Birds – Redhead

(Aythyra americana)


Length—19 to 20 inches.

Male—Well rounded head and throat, bright reddish chestnut, with coppery reflection; lower neck, lower back, and fore parts of body above and below, black; rest of the back, sides, and shoulders waved with black and white lines of equal width, that give the parts a silvery gray aspect. Wings brownish gray, minutely dotted with white; wing patch ashy, bordered with black; wing linings chiefly white like the under parts. Bill, which is less than two inches long, dull blue, with a black band at end. Legs and feet grayish brown.

Female—Upper parts dull grayish brown; darker on lower back, the feathers edged with buff or ashy, giving them a mottled appearance; forehead wholly brown; line behind eye and cheeks reddish; upper throat white; neck buff; breast and sides grayish brown washed with buff, and shading into white underneath; an indistinct bluish gray band across end of bill.

Range—North America at large; nesting from California and Minnesota northward, and wintering south of Virginia to West Indies.

Season—Spring and autumn migrant, or winter visitor.

Caterers not up in ornithology very often have this common wild duck of the market stalls palmed off on them, at a fancy price, for canvasbacks; and the tyro on the duck shores of the Chesapeake and our inland lakes just as frequently confuses these two species. Here are a few aids to identification offered in the interest of science, and not because any sympathy need be felt for one who is compelled to eat a redhead, the peer of any table duck.

The bill of the canvasback is a full half inch longer than that of the redhead. The longer, narrower head of the former slants gradually backward from the bill, while that of the latter rises more abruptly, giving the duck a full, round forehead. The plumage on the head and neck of the redhead is decidedly rufous, without any black, whereas the canvasback is rufous brown on those parts, except on the chin and crown, which are blackish. The white lines on the almost white back of the canvasback are wider than those of the redhead, whose black and white waves are of equal width, and look silvery. Usually canvasbacks are larger, heavier birds, but not always. Finally, the females may be distinguished by the difference in their backs, the canvas-back duck having wavy white lines across a grayish brown ground, while the redhead is dull mottled brown and buff above. Unscrupulous dealers have a trick of pulling out the tell-tale feathers, however, which leaves the housekeeper only the shape of the duck’s head and bill to guide her choice and protect her purse. As both these species frequent the same bodies of water, constant opportunities for comparisons are offered to that very small minority, alas, who are more interested in the study of the living duck than in the flavor of one roasted.

When the ice begins to form at the far north, where the red-heads have spent the summer, great flocks come down to us, eschewing New England with unaccountable perversity, and taking up a temporary residence in the smaller lakes that drain into the Great Lakes and the larger western rivers, before descending to the Chesapeake shores—the duck’s paradise—and the lagoons of our southern states, where they pass the winter. It must not be for a moment supposed that because this group of birds is called sea and bay ducks they are found exclusively around salt water. On the contrary, many are more abundant in the interior than along the coast. The classification has reference to the lobe, or web, of these birds’ feet, which are most fully equipped for swimming and diving. The redhead and all its immediate kin plunge through deep water. Those that feed in the great beds of wild celery, or vallisneria, gain a peculiar sweetness and delicacy of flesh. In regions where this eel-grass does not grow —as in California, for example—and the redhead must live upon fish, lizards, tadpoles, and the coarser aquatic vegetables, it enjoys no patronage whatever from epicures; whereas in the Mississippi Valley and the Chesapeake, where this “celery” grows most abundantly, gunners shoot thousands on thousands to supply the demand.

A great troop of redheads flying in a close body along the coast in autumn makes a roar like thunder, as their long, strong wings beat the air in unison. Alighting on the waters above their feeding ground, they are at first restless, alert, constantly wheeling about in the air to reconnoitre, before settling down to enjoy themselves with an easy mind. If they have been decoyed to the duck shores at daybreak by gunners screened behind blinds, or tolled within range, a volley welcomes them ; the survivors of the flock quickly outrace sight itself; the wounded es-cape by diving; and well-trained dogs, plunging through the icy water, bring in to shore the tax that has been levied on the “bunch.” Sink boats and reflectors, employed by market shooters who turn sport to slaughter, must soon be suppressed if there is to be any sport left—a doubtful possibility at the present rate of decrease.

In the sloughs and shallow waters of the interior—too shallow for diving—the redheads dabble about like any pond ducks, and tip up one extremity while the other probes the muddy bottom for food. It is in such marshy waters at the north that they build a nest among the rank herbage close to shore. Here it sometimes rests on the water, or else very close beside it; for these ducks are poor walkers, and the mother chooses to glide off the large nestful of buff eggs directly into her natural element. As usual, the drake keeps at a distance when there is any work to be done. Their call note is a sort of hiss, suggesting their ancestors, the reptiles, on the one hand, and their immediate kin, the geese, on the other.