Ducks

The fascinating history of Welsh Harlequin ducks

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Learn more about Welsh Harlequin ducks, a multi-purpose, heritage breed duck that also makes a fantastic pet!


Years back, we decided we wanted to get egg-laying fowl. We didn’t know much at the time, so we just assumed this desire meant we’d get chickens.

However, after meeting a friend’s pet duck (and eating her duck’s eggs) plus reading a pile of books on the topic, we came to realize that ducks were a much better choice for us relative to chickens.

You can read all about the side-by-side analysis we conducted that caused us to choose ducks vs. chickens here.

In this article, we’ll be telling you more about why we chose Welsh Harlequin ducks in particular, and what we’ve learned after living up close and personal with a flock of Welsh Harlequin ducks for the past seven years.

A typical summer view in our front yard: our flock of Welsh Harlequin ducks forage, we garden, and Bob the cat sleeps in the fading sunbeams.

A typical summer view in our front yard: our flock of Welsh Harlequin ducks forage, we garden, and Bob the cat sleeps in the fading sunbeams.

A brief history of Welsh Harlequin ducks 

Where are Welsh Harlequin ducks from? 

Every modern breed of domesticated duck originated from wild Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). The exception to this rule is Muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata), which are a separate line on the duck family tree. 

The first known Mallard domestication took place in Asia about 4,000 years ago. It’s unknown when Muscovies were first domesticated, but it likely happened thousands of years ago in their native range of Mexico, Central, and/or South America. 

So, Welsh Harlequins’ wild ancestors were Mallard ducks. 

Every American brags that they're part Cherokee. Every duck brags that they're part Mallard. Pictured: one of our Welsh Harlequin ducks foraging in the snow.

Every American brags that they’re part Cherokee. Every duck brags that they’re part Mallard. Pictured: one of our Welsh Harlequin ducks foraging in the snow. Photo by our friend, John Christ.

Leslie Bonnet (1902 – 1985), the greatest man in history? 

Who is the greatest human being in history that you’ve never heard of? Undoubtedly, the answer to that question is Leslie Bonnet, the man who originally bred Welsh Harlequin ducks. 

Group Captain Leslie Bonnet.jpg

Leslie Bonnet, hero to Welsh Harlequin parents around the world. Image by Atenstaedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.

Bonnet was a true Renaissance Man: a gifted scholar, writer, magazine editor, banker, British Royal Air Force (RAF) officer, and — most importantly — duck breeder.  

In 1949, Bonnet and his family moved to Criccieth in North Wales (just across the Irish Sea from Dublin, Ireland). Of course, the family brought their two dogs with them. And their 1,500 ducks. (We thought we had a duck addiction – sheesh.) 

The Bonnets fixed up a ramshackle manor house on 25 acres, and Leslie soon used the space to become an internationally renown duck breeder. His 1960 book Practical Duck-keeping was long regarded as the world’s go-to guide on raising and breeding ducks.

Here’s how Bonnet described Welsh Harlequin ducks in Practical Duck-keeping:

“The Welsh Harlequin originated from two sports of pre Khaki Campbell stock in 1949. Its supporters claim that the breed is a better egg producer than the Khaki Campbell. If this is so, it would be due to the docile and placid nature of the breed, which reduces chances of interruption of egg-laying through shocks or scares….A flock averages over 300 eggs per year.” 

The Brits do have a way with words. When Bonnet died at the age of 83, his obituary described him as “countryman…rubicund, well-fleshed but never flabby, and abounding with energy.” 

It's fair to say that Leslie Bonnet made quite a splash with his life. The human that originally bred Welsh Harlequin ducks deserves to have their visage carved on to the surface of the moon so that all the ducks and humans in the world can see his face at night.

It’s fair to say that Leslie Bonnet made quite a splash with his life. The human that originally bred Welsh Harlequin ducks deserves to have their visage carved on to the surface of the moon so that all the ducks and humans in the world can see his face at night. Photo by John Christ.

