Janice Houghton-Wallace looks at the Crested Duck.

One of the breeds of duck that always draws interest and amazement from the public because of its appearance is the Crested Duck. This is the duck with a pom pom on its head, which has also been known as the top knot duck.   

History

The breed is ancient and can be traced back to the seventeenth century. One of the ways in which livestock can be acknowledged as living during certain periods is by being recorded through art. The Dutch artist Jan Steen provided historical information about this breed by producing paintings incorporating Crested Ducks. ‘The Poultry Yard’ 1650 illustrates many different poultry species of the time, with white and coloured Crested Ducks in the foreground. A few years later he specifically painted ‘Two Crested Ducks’.   

The origin of the breed is unknown but other Dutch painters such as d’Hondecoeter and Dirk Wyntrack 1670, Pieter Casteels III in 1723 and Aart Schouman in the late 1700s also included Crested Ducks in their art so clearly it was to be seen in mainland Europe.

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Anthony Stanway's White Crested female, Best of Breed at the National Poultry Show 2016. Photo: Rupert Stephenson

In ‘Treatise on the History and Management of Ornamental Poultry’ by Rev. Edmund Saul Dixon (Rector of Intwood-with-Keswick, Norfolk) and J. J. Kerr, MD, second edition of 1851, it states: “The cottagers living on the northern coast of Norfolk, have one or two varieties that are very pretty and are not usual, one of the slate-gray or bluish dun, another of a sandy yellow; there are some also with top-knots…Some of the tufted tame ducks near Salisbury are very handsome, having crests as compact and spherical as any Polish fowl; but whether this is, or was, any distinct variety, I will not undertake to say.”

It was also to be found in the United States of America for in Browne’s ‘The American Poultry Yard’ in 1853 ‘the Crested or Topknot ducks, a beautiful ornamental tame variety’ is mentioned.   

The famous naturalist Charles Darwin described a ‘Tufted duck’ in his writings during 1868 which he obtained in Holland. Another was sent to him ‘from the Malayan archipelago’ – probably a Bali and for Darwin to examine a freak of nature. 

Popular  

By the beginning of the twentieth century the breed was being seen and written about in the UK. Harrison Weir in 1902 referred to it as the Top-knotted duck that was becoming common in British farmyards because of its good utility qualities. Weir clearly valued it as an exhibition breed because of the large crest covering the head and the Crested Duck was admitted to the British Standards in 1910. The breed had already been approved by the American Standard of Perfection in 1874 in white only.  In a reference by Powell-Owen in 1918, he asserted that ‘the Crested Duck had existed in Scotland for at least the last eighty years’.   

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A flock of Miniature Apricot Crested dabbling in the brook. Photo: Kathryn Odey

Following Weir’s influential comments on the breed, increasing interest was shown in these ducks. Writing in ‘The Feathered World’ in 1907 R. Scott-Miller suggested that a Crested Duck Club be formed. He stated: “They are a useful and ornamental breed, as well as a very ancient one and I think if fanciers of them would only combine and make it possible to form a club, we should see them rise greatly in popularity. I shall be glad to hear from any fancier willing to support the club.”   

Rare sight

These positive and encouraging words didn’t really help the breed and even though the club was formed the numbers of Crested Ducks appearing at shows did not increase. 

At a Crested Duck Club Show in 1911, ‘The Feathered World’ reported that only two classes were available with four exhibitors and twelve entries. Two exhibitors at a Club Show was immensely disappointing and by the 1920s it was clear that Crested Ducks were no longer being exhibited. In 1937 Reginald Appleyard wrote in his book ‘Ducks’ that the Crested was now quite rare, with only the occasional good one turning up at a show.   

By the 1950s it was difficult to find the Crested in the UK but poultry enthusiast John Hall was determined to do something about it as he had always wanted the breed. With Appleyard’s help he located a few with a breeder in Norfolk. The birds were old and therefore less fertile but one female duckling was produced the following year. This female was then paired with the youngest of the existing males and one female was hatched. This duck did wear a large crest and she was paired to a Buff Orpington male and later to a Silver Appleyard. From this breeding came Hall’s Crested Duck foundation stock. 

