British Waterfowl Standards

From its inauguration (as The Waterfowl Club) in 1887, the British Waterfowl Association has continued to play a key role in producing the Waterfowl Standards, from the Poultry Club Standards of 1901 to this 2008 edition. This edition contains major revisions in format, terminology, historical information and structure, including graded judging defects and colour genotypes.

Both editions can be purchased through our shop.


168 pages, fully illustrated, 200 pictures of all the breeds and colours

Click here for sample pages on the Yellow Belly Call duck as a pdf

All the Ducks and Geese in one spiral-bound A5 volume

  • New breeds and colours
  • Graded judging defects
  • Historical information
  • Colour genotypes


Millennium Edition with Carl Donner Paintings.

Following the publication of the 1982 Poultry Club Standards, which introduced new descriptions for several breeds of waterfowl, Tom Bartlett suggested that the BWA should produce its own illustrated standards in colour. The Norfolk artist Carl Donner was commissioned to paint watercolours of all the breeds, plus the standard colours of Calls and Indian Runners. These were published in 1999 as this specially commissioned millennium edition.

Buying FAQ

The very best way to buy waterfowl is to visit the breeder in person. They will understand the needs of the birds they are selling and should offer you advice on how to care for them properly. If you are new to waterfowl, don’t be surprised if they want you to return after modifying your facilities. When you come to sell birds yourself, you should check that the buyer understands what is requred and can provide what they need. It is polite to offer a deposit if you are not in a position to take birds home on the day. Otherwise don’t be surprised if the birds you want are gone by the time you are ready.

Auctions and bird fairs can have some good bargains; you get to see what you are buying. The price will depend on how much competition there is for the birds you are after.

There are some specialist dealers who are very knowledgeable. They will often take surplus stock from breeders who do not wish to deal with random strangers. Dealers will not be in the business of ducks and geese to become obscenely wealthy. The only way to make a small fortune out of waterfowl, is to start with a large fortune in the first place. 

Always isolate all new birds for a fortnight, wherever they have come from. You will not know if a bird has come into contact with disease or parasites for some days after you get them home. Always ask yourself why a bird is for sale, especially if it seems like a bargain.

In the UK, under DEFRA’s General Licence 18 you may purchase any waterfowl species except the Ruddy Duck.

Any bird sold under this licence must have been bred in captivity – its parents must have been in lawful captivity when the egg was laid. Advice on documentation here.

You do not need to apply for this general licence but you must meet its conditions and follow its instructions. There are 2 exceptions; the Mute Swan and Egyptian Goose need individual licences to be sold and are not covered by the General Licence. 

The Ruddy Duck is restricted in order to protect the endangered White-headed Duck that breeds in Europe. 

If you buy or move on such stock, the birds must be close-ringed or microchipped as proof of captive breeding. There is a list, Appendix 2 the General Licence 18 of ordinarily resident birds which are exempt from the requirement to be ringed. View the terms of the general licence here.

In the eyes of the authorities, waterfowl are poultry. If you keep more than 50 birds, you must notify the poultry register. That is 50 in total, so includes your chickens, pheasants and pigeons etc, but not your parrots!

You can register voluntarily if you have fewer birds. The advantage of registering is that you will be notified immediately if there is a disease outbreak. 

Information about the Poultry register can be seen here.

The following British traditional duck breeds have registrars. If you plan to keep any of these breeds we urge you to register your flock:

  • Aylesbury
  • Cayuga
  • Silver Appleyard
  • Abacot Ranger
  • Buff Orpington
  • Campbell
  • Crested
  • Magpie
  • Pekin
  • Welsh Harlequin
  • Stanbridge White
  • Shetland
  • Black East Indian
  • Silver Bantam
  • Miniature Silver Appleyard

Some of these breeds are kept in very small numbers and by only a few breeders. If you compare these figures with those for other categories of domestic animals on the RBST Watchlist, most would be classed as critical or endangered.

In the UK we face few restrictions as to which species of waterfowl we can keep. Only the (North American) Ruddy Duck and Egyptian Goose are prohibited. This is to minimise the impact of the introduction and spread of non-native animals and plants across the EU. Visit for further information for England and Wales

As long as you keep them contained, that means not released or allowed to escape, you may keep all the other Anseriformes. All may be traded freely as long as they are individulally proven as captive bred. This means close ringed or microchipped for identification. Our native and ordinarily resident birds listed in Appendix 2 of the General Licence may be moved without a ring. Mute Swans require an individual licence to be moved.

Our responsibility to these birds is to keep them in conditions sympathetic to a contented mental state. They should be adequately fed and watered, kept in comfortable conditions with relation to their size and normal habits, and sheltered from weather extremes. We should protect them from pain, injury and disease and allow them the freedom to express normal behaviour. We should do all in our power to protect them from fear and distress.