During his life, Bonnet produced the only true Welsh breed of duck, the Welsh Harlequin. For that, we are eternally grateful to him.  

Welsh Harlequins come to America 

In 1968, John Fugate, a duck breeder in Tennessee, imported Welsh Harlequin hatching eggs from Leslie Bonnet. By 1981, there were only two small flocks of Welsh Harlequins in the US, so Fugate reached out to Millie and Dave Holderread for help, with the aim of increasing the genetic diversity of the breed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. 

In case you’re not a duck geek, Dave Holderread is one of the world’s top duck experts/breeders. We HIGHLY recommend his book Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks to anyone interested in raising or breeding ducks. 

Over the next few years, Holderread and Fugate successfully maximized the gene pool of the Welsh Harlequins in America. (They also imported additional adult Welsh Harlequins to help the process.) By 1984, Holderread says, “we had sufficient matings to be able to ship ducklings to interested parties throughout the Americas.”  

Silver Phase vs Gold Phase Welsh Harlequin Ducks 

In Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks, Holderread describes the origins of “Silver Phase” vs “Gold Phase” Welsh Harlequin ducks as follows:

“Early in our work with the Harlequins, I noticed that there were two distinct colors and that the body conformation tended to be significantly shorter than portrayed in the earliest descriptions and photos of the breed. These changes indicate that Bonnet introduced non-Khaki Campbell blood into his breeding program at some point prior to 1968. John [Fugate] and I decided that we would select for the longer body conformation of the original Harlequins but would maintain both color varieties. I dubbed these Gold and Silver. During the 1990s several British Waterfowl breeders and judges who visited us commentated that the conformation, size, plumage pattern, and bill and leg color of our Harlequins were more authentic than many of those found at that time in their homeland.” 

When we originally got Welsh Harlequin ducks from a local breeder, we ended up getting one female Gold Phase Welsh Harlequin duck (left). On the right, you can see one of our Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks. This gives you a good side-by-side visual of the differences between the two Harlequin types.

When we originally got Welsh Harlequin ducks from a local breeder, we ended up getting one female Gold Phase Welsh Harlequin duck (left). On the right, you can see one of our Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks. This gives you a good side-by-side visual of the differences between the two Harlequin types.

Gold Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks were the original conformation of the breed, and remain the standard in England. Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks (like our flock) might be described as a later, American version of a Welsh Harlequin.  

Holderread describes the distinction between Gold Phase and Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks as follows:

The original color was the Gold, which has no black pigment, has soft colors, and is the equivalent of Khaki in Campbells. The Silver variety apparently arose at least 10 years after the origin of the breed and has the same relationship to the Gold variety as Dark has to Khaki in the Campbells. Silver Harlequins have more contrast and brilliance in their plumage and are the most common variety in North America today. In Great Britain the Silver variety is not recognized as a Harlequin. 

Those snotty Brits! Our Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks would thumb their noses right back at them — if they had thumbs or noses. 

“For my next trick, I shall dazzle you with my beauty.” Our Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks out foraging on a snow day. Cold and wet conditions don’t bother our flock in the least. Photo by John Christ.

Personally, we find Silver Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks to be the more beautiful of the two types, since the Silver ducks (females) offer beautiful blue-green iridescent wing bars and other striking colorations not found in Gold Phase Welsh Harlequin ducks. The drakes (males) of both phases are so similar in appearance that only duck breeders or judges would be able to tell them apart.  

Sir Winston Duckbill, our Welsh Harlequin drake, pondering the meaning of life while a piece of down dangles from his bill.

Sir Winston Duckbill, our Welsh Harlequin drake, pondering the meaning of life while a piece of down dangles from his bill. Photo by John Christ.

Sexing Welsh Harlequin ducklings

Another interesting visual feature of Welsh Harlequins… “sexing” newborn ducklings as either male or female usually requires a technique where a person uses their fingers to part the duckling’s vent to expose its lady or man parts (assuming they’re not hermaphroditic).