Perseverance

Hall persevered with this bloodline and eventually more people bought birds from him and the breed gradually increased in numbers again. By the latter part of the 1900s the Crested Duck was to be found not only in the white but many other colours and combinations of colour. This was due to very careful breeding by John Hall and Stephanie Mansell.    Following these successes a miniature version of the Crested was created. Foundation stock from Hall was developed by another experienced poultry breeder, Roy Sutcliffe, who had some on display and for sale at the Rare Breeds Show at Stoneleigh Park in 1992.

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A female Miniature Crested. Photo: Kathryn Odey

At the British Waterfowl Association Club Show at Malvern in 1994 it was first shown and by 1997 this bantam duck had been recognised by the Poultry Club of Great Britain and accepted into the British Poultry Standards.   

Crested

The Crested Duck is not the only waterfowl breed to have a crest. The Bali is another duck that has a crest. The Bali originates from Malaysia and although believed to be a very ancient breed was not imported into Britain until 1925. It looks very much like an Indian Runner but with a crest which can be of varying size.   

Black East Indian, Call and Saxony have also appeared with a topknot. In fact any breed can have the crested gene introduced into it because one parent crested will breed a certain percentage of crested ducklings. The only waterfowl not to succumb to the crested gene is the Muscovy.   

As attractive as the Crested Duck is the crest is actually a genetic error, a mutation that has resulted in a skull deformity.   

Waterfowl specialist Dr. Chris Ashton says: “The feathers forming the crest grow from a clump of fatty tissue that emerges through a gap in the skull. The crest can be in various forms – that which sits perfectly central on the head; slightly skewed to the side of the head or simply a knob of skin with some feathers.”

Genetic mutations can appear in any living creature. Selective breeding with the intention of reproducing this trait of a crest would have increased the numbers of birds with the same characteristic. 

Lethal  

Dr. Ashton added: “The lethal crested gene means breeding can be a challenge. If the duckling receives the crested gene from both parents (homozygous) it will die in the shell. If one parent has the crested gene (heterozygous) the resulting hatch will be 25% die in shell, 25% will be un-crested (clean headed) and 50% will have crests.   

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The striking head of a Crested Duck. Photo: Rupert Stephenson

“If a crested heterozygous bird is crossed with an un-crested one a hatch should result in 50% of the ducklings carrying the gene and these may or may not show crests with the other 50% not having the crested gene.  

“Breeding crested to crested – that is, both birds carrying the crested gene – then 25% of the clutch will die in the shell, 50% of the ducklings will carry the gene but may or may not have a crest and the other 25% will not have the crested gene. The main reason for the dead in shell embryos is exaggerated deformity in the brain caused through the two crested birds ‘overdosing’ the embryo with the lethal gene.”   

As the crest can be somewhat variable in shape and size occasionally a very full crest can interfere with seeing, eating and mating. If this is the case then a large crest should be trimmed so as not to inflict any welfare discomfort. Very occasionally, if the crest is too close to the eyes or actually rubbing into the eyes it can cause the eyes to weep.   

The crest should be set in the correct position on the head. The ideal one is placed so that the front is no further back than the eyes. It should not fall down the back of the neck, or be misplaced to one side. Birds that have less than perfect crests are still good as utility birds as well as making great pets.   

Breed characteristics

The Crested Duck is classified as a Light duck. Its carriage is reasonably straight when active and alert but predominantly more naturally ‘duck-like’ when relaxed. The head is long and straight, slightly rising to the crown, which should have a balanced, well centred crest firmly attached to the skull. The neck is of medium length leading to a long, broad and moderately deep body. A full, rounded breast blends into the body.   

The tail sits in proportion to the rest of the body. Wings are strong and tucked in close to the body and the plumage is smooth, giving the overall effect of a neat, well balanced bird.   

Probably the most popular and most common plumage is pure white throughout the body with blue eyes, an orange-yellow bill and orange legs and webbed feet. The main other variety is possibly the Silver Appleyard coloured Crested. This has the markings of the separate Silver Appleyard Duck but with the crest. Any colour is actually permitted but there should be symmetry of markings on the body.   

