Redheads and friends…

Several bird species carry the “red-headed” moniker, but only one is just called Redhead, and that’s a duck.  And what a glorious redhead it is.

Redhead Ducks-Lake Vadnais-

With their rusty chestnut-colored heads, and orange eyes contrasting with that black neck bib and blue bill, this is one of our most striking ducks.

Most of the lakes in the Twin Cities area (yes, I’m back in Minnesota now) have at least a thin coating of ice, but the big St. Paul reservoir at Lake Vadnais is still completely open — and that’s great for finding some late migrating ducks.

Redhead Ducks-Lake Vadnais-

Males greatly outnumbered females (one bird at top right) which have all brown heads and lack the black bib.  I love the way the males always seem to be escorting females, even in the non-breeding season.

Redhead Ducks-Lake Vadnais

The Redheads always swam in tight proximity to one another, away from the others feeding nearby. But it looks like a couple of Ring-necked Duck females (brown-headed birds with a white patch at the base of their bill) have taken up with this group. Hmmm…

Are these females just being social, or do they think Redhead males are more attractive than Ring-necked males?  Do ducks make “mistakes” when choosing partners during the breeding season?  Yes, they do, and there are many examples of both inter-specific (different species, but same genus) as well as inter-generic (different genus, same family) breeding pairs, and lots of hybrids produced as a result.

Redheads, Canvasbacks, Pochards, Scaup, and Ring-necked Ducks are members of a genus (Aythya) of very closely related species, with many documented cases of hybridization between species breeding in the same wetlands areas.  In fact, their physical similarities often make it challenging to tell them apart from a distance (e.g., Redheads looks like Canvasbacks; Scaup look like Ring-necked Ducks)

canvasback vs

Color alone doesn’t really help identify these two species from a distance — you have to clearly see the shape of the head and bill.

RNWR_ring-necked_duck_lesser_scaup_L. Topinka

Markings on the bill are somewhat different between these two species, and the color of the feathers on the back help distinguish Lesser Scaup (on the right) from Ring-necked Duck (on the left).  Photo by L. Topinka for the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, associating with other species during the non-breeding season doesn’t mean they will necessarily form inter-species pairs in the spring, but as my former ornithology professor was fond of quoting — “a male duck will mate with just about anything”…

5 thoughts on “Redheads and friends…

  1. Your Redheads, indeed are spectacular, Sue. I love duck migration season because it brings in a pretty good variety of species. I have seen Ring-necked ducks quite a few times, but most of the species that you mentioned are new to me.

    • thanks, Mike. I was so frustrated at not being able to get closer to the ducks (without them flying off) that I went out a bought a teleconverter for my telephoto lens. So, now I’ll have 140 more mm of zoom…we’ll see how that looks.

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