Essentially, these are summed up in the five freedoms of animal welfare. Expanded; four physical or functional domains of nutrition, environment, heath and behaviour surround and influence the mental state. The Five Domains are key to the highest standards of welfare.

As the British Waterfowl Association we believe that the highest standard of welfare should remain one of our core values.

Read the paper about Fundamental Welfare Requirements here.

Breeds and species are two groups of living things that can breed with the members of the same group. Breed is mostly used to describe groups of domestic animals while all non-hybrid life forms belong to a species. The main difference between a breed and a species is that a breed is a specific population that is selectively bred for the preservation of specific characteristics whereas a species is the largest group that can routinely produce fertile offspring through breeding. Therefore, a breed is a smaller group of animals than a species. Think of a breed as a domesticated version of a subspecies, which has been subjected to artificial, as opposed to natural, selection. All domestic waterfowl are descended from a select few species: the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos for all duck breeds except the domestic Muscovy Duck, which is descended from the wild species Cairina moschata of the same name, and the Greylag Anser anser and Swan Geese Anser cygnoides for domestic geese. For a breed to be standardised it has to have proven to breed predictably for several generations.

A true-breeding organism, sometimes also called a purebred, is an organism that always passes down certain phenotypic (i.e. physically expressed) traits to its offspring of many generations. An organism is referred to as true breeding for each trait to which this applies, and the term ‘true-breeding’ is also used to describe individual genetic traits.

In Mendelian genetics, this means that an organism must be homozygous for every trait for which it is considered true breeding; that is, the pairs of alleles that express a given trait are the same. In a purebred strain or breed, the goal is that the organism will ‘breed true’ for the breed-relevant traits.

Some waterfowl are sexually dimorphic. This means male and female do not look the same, making it easy to tell them apart when they are adult and in breeding plumage. Some however, are not. 

As most domestic ducks have descended from the Mallard, adult ducks have a harsh quack and adult drakes develop a tail curl. Some domestic breeds of geese and ducks are auto-sexing, which means that the down colouring of males and females is different at hatch. Of course, this has huge benefits for the commercial world; shall we just say that boys may face a different destiny to girls. This method of sexing is only reliable if the breeding stock is pure.

The usual method of sexing unknown birds is by vent sexing, known as cloacal examination. Male waterfowl have a phallus, (intromittent organ) within the vent. With careful examination, you can sort the boys from the girls. However, this is a delicate procedure and must only be done after expert tuition. Even the most experienced keepers can get it wrong ocasionally with some species, such as Whistling ducks.

In the breeding season, the shape of the body can guide you. It is best to do your research about your species before going out to buy and this is especially true with the standardised breeds. If you study the colour and plumage requirements for each sex before setting out to buy, you will be in the best position to assess the birds on offer.

If  a bird is advertised as female, it should be female. If genuine mistakes are made, you should offer or expect a refund or replacement of the correct gender.

The answer has to be that if you breed waterfowl with a view to obtaining birds of a particular type, then, like it or not, you are applying genetics. You are accepting that your birds are able to pass on features (in the form of genes) to their offspring, and that, by breeding only from those birds with the characteristics you want, you will ‘improve’ the next generation. By getting your head round some of the basic principles, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by realising what is or is not possible. If you are purchasing birds, you should be confident that the breeder has applied basic principles so that the birds you are buying are as you expect.
All domestic animals have been developed from wild ancestors by human intervention. Our domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovies, are descended from the wild Mallard. The differences we see now have come about by mutations – random, rare changes in genes from those producing mallard characteristics, which humans have seized upon to breed selectively. In the wild, odd genes would disappear into the mass or the birds carrying them would be easy prey to predators, but in captivity they have been artificially selected for, and not only maintained, but combined in new ways, resulting in the wide range we see today.

So how does it work? Each living thing (including ducks) has a number of pairs of chromosomes in each cell of its body, carrying thousands of genes — one set from its father and one set from its mother. Since any duck receives one gene for a particular character from each parent it must have two genes for any character. Different versions of a gene are called alleles. Taking the simplest possible scenario, if these two alleles are the same, (called homozygous) there is no problem, the alleles will decide the feature and will show in that organism. If they are not the same (heterozygous), there are two possibilities. Often, one allele (the dominant one) will show itself (be expressed) and the other (recessive) will be hidden.

For example, the black colour seen in Cayugas, Black East Indians and others is caused by an allele that is dominant over the normal wild-type colour. If we use the letter E to represent the black, and e to represent the recessive wild colour, we can see that a black duck could be either EE or Ee, but a wild colour bird could only be ee. When these birds go on to breed, the homozygous black (EE) can only pass on E alleles, the wild type can only pass on one e allele, but the heterozygous can pass on E or e alleles. Thus, it would be quite possible that two black ducks could produce wild-type offspring (unless you could be sure they were EE) but virtually impossible for two wild-type birds to produce black offspring.