All fowl can produce faults during their development through breeding or otherwise and with ducks it is no different. When checking that a Crested Duck is suitable for the breeding pen or to exhibit no amount of spinal deformity should be tolerated, in particular a twisted or kinked neck, a roach back or wry tail. The bill should also be uniform and not twisted.    Stephanie Mansell, an experienced breeder of the Crested recommends using unrelated drakes with the females in the breeding pen. In-breeding can emphasise unwanted genetic traits and it is best to avoid this tendency, especially with the Crested.    

Weights of the large Crested Duck are: Drake (male) 3.2kg (7lb) Duck (female) 2.7kg (6lb)   

The Crested Miniature  is classified as a Bantam duck but is referred to as a Crested Miniature as opposed to a Bantam Crested. It is a miniature version of the Crested Light duck. The overall shape is the same as the large – just smaller – as are the colours.   

Weights of the Crested Miniature are: Drake 1.125kg (2.5lb) Duck  0.9kg (2lb)  

Laying

The Crested Duck is a medium-weight dual purpose breed, with ducklings growing quite quickly making them good table birds. They are also fairly good layers with 100+, sometimes even up to 200 eggs, per season. As the Crested Duck is considered a rare pure breed and with it not being as commonly kept as some other breeds of domestic duck, breeders are keen to exhibit good quality birds in order to help promote the breed and bring it to public attention.   

Duck eggs are excellent for baking so smallholders keeping this breed always have an outlet for surplus eggs, with gate sales being popular with locals and passing traffic.   

Once the basic breeding options for this duck are known they will breed successfully and more keepers are welcomed so that this extremely old breed of waterfowl continues, regardless of the fact that it is a fault of nature that attracts us to them.   

The females will go broody if the eggs are not collected on a daily basis. Left to produce a clutch, it is a breed that takes advantage of the need to reproduce. A positive point about newly hatched ducklings is that you can see immediately whether or not they have crests and the quality of a bird’s crest. The crest on a duckling is a small round gathering of down protruding from the skull.   

Breeding

Current breeders of the Crested Duck are just as enthusiastic as those of the past. Kathryn Odey has Apricot Miniature Crested Ducks and speaks very positively about them. “I find them very easy to keep and they get really tame. They hatch well although I have experienced a few ducklings with tilted heads which could perhaps be due to brain damage. Those that are fit, healthy and good examples of their breed are a joy. They are great foragers and are fairly good layers.”

Crested Ducks were the first waterfowl that Anthony Stanway kept when a child. His love of the breed stayed with him and in 2012 when moving to new premises he went back to keeping them. “I love them because they are a really fancy duck,” he says. “They are brilliant layers but I keep them mainly for exhibition. They are kept on gravel and I clean the ponds daily so they have clean water in which to bathe. It is hard work to keep them smart and clean but they look stunning if you manage it.”

Given the challenges with breeding them because of the lethal gene, surprisingly they hatch quite easily.

Stanway added: “The Crested hatch easily, in fact I would say they are the easiest waterfowl to hatch. So long as you have a good line and they are not too closely bred the ducklings will do well. Once you get them pass the first moult they should not then show any signs of deformity or faults after that.”

Stanway raises them on the usual duckling then grower pellets and as the breeding season approaches they go onto layers pellets. “These pellets usually get them laying well and they would probably lay all winter if I let them but over the winter I like to rest them by feeding them mixed corn in water. I have to watch that the maize in the corn doesn’t affect the plumage and make it go yellow but they do seem to thrive on the regime I have. Once I put them back onto layers pellets they begin laying again as though a starting gun has gone off.”    Anthony Stanway has some of the best Crested Ducks in the country and this has been demonstrated by his wins at the Poultry Club of Great Britain’s National Poultry Show and the Domestic Waterfowl Club’s Championship Show.   

This breed is a rare, very old, utility duck and smallholders could well help it to survive.

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With thanks to ‘The Domestic Duck’ by Chris and Mike Ashton Published by The Crowood Press Ltd, ISBN 978 1847970503.

The Domestic Waterfowl Club, Secretary Mike Hatcher Tel: 01488 638014 Email: hatcher579@btinternet.com

The British Waterfowl Association, Secretary Kate Elkington Tel: 01531 671250 Email: info@waterfowl.org.uk

Rupert Stephenson, Kathryn Odey and Anthony Stanway Mob: 07929 658768

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This article written by Janice Houghton-Wallace was first published in Smallholder magazine. For your copy subscribe here or buy from a newsagent.