The modern Call duck is the smallest breed of domestic duck, weighing only 1-1½lbs. The original Call ducks were literally developed as calling ducks, to call down the wild mallard to the great traps or decoys of the marshes. They were first known as the decoy duck, the name coming from the Dutch word 'de kooi' meaning ‘trap or cage'.
The idea of the Decoy (de Kooi) duck and the pipe or decoy trap was pioneered on the continent in Flanders. The oldest surviving decoy was built in 1318 in East Flanders at Castle Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde, Bornem, and is still in existence today (1).
The traps were known as eendekooi in Holland (meaning duck cage). De kooi, or eendekooi became ‘decoy’ in English and the name was applied to the tame ducks which entrapped the wildfowl.
These early Decoy ducks are not thought to have been defined by type, but by training. Kenneth Broekman (from Holland) confirms that the owner of a duck trap, owned by one family since 1800, informed that call ducks were never used. Tame mallards, who swim inside the polders, and knew where to get their usual food, took other ducks along. The other ducks they used were cage ducks; they remained in the eenden kooi. Their presence was to attract other ducks. Call ducks were never used because their loud noise (panic) kept wild ducks away.
Modern Call ducks
First standardized in the UK in 1865, their origin is known to be Dutch - but where did the Dutch get them? Horst Schmidt (2) notes that Calls seem to have become popular in Holland round about the year 1800 and that they became widespread within quite a short period of time. This perhaps indicates that they were not developed in Europe, but arrived ‘ready-made’ from the Far East after the Dutch acquired the Dutch East Indies. It was surmised that ducks had probably been kept for centuries as ornamental birds in parks and courts. The source of Schmidt’s information is likely to have been Theo. van Gink (1932, 1941) who suggested that since the Dutch had Japanese bantams as early as the seventeenth century, it was also possible they brought back bantam ducks as well. ‘. . . we should not be surprised if some day Japanese poultry and duck fanciers might find in their old books information relating to some old breed of dwarf ducks, especially as the Call duck’s type is very different to the ordinary European type of duck to sport from it, and since they bred so true it must be a very old-established breed’.
The problem remains to this day that evidence of the existence of Call ducks has not been found in the Far East. The closest one gets to them is the diminutive Laysan Teal from that Pacific island where this dwarf mallard stock occur. Tiny and shrill-voiced, the Laysan could perhaps have been the stock for the development of the Call.
Dutch Dwarf Ducks
Calls are substantially different from ‘normal’ ducks. They show typical effects of genetic dwarfism. This idea is, of course, apparent in their German name ‘zwergenten’. The dwarf gene may have mutated in the Far East, but it could equally well have occurred in Holland. Making a Call duck from scratch would have been a chance event and made the type both novel and fashionable.
However, although it has been stated that Calls can be seen in paintings of the old Dutch masters, many Dutch do not believe this. There are small magpie-marked and bibbed ducklings. And that is what they are – not Call ducks, but ducklings.
Although poultry artist van Gink says (1921) ‘We think we also remember one or more Kwakertjes on an old painting of a Dutch master from the 17th Century’, he does not seem to return that view.
Van der Mark, also from Holland, is quite definite: ‘On the many paintings by old masters from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, such as Melchior d'Hondecoeter and Jan Steen, which contain a lot of poultry, nothing can be found indicating the Dutch origin of the Call ducks.’
It was quite common for similar-looking birds to crop up in different d’Hondecoeter paintings from the 1600s. The same magpie-marked and bibbed ducklings are in pictures at Burton Agnes Hall (UK) and pictures from Mauritshuis published in Avicultura 2000. A pelican in the same pose is in both the St Petersburgh and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) examples, and recurs in several other works. This recurrence is not surprising, because it is thought that the studio paintings were based upon sketches made from life, in the open air. The sketches were then models for work in the studio on several paintings in different settings. There is therefore no guaranteed provenance for the subjects of the paintings: the subjects could have been painted anywhere. The probability, however, is that they were within Europe at that time, and that the birds were in the waterfowl collections of rich estates.
A detail from another Burton Agnes painting is even more revealing. Here, small stubby-beaked pied and magpie-marked ducks play in the water beside a large crested duck. In the Burton Agnes painting, the evidence is quite unequivocal: the duckling on the bank flaps its un-fledged wings, and the accompanying grey-and-whites are ducklings too; they are not adult ducks. Note that all ducklings – even Indian Runners – tend to have cute short beaks. In the duckling, this feature it is not diagnostic of the Call.
Ducks in d’Hondecoeter Paintings
Take a close look at the d’Hondecoeter painting of the tiny ducks (above) and you will see why van der Mark did not regard these paintings as evidence for early Dutch Calls. Quite often, small magpie-marked birds are accompanied by Muscovies, and an examination of their plumage shows no flight feathers on the wings, only young fluff and stubby plumage.
The colours are wrong too. The ducklings with the Muscovy are black and white like the adult Muscovy. A simple mutation produces the magpie mutation in Muscovies. Mallards are different. They need a combination of two pattern genes plus extended black which does not seem to appear even in fully-grown ducks until the arrival of the Cayuga, Smaragd (Emerald/Black East Indie), Duclair and Swedish (where it is with the blue gene). The earliest recorded date for the BEI is around 1831 (in ZSL records published 1832 [see 7]), but it is uncertain where the pair came from.