Rebecca Gilbert of Native Earth Teaching Farm definitely has her ducks in a row. Her Cayuga ducks, that is!
This special species, highlighted in an exhibit in collaboration with Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard, were by far my favorite animals at the Agricultural Fair last week.
Beyond being incredibly beautiful, with their luminous black feathers highlighted by iridescent greens, blues and purples, they have a back story that is also beautiful, in its own way. It involves Rebecca, and is an inspiring tale of deep commitment and a unique solution to the problem of a declining species.
Eat them to save them, I have heard Rebecca say! These ducks are in danger of disappearing forever as they have lost favor in the U.S. market as an egg-and-meat bird. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists them as a threatened species. Attaining this designation means, unfortunately, that there are less than 1,000 of these birds left in this country.
The reason for this dearth of ducks has more to do with our society’s desire for perfection than for the quality of their meat and eggs. Because of their beautiful black feathers, their skin remains marked with dark spots where the feathers were removed. In our world of perfect produce, flawless fruits and model meat, this just won’t do.
White-feathered ducks, such as the Pekin, quickly replaced the Cayuga and other dark-feathered birds in the markets and on Americans’ tables.
The Cayuga has its origins and history in a nearby state. Initial records of this variety of duck date to the early 1800s, but its genesis remains an unconfirmed mystery.
Early accounts suggest that the Cayuga was a crossbreed of the native mallard or black duck by a miller in Orange County, New York. Other reports propose that the Cayuga is a cross with a British black duck from the Lancashire region of England.
However these darling ducks came about, they became popular for breeders in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the variety was named after the native people of the area.
Cayuga ducks were well loved for their calm demeanor, quiet countenance and delicious meat. Prolific egg laying (up to 150 eggs per hen over her lifetime) was another point in their favor, as was their resourcefulness: Cayugas were able to forage on snails, slugs and other insects, fending for themselves, and they therefore nurtured many offspring successfully. Distinctive black to grey eggs were their signature.
And though we may think we know how this story will end — with the disappearance of a variety that fell out of favor — Rebecca is determined to bring them back from the brink.
She has started a community-supported agriculture (CSA) Cayuga duck project that allows community members to purchase ducks that she will raise, slaughter, and provide to the members come fall. By creating demand and raising these birds, Rebecca hopes to change the ending of the story. I know that, as a member, I am both looking forward to saving this duck variety and bringing it to my table.
For all of us rooting for Rebecca, her ducks, and the future of the breed, look to Michael Caine for a quote that could easily describe the current plight of those helping to save this disappearing species. He suggested it is best to “be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.”
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.