History of the Indian Runner Duck
Indian Runners came from the East Indies and, as one would expect, they run rather than waddle. The name is fairly explicit, but it does not do justice to one of the most extraordinary of domestic ducks. They are unique in the extreme body shape and posture, looking to the inexperienced eye more like hock bottles than normal ducks. Yet it was their utility value as egg layers that brought them and their fame to the UK country, where they were exhibited in Dumfries in 1876 and Kendal in 1896.
Records of stone carvings in Java seem to suggest an origin of a thousand years or more. The Europeans noted them in the mid 19th century, in Malaya (1851) and Lombok, Indonesia, where Alfred Wallace observed in 1856 that they 'walk erect, like penguins'1. However, circumstantial evidence would suggest that oriental ducks reached Western Europe much earlier than the nineteenth century. Kenneth Broekman has alerted us to Dutch records of a sailing ship carrying a cargo of hundreds of salted 'pingouins' - possibly ducks. There were also duck eggs in this cargo transported back to the Cape of Good Hope.
In addition, ducks resembling Indian Runners in colour pattern and shape can be seen in paintings by the Dutch masters of the 1600s. Articles in the IRDA newsletters illustrate the evidence from Holland.
Also a number of Lowland breeds, such as the Huttegem, carry colour genes very similar to the Indian Runners. Examples of these colour mutations can be seen in seventeenth century Dutch paintings like those of the d'Hondecoeter family.
'One thing certain is that the Indian Runner is not a breed made by the fancier'2. Appleyard was asserting that this duck was no mere aesthetic creation nor one of the designer breeds that were deliberately produced from it in the early 20th century. Indian Runners are likely to have evolved in parts of the Far East over an extensive period of time. They were to become agile and hardy foragers, prolific egg-layers and surprisingly meaty table birds. 'The flesh is abundant for the size of body, fine in quality and well flavoured'3. They also have the reputation of being non-fliers and non-sitters, though there are numerous exceptions to the latter.
Zollinger4 (1851) explains how they were used in the nineteenth century: 'They are principally reared on account of the eggs, which are immediately salted, and form an article of food much prized by the inhabitants. They are very cheap. Many are sold to sailors of ships who store them for their voyages.' Wallace also notes that the birds themselves (known as 'Baly Soldiers') were also consumed by crews of rice ships. The birds were then referred to as 'Penguin Ducks'.
Colour Breeding in Domestic Waterfowl
Perhaps the biggest impact of the Indian Runner Duck has been on the creation of twentieth century 'Designer Ducks'. Birds like the Khaki Campbell and the Buff Orpington are the direct result of crossing Indian Runners to other domestic breeds. The egg-laying potential, allied to some remarkable chromotypes, liberated duck breeding in both commercial and exhibition stocks.
The original Asian birds carried some exciting plumage colour mutations. In the language of genetics, they had alternative genes (alleles) of the mallard pattern, namely the recessive dusky variant. There were sex-linked colour dilutions, like the recessive brown and buff variants. Also there was an alternative light phase gene, which is in most Runners, other than the Fawn-and-whites, and further in breeds like the Saxony, Rouen Clair and Silver Appleyard.
When the black, blue and pied genes (the latter referred to by F M Lancaster as the 'runner gene') are also brought into the picture, a veritable palette of colour 'factors' is available. Like the Call Ducks, Indian Runners are now more than ever obtainable in a wide range of stable colour forms without crossing to other waterfowl breeds. Care, however, should always be taken with certain colour forms, such as the blue where incomplete dominance in the heterozygotes produces chromotypes like Cumberland Blue, Blue Dusky, Blue Trout, etc.) These only breed a proportion of offspring like the parents.
- 1. Coutts (1929) 'The Feathered World'
- 2. Appleyard, Reginald. Ducks ('The Feathered World' 1926)
- 3. Brown, E. Poultry Breeding and Production (1929)
- 4. Zollinger. Journal of the Indian Archipelago (1851)
The Arrival of the Indian Runner in Britain
Perhaps the first record of the true Indian Runner duck in Britain is from the 1830s. It was referred to as the 'Penguin Duck' by Harrison Weir (1902, p. 693), who used the term 'Indian Runner' for the birds that had been crossed with British domestic ducks in the late nineteenth century.
