This week’s featured bird is easily recognizable, what with the bright red facial wattles, Elvis-like pompadour and large, bulky body that distinguish the muscovy duck. What many birders don’t recognize, however, is that they’re probably not seeing a pure wild duck, and these birds can look quite different depending on whether they are wild or domestic.
Name: Muscovy Duck, Creole Duck (domestic breed)
Scientific Name: Cairina moschata
Scientific Family: Anatidae
Habitat: These ducks prefer wetland habitats including lakes, broad rivers, swamps, bogs and marshes. They are more frequently found in freshwater areas where water sources are more sluggish, but can also occasionally be spotted in brackish zones. Wooded areas with tall trees for nesting are preferred, though extremely dense vegetation is not.
Range: The wild range of the muscovy duck extends from the lower Rio Grande valley of southern Texas through coastal Mexico on both the east and west coasts and into central and South America as far as northern Argentina. Because these birds are well-adapted and often escape from farms or domestic collections, however, muscovy ducks may often be seen in unexpected areas, such as urban and suburban ponds well away from their expected range. There are particularly widespread populations throughout Florida and in Las Vegas, as well as in isolated areas in Europe and New Zealand.
The wild muscovy duck is nearly all black, with a green-blue iridescent sheen to its glossy plumage. A white patch is visible on the wings, and the face shows extensive black skin around the eye and bill, with red wattling. The legs and feet are also dark gray-black. The muscovy ducks most birders will see, however, have varied amounts of white in their plumage, particularly on the head and neck, and could even be pure white all over. The facial wattles are also more extensive and much redder. The legs and feet are often a smudged, dull yellow or yellow-orange. These traits are characteristic of domestic muscovy ducks, which adapt readily to the life of escapee birds and will mingle with flocks of other ducks and waterfowl in urban parks. Because of the variability of their plumage, these ducks can be quite confusing, but the red facial wattles are always a key indication of a muscovy duck.
It may be charming to see a muscovy duck followed by a brood of ducklings – and these birds do lay impressive broods of up to 15 or more ducklings – but they can cause problems in urban and suburban areas as they overcrowd small ponds and become accustomed to handouts from well-meaning humans. The muscovy duck is one of the most widely bred domestic birds in the world, and unfortunate ducklings are often subject to being sold as Easter gifts (never a good idea). When those sweet, fluffy ducklings shed their baby down and begin to look like their mottled, warty-faced parents, they are often abandoned at parks and ponds, further aggravating the issue of overcrowding and the difficulties it can cause for other ducks and wildlife in the same region.
I’ve been fortunate to see muscovy ducks many times, including pure wild ducks as well as a range of domestic and feral variations. While they won’t necessarily win any beauty contests, they are handsome in their own right and they can have sweet personalities for any birder who gets to know them.