North American Water Birds – Ruddy Duck

(Erismatura rubida)


Length—15 to 17 inches.

Male—In summer: Crown of head and nape glossy black ; chin and sides of head dull white ; neck all around and upper parts and sides of body rich reddish brown ; lower parts white, with dusky bars ; wing coverts, quills, and stiff-pointed tail feathers darkest brown ; head small ; neck thick. Bill, which is as long as head, broader at tip ; wings very short, and without speculum. In winter the drake resembles female.

Female—Upper parts dusky grayish brown, the feathers rippled with buff ; crown and nape more reddish, and streaked with black ; sides of head and chin white ; throat gray ; under parts white. Young resemble mother.

Range—North America at large ; nesting chiefly north of the United States, but also locally within its range ; winters in the United States.

Season—Spring and autumn migrant ; also locally a winter resident.

The heavy moult this drake undergoes after he deserts his brooding mate transforms him into an obscure, commonplace-looking bird from the faultlessly attired gallant of his courting days ; so that when the ruddy ducks appear on our inland lakes or the estuaries of rivers, shallow bays, and ponds near the sea, there is a close family resemblance between both the parents and the young, none of whom seem worthy bearers of their popular name. But however inconspicuous the feathers, this duck may always be named by its stiff tail quills, that no other bird but a cormorant can match. This curious tail, which is used as a rudder under water, or a vertical paddle, is carried cocked up at right angles to the body when the duck floats about on the surface.

Owing to the ruddy duck’s short wings, it is less willing to trust its safety to them when alarmed than most ducks are, and it will quietly dive in grebe fashion, and drop to safe depths before swimming out of range, rather than depend upon the awkward rising from the surface, that must be struggled through before it is safely launched in steady though labored flight along the water. Heading against the wind, it at first seems to run along the surface with the help of rapid wing beats, before it is able to clear the water ; but once fairly started, it flies good distances and at a fair speed. In figure it more closely resembles a plump, squat teal than an ordinary sea duck. The head is so small that the skin of the neck can be easily drawn over it.

Tall sedges near the water’s edge make the ideal nesting or hunting resort of these ducks, that feed chiefly on eel grass and other vegetable matter growing either above or below the water in shallow bays and inlets, salt or fresh. It is their habit to drop into these grasses when surprised, and to hide among them, which is one reason why they are supposed to be rare ; whereas they are fairly abundant, though often unsuspected. Numbers of them find their way into large city markets every winter; and especially in the Chesapeake region, or where wild celery abounds, their flesh is tender and well flavored. Happily the species is very prolific. Some authorities mention finding as many as twenty yellowish white, rough eggs in the rude nests built by the marshy lake or river side ; but ten are a good-sized clutch.