The ducks of Long Island, New York were famous back in the day when this state was the largest producer of duck eggs and whole birds in the country. In the 1940s there were said to be 90 duck farms on Long Island, mostly in Suffolk County, and in the 1950s duck farming was as economically important as the entire commercial fishing industry for the state. My husband Bucko grew up on Long Island in a world where the eastern part of the island was covered with duck farms and potato fields. Long Island duck, Long Island potatoes, maybe you’ve heard of them?
Well, all things change over time. In the 1960s it was determined that the solid waste from existing duck farms was a pollution hazard. One 1968 study estimated that the 34 duck farms that existed then contributed a total of 70 tons of solid waste per day which fouled (pun intended) the tributaries to Moriches Bay with deposits of sludge up to 10 feet deep, only covered by a few inches of water. Obviously, this process needed to be controlled. Eventually, the duck farms were closed due to new environmental regulations and the streams were dredged and cleaned up.
These days it is difficult to find Pekin ducks, those white domestic ducks, anywhere on Long Island, and believe me, on a recent trip there I looked for them. The last remaining traces of the duck farms on Long Island are encapsulated in two spots: the Big Duck and the Crescent Duck Farm – and we set out to see them both.
The Big Duck is the place where “duck architecture” got its name. This building is shaped like a Pekin duck and, in its current site in Flanders, it houses a gift store and tourist information booth. Bucko and I had a lot of fun posing in front and behind The Big Duck (for rear-end shots!) and chatting with the knowledgeable local who manned the shop. The open field behind The Big Duck was complete with an illustrative duck shed and various signage commemorating the duck farms of long ago. But I was still intent on visiting the last remaining duck farm, the Crescent Duck Farm nearby with its state-of-the-art waste processing system. But alas this was not to be. Although we found the farm, the owner Doug Corwin was not there at the time and no one else was authorized to let us inside the giant barns housing their ducks. Supposedly, this last duck farm still accounts for about 4% of the ducks consumed in the United States.
When Bucko’s sister Susan was a kid she had a pet duck “Duffy” that she nurtured from a small duckling. When it got too much for her to maintain this bird she did what Long Islanders often do—she released Duffy into a local lake. And for months when she revisited this area she could call his name and he would leave the flock and come over to her for petting and treats. But then disaster hit, and these ducks were killed by marauding dogs. On this recent trip, we three went to the lake where Duffy had once lived and found no ducks at all. Byron Lake is now undergoing its own clean-up. Ducks are gone, and a new berm around the lake is helping restore this once-polluted area. There may have been no ducks, and the water did not look clear but to me, it looked healthy, with tadpoles of various sizes, pond lilies and dragonflies. But to Susan it was a horror. No ducks! Just dirty water! Why don’t they clean up this place?
Elsewhere on Long Island, there are still a few “duck ponds” where people can feed the ducks. But domestic ducks cannot survive the cold winters without help. Humane Long Island still rescues hundreds of domestic ducks a year that, like Duffy, have been abandoned in ponds and lakes all over the island. These domestic ducks now are known to compete with native ducks for resources and, unlike native ducks, domestic ducks destroy native vegetation by eating the stems and roots of native plants. Where once there were domestic ducks in most ponds I once saw around Blue Point, Long Island, now there is nary a white duck to be found. To me, a biologist and animal lover, this trend is good for the environment and good for domestic ducks that will not survive on their own in the wild. But to Susan, this is a sad turn of events. Where are the ducks? For her another part of the old Long Island is missing now too.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]