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Redhead Duck (What Time is it in Nature)

February 13, 2016

It’s always exciting to see a new bird for the first time at Prairie Ridge, and last week we got to add a new species to our ever-growing bird list!  Two female Redhead Ducks have been spotted on the pond.

Redhead Ducks. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Redhead Ducks. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Redhead Ducks are medium-sized ducks with smoothly rounded heads and medium-sized bills.  The males give the species their common name: they have cinnamon red heads, a black breast and tail, and grey bodies.  Females, like those we saw at Prairie Ridge, are less colorful and are mostly brown, though their heads can have a faint ruddy hue.  Both males and females have grey bills with a black tip, a great field mark to use to distinguish them from the similarly colored Canvasback Duck.

Redheads are classified as diving ducks and you will see them dive underwater in ponds, wetlands, and reservoirs to grab food.  However, they also behave like dabbling ducks, tipping upright in the water so that they can reach into the shallows and grab food without having to submerge entirely.  They feed mostly on aquatic plants, such as algae, pondweed, and bulrushes, but they will also take fish eggs, snails, mussels, and aquatic insects when they can get them.

These beautiful ducks only visit North Carolina in the winter and do not generally breed in our state.  In the winter, however, you may see many of these ducks in groups on ponds.  They are highly gregarious and in some locations along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico the “rafts” of Redheads can reach 60,000 or more birds!  They may also join other ducks, such as Lesser Scaups, Canvasbacks, Northern Pintails, and American Coots, to form even larger feeding groups.

Because they do not breed in North Carolina, we unfortunately do not have an opportunity to witness the Redhead mating behaviors and nest-building that occur in Midwestern prairie pothole habitats.  Male Redheads attract females by throwing their heads back exuberantly, making a sort of “meow” call as they do.  Males and females investigate nest sites together, but the female will ultimately build her nest and rear the eggs alone.  Redhead nests are made from aquatic plants and feathers and float on the surface of the water.  A female may brood 7-8 eggs in her nest, but this species is known to deposit eggs in the nests of other ducks as well.  This “brood parasitism” is especially common when the water levels of a pond are low or food is scarce and is thought to improve a duck’s chance to produce successful offspring.

We don’t know how long they’ll stick around, so visit Prairie Ridge soon for a chance to see our latest addition to our bird list!  Look for the Redheads on the pond, but don’t get too close.  Our visitors spook easily and you may only get a glimpse of them flying away if you get too close!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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