In other situations, one allele is not dominant over the other, so that if the alleles are different (heterozygous), the result is a form like neither parent but somewhere between, or different from either. This is called co-dominance. An example of this is blue colour, as in the Blue Swedish, where the blue results from two alleles being different, the homozygous situations giving Black and Splashed White. Only 50% of offspring from two Blue Swedish will be like their parents. The only way to get 100% Blue is to cross a Black with a Splashed White! Thus, it will never be possible to breed pure Blue Swedish, and it actually raises the question about whether this can be considered a true breed at all. A get-out here is that the inheritance in blue birds is at least predictable!

The single gene situation is not the norm — many characteristics are the result of a number of genes acting together, often one gene modifying the effect of another (such as dilution genes), so that it is often far harder to see the underlying principles at work. In addition, since there are colour differences between male and female ducks, there is the added complication of sex Iinkage.

Only 22 mutations in domestic ducks have been described so far — there is obviously much more work to do. Mike Ashton has given much more detail of the mechanisms of inheritance of some of these genes, in his articles in Waterfowl and in his and Chris’s book, The Domestic Duck. I am not proposing to repeat his work here, but to urge duck breeders to think about the mechanisms underlying their breeding programmes, to try applying some basic principles and to share information with others to add to the body of knowledge available. It would be especially useful to keep track of the numbers of different forms obtained from particular pairings.

There are two possible issues arising from a lack of regard or understanding of the underlying principles. Sometimes all colours of Calls, for example, are run together. Offspring are chosen which happen to correspond to show standard criteria for a particular colour for exhibition and sale and a great disservice is being done to that colour. In all probability the birds will have a number of recessive alleles which are not expressed but will show up in successive generations. In other words, despite appearances, they are cross-bred and will not breed true.

Another issue is from random crossing, where a colour of duck appears which is novel and which the breeder likes. It is easy to assume to assume that, by successive breeding and selection, eventually a pure-breeding line can be produced. In all probability, the ‘new’ colour only exists when a gene or probably genes, are heterozygous, in other words ‘split’, and a pure-breeding form will never be possible. 

So, if you’ve never thought about the mechanism of inheritance in this way, give it a go. It can make sense of what you see happening and certainly adds interest to the breeding side of the hobby.

Geoff Chase

Waterfowl are messy things, but there’s a lot we can do to keep them healthy. At times of heightened disease risk we need to take extra precautions. 

There are some simple measures that all poultry keepers, whether they are running a large commercial farm, keeping a few hens in their back garden, or rearing game birds, should take to protect their birds against the threat of avian influenza (bird flu) in the winter months. These include:

  • Keeping the area where birds live clean and tidy, controlling rats and mice and regularly disinfecting any hard surfaces
  • Cleaning footwear before and after visits
  • Placing birds’ feed and water in fully enclosed areas that are protected from wild birds, and removing any spilled feed regularly
  • Putting fencing around outdoor areas where birds are allowed and limiting their access to ponds or areas visited by wild waterfowl
  • Where possible, avoid keeping ducks and geese with other poultry species.

See the latest information from UK Government here.

When you first plan your facilities you should consider how you will cope with growing numbers when the birds breed.

One of the most common causes of health and welfare problems is overcrowding. Inevitably, living in dirty, cramped conditions and bickering with your pen-mates leads to stress.

Most areas of the metabolism are inter-related. For instance, a parasite infestation would cause stress and predispose the bird to other conditions. A stressed bird might be more prone to becoming overburdoned with parasites, so it is a vicious circle. Breaking the cycle comes down to good husbandry.

‘Less is more’ when it comes to the perfectly stocked facility.


Do not move birds when there are extreme weather conditions; hot or cold.

A box or container for waterfowl should be large enough for the bird to stand up and turn around and should have plenty of ventilation. 

Line the bottom of the box with newspaper and then add a layer of clean straw or wood shavings. Most will settle quite quickly if they do not feel they are sliding around. Keep the box out of direct sunlight and do not leave the vehicle in the sun with the windows closed whilst you stretch your legs and have an expresso.

Plan your journey to be as short as possible and make a contingency plan for unforeseen delays. This may include a dish and container of water. Whilst on the move, waterfowl are unlikely to drink, but if you break down they could need something. 


When you get home, transfer your birds to a secure holding pen or small hut, with access to food and water. Check the area is secure BEFORE you open the box!

If it is very late it may be better to keep them in their crate overnight. Some advocate using floodlights for the first night.

Chances are, the birds will try to get as far away from you as possible, so they’ll go and hide. A temporary release pen around the feeding area will ensure that they can find the feed.

New arrivals will settle better if you are quiet and calm. Talk to them in your normal voice and make time to watch them and make sure all is well. Watch for bullying, keeping other pets away until they settle in. Geese are sometimes slower to settle than ducks.

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