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The Indian Runner Duck: A Historical Guide

by C. & M. Ashton

Hardback book, stitched, printed on good quality coated paper; 202 pages. Over 100 black&white illustrations and photographs. Eight page colour section. A collection of documents and information going back to the 1830s, some not previously available in print.

Available on Amazon UK (any currency) and in £Sterling from the IRDC@£16 plus £2.00p&p [total £18.00)

Book including postage

Few ducks have ever had such an impact on the domestic waterfowl scene in Great Britain as the Indian Runners, or Penguin Ducks, as they were sometimes called in the early days. Groups of enthusiasts almost came to blows on where they came from and what they should look like. For nearly a century bitter rivalries existed between groups of fanciers, each positive that it knew all the answers, and each positive it was right exclusively. Between 1900 and 1930 the poultry press contained letters of growing bitterness and often quite inane stubbornness. The pages were littered with letters and articles from experts like Matthew Smith, Joseph Walton, J. Donald, E. A. Taylor, Reginald Appleyard. It is hard a century later to wonder what all the fuss was about, and why this breed of duck caused all the controversy.

Book back cover

When they appeared on the scene, Indian Runners had three sets of characteristics that marked them as unique, and each of these contributed to the subsequent conflicts within the Fancy:

  • 1. Runners had what was seen as a "peculiar" shape and carriage;
  • 2. they had plumage colours and markings that included very unusual mutations;
  • 3. they had very highly developed egg-laying capabilities.

At some time or other between 1840 and 1940, different groups of fanciers would seek to capitalize on one of the sets of characteristics, largely at the expense of the others. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the most popular version of the Indian Runner in England was the one from the Cumberland importations. It was fawn (or grey) and white, laid plenty of eggs but had on numerous occasions been crossed with native British domestic ducks. This was the version that found its way into the 1901 Standards and was believed by many to be from India itself. At this time another version was promoted by those who believed the pure, upright Runner from Malaya was the genuine article. The focus was on head shape, carriage and slim bodies, irrespective of colour. Then before the end of the First World War, a third version of the Runner was promoted. It was defined almost purely by its egg-laying. The shape and colour were very much minor considerations.

This volume, The Indian Runner Duck: a Historical Guide, has been the product of many hours, days and years of interesting research, the beginnings of which emerged when preparing The Domestic Duck for publication. There have been few areas of duck history fraught will such bitter rivalries, petty-mindedness, heroic stubbornness and genuine enthusiasm as this one. Looking back over one and a half centuries it is amazing how human beings can find so much to argue about. What this dissent provided, however, was a number of real benefits, not least a documentation of the arguments themselves. More profitable though was the creation of the original Indian Runner Duck Club, the gradual (and contentious) composition of a Standard of Excellence for the breed, and a series of pamphlets and books documenting the history of Indian Runner duck-keeping in Great Britain and beyond.

From the brief observations of naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed the more fancier-focussed documents of J. Donald and Jacob Thomlinson. Donald’s little pamphlet of 1890 was to lay down the basic traditions of Indian Runner duck lore that stretches to this day, the apocryphal story of the Cumbrian sea captain who gave Fawn-and-Whites to his native farmers of Cumberland and the original Fawn Runners to the natives "over the border" in Dumfriesshire. Persistent bickerings about the exact nature of the original imports led to two schools of thought, the purists who wanted what they believed were the true "type" and the utilitarians who favoured the birds that they remembered from their youth, the birds that might indeed be mongrels but which were better layers, they believed, than the upright exhibition birds. From this particular dispute emerged one of the best and rarest pieces of writing, the book by Dr. J. A. Coutts, The Indian Runner Duck: its origin, history, breeding, and management (1927, Feathered World). Reginald Appleyard’s own split loyalties to utility and exhibition Runners produced a string of informative articles as well as his own book, Ducks: breeding, rearing and management (Poultry World). What we have tried to do in this volume is give extracts of some of these works so that the modern reader can sample the ideas and writings of these authorities, and witness some of the contention that filled many pages of the poultry press.

The disputes had additional benefits. They drove the antagonists "back to basics". Miss T. Wilson-Wilson and Henry Digby sent to India for genuine specimens. What they ended up with, and showed in 1898, "were not the true Runner or anything like it. The offspring were domed in the skull and very much dished in the bill," according to Coutts. He, of course, was on the side of Matthew Smith, who had failed to find anything in India. Joseph Walton, on the other hand, went slightly further afield. By 1909 he had managed to bring into the country a few genuine-looking Runners from the Indonesian islands. These birds were better than those of Digby, and so much better than most of the existing Indian Runners in Britain, Australia and America, that the new bloodlines were both welcome and unwelcome to the Runner Fancy. Later importations by the Misses Chisholm and Davidson brought further fresh blood from Lombok and Java, and did even more to justify the recognition of the modern "type" of Indian Runner.

Indian Runner book including postage

Book including postage
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Colour Breeding in Domestic Ducks

An introduction to duck colour genetics was published in 'The Domestic Duck' (2001, reprinted in paperback 2008). This analysis was based on the work of F M Lancaster and R G Jaap, and also took into account colours developed subsequent to 1963. Experimental breeding with Calls and Indian Runners in particular has expanded our knowledge and understanding of the interactions of the colour genes. The British Waterfowl Standards 2008 now incorporate genotypes, and Colour Breeding gives examples of the colours which span the breeds and gives advice on how to recognize them. Such knowledge enables breeders to eliminate faults more easily, and to refresh inbred flocks by appropriate out-crossing. It takes the guesswork out of breeding and allows recognition of the phenotype by focusing on diagnostics such as wing colour and pattern.

FOREWORD TO 'Colour Breeding in Domestic Ducks'

As far as duck breeders are concerned, the most influential figure in the understanding of colour breeding is Maurice Lancaster. ‘F. M.’ Lancaster published a short series of articles in the Waterfowl Magazine (1977–79). These were based on his research at Harper Adams University College and the original monograph ‘The inheritance of plumage colour in the common duck’, Bibliographia Genetica, 1963. Even for readers not trained in genetics or biology, these articles were ground-breaking. So, it is with gratitude and humility that our book explores the same field from the position of the amateur duck breeder today.

Colour Breeding book including postage UK (Great Britain) £10.00 GBP Rest of World £18.00 GBP

Page last updated: 11th October 2023