Welsh Harlequin Ducks
Male Welsh Harlequin on the left; female on the right.
Few duck breeds possess as many exceptional qualities as the Welsh Harlequin for the small farmstead. They are a lightweight, non-flying (and non-migratory) duck that produces an average of 280-330 eggs a year, easily out-doing many dual-purpose chicken breeds. Duck eggs start off large and become jumbos as the hen gets older. They are richer than a chicken egg in both flavor and texture, contain more protein, and the yolk is full of omega-3s. People with allergies to chicken eggs often find that they are still able to eat duck eggs.
Like goose eggs, duck eggs are fantastic for baking, giving your pies, cookies, cakes, and breads more lift. The food will be lighter, and more porous, making it fluffier or more crispy/crunchy. The eggs last longer in the fridge than chicken eggs, allowing you to store them for longer periods of time.
Great MothersUnlike most ducks and chickens that lay well, Harlequin hens still have relatively strong mothering instincts and, if allowed, will naturally incubate and raise a clutch of ducklings, especially when they are three years or older. This trait is perfect for anyone who prefers natural sustainability without the hassle of using incubators or without purchasing a new flock every couple of years to keep egg production at a maximum.
There is no need for vaccinations since ducks are more disease and parasite resistant than poultry, and the ducklings are more hardy, only needing to be in the brooder for half the time of a baby chick. This means you are over the critical period faster, leaving room for fewer accidents due to a power outage or a heat bulb that goes off in the middle of the night.
Fattens On Mosquitoes, Slugs, Japanese Beetles, and More
They are excellent foragers that are less high strung than Khaki Campbells and Indian Runners, and spend a lot of their day seeking out insects, seeds, and small reptiles and amphibians to eat. Banana slugs, grasshoppers, and Japanese beetles are all sought after with equal relish. This makes them more economical to keep around than some of the heavier breeds in addition to keeping your yard free of ticks, mosquito larvae, and other pests.
No Pond Needed: Make Your Own Garden Tea
They don't need a pond, but are thrilled when they have access to something in which to swim and bathe. Providing a tub or wading pool will keep them happy - and will give you a fantastic source of garden tea. When you clean out the tub, strain the dirty water onto your plants - it will do more than any expensive plant food could do and it's free. The easiest way to do this is to attach a hose to a wading pool to siphon out the water directly onto the garden. The water will dilute it enough to keep it from being "hot."
Lean Healthy Meat
Even though Harlequins are a lightweight breed, they still make a great meat duck and in 8-12 weeks can produce a 3lb lean carcass that plucks almost as cleanly as a snow white Pekin. Their light down can be harvested for quilts and pillows throughout the year and the beautifully marked feathers can be collected for various crafts. Duck down is soft and insulates extremely well. Since ducks naturally shed their down at least twice a year this can be gathered in much the same way you comb out a cat's shedding hairs, then used for whatever you want.
The meat tastes a lot like beef. The breast meat can be cut into strips and grilled, tasting a lot like steak when left at least a little pink in the middle. By having ducks (or geese) around, it's almost like being able to raise miniature beef cattle. Very, very tiny beef cows.
Tell the Gender by Color
In addition to all of these great traits, Welsh Harlequins are the only known breed that carries autosexing traits at birth. For the first two to three days the male ducklings have a dark colored bill, while the females have an orange bill with a dark tip. At adulthood, the drake's bill becomes an olive yellow while the female's is nearly black.
Surprisingly, even with all of the benefits to owning Harlequins, they are still listed as Critical by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, and acquiring nicely marked hens is, at best, a challenge. Hatchery hens are extremely washed out, with little of the fawn coloring they are supposed to have, while some hens don't even have an olive- colored bill and are almost completely white. These poorly marked birds have made it difficult to autosex many strains of Harlequins.
The Welsh Harlequin was developed in 1949 by Group Captain Leslie Bonnet, a commercial duck breeder who lived near Criccieth, Wales in Herefordshire, when his pure Khaki Campbells produced two oddly colored ducklings. Over the years Bonnet kept breeding for a hardy, high-egg yeild breed with enough weight to it to double as a good meat duck.
The original flock that sprang from the unusual babies were dubbed "Honey Campbells," and were the Golden Phase, which is the color Bonnet described in his book, Practical Duck-keeping that was published in 1960. Within the Golden flock came the Silver Harlequins. There are no records of Bonnet keeping the colors separated.
In 1968 catastrophe struck when the birds were not shut in properly and a fox decimated Bonnet's Harlequin flock to such a degree that he was forced to merge his remaining ducks with his Whalesbury Hybrids and seek out other breeders who had purchased Welsh Harlequins from him in the past.