However, for the first few days of a Welsh Harlequin duckling’s life, you can sex them with 75% accuracy based purely on their bill color.    

We challenge you to find anything in the world cuter than a baby duckling. This is an image of three of our Welsh Harlequin ducklets (females) when they were a few days old.

We challenge you to find anything in the world cuter than a baby duckling. This is an image of three of our Welsh Harlequin ducklets (females) when they were a few days old.

Drakelets (males) typically have dark green or grey bills. Ducklets (females) typically have tan or yellow bills with a dark tip. 

Welsh Harlequin ducks: pets that lay eggs

One of the most important features we sought in our ducks was personality. We wanted highly sociable ducks because we wanted pets as much as egg producers. 

Our Welsh Harlequin ducks have far exceeded our expectations in the “pet” category. They’re ridiculously cute and hilarious animals who never fail to put a smile on our faces. (Due to their personalities, Harlequins are often referred to as the “clowns of the duck world.”)

The Tyrant is happiest when her arms are full of ducks. Pet ducks - Welsh Harlequin ducks make great pets.

The Tyrant is happiest when her arms are full of ducks.

We’ve outlined our 3 tips to get your ducks to like you elsewhere, but the calm, curious, docile temperament of Welsh Harlequin ducks makes them an ideal pet duck. We’re also amazed at how unique each duck’s personality is. The only downside is the occasional heartbreak that comes from losing a flock member.    

If you do decide to get ducks (regardless of the breed), please help get prepared by reading our articles:

When species collide. Humans photographing ducks seeing a turtle for the first time. Welsh Harlequin ducks

When species collide. Humans photographing ducks seeing a turtle for the first time.

Welsh Harlequin egg laying – too much of a good thing?

Egg laying takes a lot of energy/nutrients out of a bird, ducks included.

A wild Mallard duck may lay 24 eggs in an entire year (two broods consisting of about 12 eggs each). A single Welsh Harlequin duck can lay 300+ eggs in a single year.  

Granted, a domesticated duck gets way more food for way less calories expended, but that much egg laying still takes a toll. Since our ducks’ primary function is to be pets not egg producers, we want them to be as healthy as possible and live as long as possible — even if that means they lay fewer eggs. 

We’ve discussed this issue with our avian vet, Dr. Hurlbert at Healthpointe Animal Clinic. She’s an avian expert who also raises and rescues ducks.  

Her advice: to maximize your pet ducks’ health and longevity, keep them on maintainer feed rather than layer feed throughout the year. Make calcium supplement (like oyster shell) available if they want it. The lower-protein, lower-calcium maintainer food reduces their laying time/egg production, which then maximizes their health. (Of course, our girls get loads of garden veggies, worms, etc every day as well.) 

This lower-egg inducing duck feeding regimen is something all you duck pet parents out there may want to consider…

“I believe I can fly.” Welsh Harlequins are also flightless birds, so no wing-clipping necessary.

Why get Welsh Harlequin ducks?

We love all duck breeds, and each has unique attributes/benefits. We want to see heritage duck breeds preserved for generations to come AND new duck breeds developed.

We’re head-over-heels in love with Welsh Harlequin ducks. Our flock is part of our family. A select few of them even come indoors (in diapers of course) to enjoy evenings on the couch and the comforts of a human bed.

As Dave Holderread, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on duck breeding, says:

“Harlequins have proven to be one of the most important additions to the North American duck roster in the past 60 years. They are beautifully colored, highly adaptable, outstanding layers, active foragers, excellent producers….Even though their egg production is near or equal to bred-to-lay Campbells, a fair number of the females will successfully incubate and hatch eggs….Harlequins richly deserve their growing popularity.” 

If you choose to get Welsh Harlequin ducks, we hope you’ll love yours as much as we love ours. We also hope you enjoyed reading this Welsh Harlequin duck history lesson, and will celebrate Leslie Bonnet Day with us each year on August 22, his birthday.

KIGI,


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