'This is one of the most peculiar and remarkable of the duck tribe. Its long, narrow head on a thin neck sets on a long apparently attenuated body, having an extraordinarily upright carriage, which last is accounted for by the thighs, legs and shanks being excessively short and placed so far back that the bird is obliged to carry itself erect to enable it to walk or run, which latter it can do with some degree of rapidity. Thus in shape, colour and action it much resembles what is now called the Indian-runner duck.
The Penguin duck is by no means a modern introduction. It was imported from Bombay – said also to be the home of the Indian-runner. Mr Cross of the Surrey Zoological gardens (1837-8) had several which bred on the island in the lake. These were of a light and dark tan colour, the ordinary blue bars on the wing being a dull slate tint. The ducklings were extremely odd-looking little things, and frequently fell in their attempt to run or walk fast.'
This description fits the true Fawn Runner. The Fawn-and-white Runners, which were so popular in the late 1800s, tended to have a less upright carriage.
J. Donald5 reveals an account of an importation of a drake and trio of ducks by a sea captain to Whitehaven some time before 1840. Professor Dr. Wolfgang Rudolph6 has found records from the Surrey Zoological Gardens that show imports to the London Zoo on 31 October 1835 by the 13th Earl of Derby. (IRDA Newsletter Autumn 2000).
'Strangely enough, looking through the then published lists of animals kept in the London Zoo Regent's park I discovered the following entry for 1837 (p.11): "Penguin ducks. A variety of the common duck remarkable for the resemblance which its attitude bears to that of a penguin". On my suggestion, Mr John Edwards (ZSL) was kind enough to search through the manuscripts of Daily Occurrence. He found that the Penguin ducks arrived at London Zoo on 31 October 1835 sent by the 13th Earl of Derby who was President of the Zoological Society from 1831 until his death in 1851.'
By 1901 most of the Indian Runners in Britain showed evidence of having been crossed with indigenous domestic and wild ducks. The original Fawn Runners had died out in favour of the pied (Fawn-and-white and Grey-and-white), which were standardized at that time, and it was not until 1909 that Joseph Walton managed to import fresh stock from Lombok and Java. This completely rejuvenated the bloodlines and contributed much to the modern development of the Indian Runner.
Runners in the Netherlands
It is almost certain that viewers from the Netherlands will know more about the early importation of the 'Penguin' duck into Holland. Kenneth Broekman has researched records at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam and found that salted ducks and eggs were recorded from the East Indies. If any Dutch readers would like to contribute to the history of the Runner, please e-mail us.
One of the most famous naturalists of the nineteenth century had a good idea where they came from:
Alfred Russel Wallace The Malay Archipelago (visited 1856)
'The islands of Bali and Lombock, situated at the east end of Java, are particularly interesting. They are the only islands of the whole Archipelago in which the Hindoo religion still maintains itself—and they form the extreme points of the two great zoological divisions of the Eastern hemisphere; for although so similar in external appearance and in all physical features, they differ greatly in their natural productions. * * * From Bali quantities of dried beef and ox-tails are exported, and from Lombock a good many ducks and ponies. The ducks are a peculiar breed, which have very long flat bodies, and walk erect almost like penguins. They are generally of a pale reddish ash colour, and are kept in large flocks. They are very cheap and are largely consumed by the crews of the rice ships, by whom they are called Baly-soldiers, but are more generally known elsewhere as penguin-ducks.'
- 5. Donald. The India Runner Duck: its History and Description (c.1890)
- 6. Rudolph. Notes on the History of the Indian Runner (Newsletter of the Indian Runner Association, Autumn 2000)
More detailed information on this historical development can be found in The Indian Runner Duck: A Historical Guide (Feathered World, 2002). This book is obtainable from the Indian Runner Duck Club and other outlets.
Page last updated: 16th October 2023