He discovered a small flock of his originals living with Edward Grayson from Lancashire, who had bought the birds five years prior and fallen in love with them. With his originals to work with again, Bonnet got to work and reintroduced new Khaki Campbell blood. Initially being a Campbell sport, the Harlequin was almost genetically identical to the Campbell and helped dilute the Whalesbury Hybrid genes, and in doing this, he was able to avoid the risk of too much inbreeding. This second flock was dubbed "Harlequin Campbells." The name would change again to its final current form when Bonnet and his family moved to North Whales sometime later.
It was Grayson, not Bonnet, who sat down and wrote up a complete standard and formed the Welsh Harlequin Duck Club. When an inaccurate version was published by the Poultry Club in 1982 he sat down and worked on it again, getting it submitted to the British Waterfowl Association in 1986-87. In 1997 it was finally included in the British Poultry Standards.
In America, the Welsh Harlequin wasn't available until the year of the fox attacks when John Fugate, a breeder from Tennessee, imported eggs from Bonnet's current flock, bringing the breed to the US for the first time. While there were a few Goldens in the hatch most of the ducklings turned out to be Silvers.
By 1980 all of the original birds were isolated in two small flocks in America, and the inbreeding was becoming a problem. Fugate then imported birds, this time as adults from breeders in Europe that arrived in America in 1982. By 1984 the flocks had rebounded enough for him to offer birds for sale to the public.
In October, 2001, the American Poultry Association officially recognized the Silver Welsh Harlequin as an official breed, but did not pass the Golden Welsh Harlequin.
Today, America is able to boast utility lines that surpass many of those found in the UK, with egg production averaging 200 per bird in the UK and 300 per bird in the United States. Unfortunately, Harlequin numbers here are sparse at best and are being marred by poor quality birds with vaguely similar markings cropping up on the marketplace. More breeders are needed to keep the bloodlines strong.
Due to the inability to import any new bloodlines to America, breeders should be selected carefully from a number of different breeders to help keep the genetics as diverse as possible. This is especially true for anyone who wants to keep a flock of Golden Harlequins.
The Harlequin color is already a challenge to acquire without the influx of hatchery stock during the past few years. With the wide array of coloring found in the few flocks of hatchery birds out there, it can be next to impossible to acquire well marked hens and, to a lesser degree, well marked drakes.
Part of the problem is that Golden and Silver phase Welsh Harlequins will hatch out of almost any flock, regardless of whether the owner focuses on having strictly Goldens or strictly Silvers. Breeders can continue focus on a single color and, over the generations, successfully reduce the number of off colors the flock produces (Silver seems to be more dominant, producing more problems in a Golden flock than vice-versa).
In addition to this, hens do not get their full color and pattern until they are two years old. This makes it difficult to select high quality Harlequin hens before they are a minimum of a year old. During the first year, hens will go through many color changes and are oftentimes lighter than they will be when mature.
Most hatcheries only keep their birds for a single hatching season, phasing out the year-old birds in fall and having their new breeders ready to produce eggs in early spring. This doesn't give the hens in hatchery flocks time to express their full color and pattern before being replaced.
The color standard can be difficult to explain without seeing pictures of high quality birds. The following description is quoted from Dave Holderread, the author of, Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks.
- "The color and patterning of the Harlequin is complicated. The drake's head is greenish black, shoulders reddish
chestnut frosted with white, and breast creamy with reddish-chestnut. The upper back has a tortoise effect in cream,
white, brown, and chestnut while forewings are cream-white and reddish brown, with a shiny green and bronze cross-band.
The tail is blackish/bronze edged in white, the legs and feet are orange, and toenails are brownish-black. The duck has
a creamy white head with brown stippling. Often there is a delicate light rust or burnt orange blush to her head, neck,
and breast. The crown of the head typically has more brown stippling than the rest of the head. Her body is creamy
white with buff and brown-green or bronze bands on her wings. Her tail is a mixture of creamy white and brown. Her legs
are orange when young, and brown when older. Toenails are brownish-black."
In the United Kingdom, this color is referred to as "Brown Silver."
The difference in Golden and Silver phase Harlequins is subtle in drakes. Male Silvers have a jet black tail and black on the wings, while Golds have a deep chocolate tail and matching wings. Female Silvers have black on their wings and black speckles while in Goldens all of the black is replaced with a rich chocolate. It is not uncommon to have both colors showing up in the same flock.
Avoid birds of either color phase with distinct Mallard-like facial stripes and the wrong bill color (especially light colored bills in females), both of which have a tendency to crop up.
This is considered a lightweight breed, with drakes at 5-5 1/2lbs and hens at 4 1/2-5lbs when full grown. Size is also becoming an issue and breeders are encouraged to keep birds that are within a pound of its desired weight.
Breeders should have a sleek, streamlined body that is relatively long and carried at a 30-40 degree angle, with a medium-width back, rounded chest, full abdomen, and wide-spaced legs. They have an oval head with a medium-long, slightly concave bill. Avoid "roman noses" such as those found in Indian Runners and Dutch Hookbills.