The Domestication History of Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata)

South American Bird Domesticate Cairina moschata

Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata)
Muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) and her family, highland Peru. Ed Nellis

The muscovy duck (Cairina moschata), sometimes called the Barbary drake, is a type of duck with a fairly unusual domestication history. Unlike other members of the duck species, and in fact rather like guinea pigs, muscovies were domesticated in South America and dispersed from there by European colonization forces.

The muscovy is a tropical to subtropical perching duck, with a large body form and a long tail which the duck uses as balance in their movement around in trees.

Currently, wild muscovies are distributed along both coasts of Mexico, southward through central America and into the forested lowland areas of South America including Peru, northern Argentina and Uruguay.

Although direct archaeological evidence (that is to say, muscovy duck bones) is fairly rare, convincing images of C. moschata are illustrated on clay pottery from Moche and ChimĂș cultures and are arguably illustrated in Aztec codexes and iconographic art from Mexico.

Muscovy Wild and Domestic

The earliest domestic muscovies are from the Mochica culture in southern Peru beginning about AD 50, and up into coastal Ecuador by AD 80; they are in Bolivia between AD 600-1000, and into central America by ~AD 750-950. Such scattershot dates and places suggests to scholars a lack of data, and that the real story of muscovy domestication has yet to be discovered. After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-16th century, muscovies were quickly adapted by the colonists and then taken home and spread out into the wider world.

(see Stahl 2005 for a detailed analysis).

Wild forms of muscovy duck are grayish black on the top and black with green and purple iridescence on the underside with prominent white patches on their wings. Known to flock in groups of fifty during the breeding season, most of the rest of the time, muscovies fly in small groups or alone, staying along stream banks and moving into savanna areas during the wet season.

Muscovies are territorial, have no fixed breeding season, and tend towards prolific egg production with rapidly maturing hatchlings. Archaeological evidence of domestic muscovy duck (versus wild) has been difficult to obtain and identify when it is excavated. Stahl examined 34 ducks and found 54 characteristics with significant variances between wild and domestic versions, most of which refer to the larger size of various body elements and wing spans in the domesticated versions.

Genetic Studies

The muscovy is valued today for its unique rich and flavorful taste, a fairly high yield of breast meat, and a low calorie content. Eleven different breeds are known today, including several in China, where the famous Chinese genetic engineering experiments of the last 250 years (and, of course, without direct reference to genes until very lately) have been meticulously recorded. Interestingly, it is only within the last decade that genetic structure of C. moschata has been illuminated.

In two recent reports in the literature, Chen et al. and Sun et al., scholars have identified only 4-6 haplotypes, with simple haplotype components and low genetic variability, leading them to conclude that most of the muscovy ducks they had access to--from several different populations around China--probably came from a single domestication event.

Alternatively, they add, this may represent simply an example of the bottleneck effect seen in many introduced species, combined with that of careful, high-strength breeding regimes typical of Chinese agricultural experimentation.


This article is a part of the guide to the Animal Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Chen S-Y, He D-Q, and Liu Y-P. 2009. Low Genetic Variability of Domestic Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) in China Revealed by Mitochondrial DNA Control Region Sequences. Biochemical Genetics 47(9-10):734-738.

Stahl PW. 2003. Pre-columbian Andean animal domesticates at the edge of empire. World Archaeology 34(3):470-483.

Stahl PW. 2005. An exploratory osteological study of the muscovy duck (Cairina moschata) (Aves: Anatidae) with implications for neotropical archaeology.

Journal of Archaeological Science 32(6):915-929.

Stahl PW, Muse MC, and Delgado-Espinoza F. 2006. New evidence for pre-Columbian Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata from Ecuador. Ibis 148(4):657-663.

Stahl PW, and Norton P. 1987. Precolumbian Animal Domesticates from Salango, Ecuador. American Antiquity 52(2):382-391.

Sun J, Huang J, Zhao X, Zhong H, Zhu Q, and Liu Y. 2012. Limited Genetic Diversity of Chinese Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata) Revealed by Partial Sequences of Mitochondrial DNA Cytochrome b Gene. In: Zhu E, and Sambath S, editors. Information Technology and Agricultural Engineering: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. p 279-282.