Birds – Canvasback

(Aythyra vallisneria.)

Called also.. WHITE BACK ; BULL-NECK

Length—21 inches ; generally a little larger than the redhead.

Male—Head and neck dark reddish brown, almost black on crown and chin. A broad band of black encircles breast and upper back; rest of the back and generally wing coverts silvery gray, almost white, the plumage being white, broken up with fine wavy black lines often broken into dots across the feathers; white underneath; sides dusky; pointed tail feathers darkest slate. Bill, longer than head and shaped like a goose’s, from 2.50 to 3 inches in length. Eyes red; feet bluish gray.

Female—Head, neck, collar around upper back and breast, cinnamon or snuff brown; lighter on the throat; back and sides grayish brown marked with waving white lines; white underneath.

Range—North America at large, nesting from the Rocky Mountains and the upper tier of our western states to Alaska and the farthest British possessions, and wintering in the United States, especially in the Chesapeake and middle Texas regions, southward to Central America.

Season—Autumn and spring migrant, and winter resident.

“There is little reason for squealing in barbaric joy over this over-rated and generally underdone bird,” says Dr. Coues; ” not one person in ten thousand can tell it from any other duck on the table, and only then under the celery circumstances.” Yet it is this darling of the epicures that, with the stewed terrapin of Maryland kitchens, has conferred on Baltimore the title of the ” gastronomic capital ” of our country. There, where it is brought to market fattened on the wild celery in the Chesapeake, it is in its prime a tender, delicately flavored duck, but not one whit more delicious than the canvasbacks taken in Wisconsin, for example, where the celery beds cover hundreds of miles; or the redheads that feed in the same place ; or, indeed, than many of the river and pond ducks unknown to the gourmands of Mary-land. Redheaded ducks are constantly palmed off at fancy prices by unscrupulous dealers on uninformed caterers, who suffer only in pocket-book by the deception; but the novice who wishes to get what he is paying for is referred to the preceding biography to learn the distinguishing marks of these close associates.

After all it is the food it lives upon, and not its species, that is responsible for any duck’s flavor. Canvasbacks have an immense range, and where no wild celery grows, and they must harden their muscles in the active pursuit of fish, lizards, and other animal diet, they become as tough and rank as a merganser, ignored and even despised members of the duck clan these precieuses ridicules.

The wild celery, or vallisneria spiralis, which is no celery at all, but an eel grass growing entirely beneath the water, took its name from Antonio Vallisneri, an Italian naturalist, and it was passed on as a specific name to the canvasback. When fattened upon it a brace of these ducks often weigh twelve pounds. To secure its buds and roots, the only parts they eat, they must dive and remain a long time under water, only to be robbed on their return many times by the bold baldpates that snatch the celery from their bills the instant their heads appear above water. Several duck farms have been recently established where the common plebeian domestic duck is fed on celery and fattened for the market. Then this vulgar bird is served up at hotels and restaurants as canvasback, at from three to five dollars a plate, and no one, not even the epicure, can tell the difference.

Exceedingly shy, wary, restless scouts, the canvasbacks are decoyed within gun range only by the sportsman’s subtlest wiles. It is no part of the plan of this book to assist in the already rapid extermination of our game birds by detailing the manifold schemes devised for their capture, which when fully investigated vastly increase our respect for a bird that can save its neck in passing through this land of liberty. This and other diving ducks that wear thick feathered chest protectors may fall to the water, stunned by the sportsman’s shot, but quickly revive, and escape under water; while the retriever, nonplussed by their disappearance, is blamed for his stupidity.

One would imagine our ornithologists were writing cook-books, to read their accounts of this duck whose habits have been little studied beyond its feeding grounds in the United States. Its life history is still incomplete, although its nesting habits are supposed to be identical with those of the redhead, and its buff eggs are known to have a bluish tinge. It is in death that the canvasback is glorified.