Ark of Taste
According to local lore, the Cayuga Duck is a breed developed from a pair of wild ducks that a miller caught on his mill pond in 1809. The miller was reported to have pinioned the birds’ wings so they could not fly away and they promptly settled into life on his pond in Duchess County, New York. The pair of ducks were described as raising large broods, providing the miller and his family with flavorful meat.
Historically the birds were thought to have been American Black ducks (Anas rubripes) but there is evidence that points to the birds having been Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). This idea is based on the black plumage of the Cayuga being a result of a black mutation that is common in Mallard crosses and not with Black duck crosses. Support for this theory lies within the curled sex feathers of the Cayuga drakes. Mallards and their descendants have this feature whereas the Black ducks and their progeny do not.
Some of the descendants of the miller’s birds were reportedly brought to Orange County, New York where they multiplied. John S. Clark introduced ducks he acquired from Orange County to Cayuga County in the Finger Lakes region of New York circa 1840. Clark noted at the time that occasionally ducks would develop a “top knot” on their heads. This is further substantiated by Luther Tucker, editor of The Cultivator, in 1851.
Another accounting of the source of the Cayuga duck is told by Mr. R. Teebay of Fulwood, Preston, Lancashire, UK in the 1885 publication, The Book of Poultry, by Lewis Wright. Teebay states that the Cayuga resembles (if it was not identical) to an English black duck breed commonly found in Lancashire in the 1860’s. He believed that the Cayuga breed originated from this stock. He notes that the English black duck had since disappeared in Lancashire as it was replaced in popularity by the Aylesbury duck by the 1880’s. His view on the Cayuga’s origin was supported by an un-named source Teebay references in the book. The source was an acquaintance who hunted and trapped extensively the Cayuga region and was familiar with both domestic breeds. The hunter, having extensive knowledge of the local wild ducks, supported the theory that the Cayuga was derived from the Black duck of Lancashire as opposed to originating from a local wild duck population.
In Finger Lakes region the ducks became popular as a table bird and were noted for their ability to lay numerous eggs. They were named “Cayuga” after the native people of that area. By 1874 the Cayuga duck was accepted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection.
The Cayuga duck is a medium-sized duck with a moderately long, well-rounded body. Its back is long and broad with slight arching at the shoulders. The duck carries itself slightly elevated in the front. On drakes, the sex feathers are hard and well-curled. The Cayuga is an easy bird to keep because it rarely wanders from home. It is not able to fly well because of its heavier body weight compared to smaller breeds of duck.
Although it is difficult to clean and prepare, it has very high quality meat with an intense beefy flavor. The breast, while smaller than that of other more conventional duck breeds, produces a succulent deep red meat with a complex taste. The carcass can be difficult to clean because of the duck’s dark feathering. Some resolve this problem by skinning the ducks rather than plucking. The eggs can be used for general eating and baking purposes. The whites of the eggs are usually firmer than the whites of chicken eggs.
The breed was raised in large numbers on general duck farms until the 1890’s when the Pekin duck came to dominate the duckling market in the big cities. The Cayuga duck is listed as Threatened on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List. This means there are fewer than 1,000 breeding birds in the US, with ten or fewer primary breeding flocks, and they are globally endangered.