck domestication was in Southeast Asia, and particularly in China. This region is still an important center for duck breeding and consumption, and one where captive, newly hatched ducklings have a greater chance of survival because of relatively higher temperatures.

It is true that more zooarchaeological data—in the form of bones—would be helpful in determining the origins of duck domestication. But because distinctions between the wild and domestic types of ducks are slight, such evidence alone would probably not pinpoint these origins.

Although the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans kept ducks in captivity, they never truly domesticated them. Compelling evidence for domestication outside of Southeast Asia has only been found for the medieval period and later. In Europe, and particularly in Britain, the widespread pursuit and destruction of waterfowl by the nobility during the early Middle Ages (and probably earlier) may well have provided the impetus for duck domestication.

Because ducks have voracious appetites, feeding them may often have been a problem during winter months, when food shortages were common in non-industrial societies—especially after a poor harvest. Consequently, it is likely that even though tamed, ducks were frequently left to forage as best they could. This inference also suggests that breeding was not controlled, with tame ducks interbreeding with members of the wild population. It was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that specialized breeds of domestic ducks were reared for meat, eggs, and ornamentation.