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Text and photos by Peter Vankevich
Note: Indian Runner Ducks can occasionally be seen in the village. These are released domesticate birds. Since we have gotten a few inquiries recently about some “funny-looking” birds along Middle Rd., here is an article from our archives.
First published: Ocracoke Observer, July 2010
Over the past year or so, I’ve received several inquiries about some strange-looking waterfowl seen on occasion around the North Pond area of Ocracoke Village and an another one hanging with the Mallards near Silver Lake.
People weren’t even sure if they were ducks or geese and they didn’t even look remotely close to any species of either family in any of the popular bird identification field guides of North America.
Scott Bradley tipped me off that this flock of six were Indian Runner Ducks. Anyone who keeps a life list of birds personally identified in North Carolina or the United States will probably know that they are not countable for the same reason that they do not appear in a field guide to the birds, i.e. they are not wild birds, but are released domesticated ducks. Nevertheless these “runners” are not your common barnyard fowl and, indeed have an interesting history worth telling.
Indian Runner Ducks get their name from two sources. Their origins are traced to the South Asian East Indies (more specifically the Indonesian Islands of Lombok, Java and Bali). The second part of the name derives from the fact that, unlike other ducks that waddle when on land, these critters will run – a positive trait since like many domestic ducks they do not fly.
Their unusual appearance is that they stand in an erect manner, have an extraordinarily long neck for a duck, and males measure up to 26 inches from bill to tail. Because of this unusual posture, many people referred to them in the 19th Century as Penguin Ducks. Based on ancient stone carvings, this domesticated breed has been on the South Pacific islands at least a thousand or more years.
The first Indian Runners were imported from Asia to Great Britain around the mid-1830s and became quite popular among breeders. Their arrival in the United States occurred towards the end of the 19th Century.
Although the overall shape is well-defined, the plumage, as with many domestic ducks, can vary considerably as they have been cross-bred to obtain certain colors and patterns such as black, chocolate, white and others with imaginative names like Cumberland Blue, Apricot Trout, Split-pea Yellow, and Silver Wild. Fawn and white has been a traditional color scheme.
In 2000, the Indian Runner Duck Association was created to preserve the purity of the breed and contribute to its standardization as well as look after the health and welfare of this unique duck.
Looking at their appearance one would think it might be a bit of a stretch to believe that they derive from the Mallard Duck but that is the conventional theory. They are active foragers seeking out grubs, worms and even catching flies in air. In Asia they are used to control pests in rice paddies. In addition to their appearance and mobility, they also have lively personalities. When moving in fields they tend to do so in synchronization. Their speed and herding instincts make them a favorite for use by Border collie trainers.
To help with this article, I was able to get my hands on The Indian Runner Duck Book: The Only Authoritative American book about the Marvelous Egg Machine by C.S. Valentine published in 1911.
As you may surmise from the title, their popularity derives not so much from their looks or colorful personality, but from their deserved reputation as a prolific egg layer with some hens producing 200 and more eggs a year.
This ranks right up there with the top commercial leghorn chickens. They do not use a traditional nest routine and eggs may be laid and abandoned.
So how are these eggs? Our noted island chef and author of The Back Porch Restaurant Cook Book, Debbie Wells, has eaten their eggs, baked cakes with them, etc., and with their thick whites and deeply colored yolks thinks that they are far better than chicken eggs.
Of all the color variations, Valentine favored those with pure white plumage opining that “nothing in nature [is] more lovely and charming than white water fowl playing on the water.”
While acknowledging the beauty of the swan and White Emden Goose, Valentine weighed in “But the White Indian Runner slimmer, graceful as a fawn, bids fair to become infinitely more popular than either the goose or even the swan could ever become.”
One hundred years later, his prediction has yet to be true, and the unusual sighting of Indian Runners these days will raise an eyebrow or two. And on Ocracoke, at least for now, there are some interesting runners worth taking a look at.