Bird Lore: Ruddy Duck

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The Ruddy Duck is a small, compact duck with a large bill and a long tail that it frequently holds erect. Western Washington is one of its wintering locations and this duck can be seen from time to time in Edmonds. It might be seen at the marsh, Pine Ridge Park, or Lake Ballinger, the western part of which is in Edmonds. The largest Snohomish County concentration of this species can be found on Everett’s sewage treatment lagoons.

Seeds, roots, and insects make up the bulk of a Ruddy Duck’s diet. It will also eat some mollusks and crustaceans, and occasionally small fish. Insects and their larvae may be the main source of food in summer. The Ruddy Duck forages by diving and swimming underwater, propelling itself with its feet. It uses its bill to strain food items from mud at the bottom of ponds. It rarely forages by dabbling at the surface.

Pairs do not form until the birds arrive on their breeding waters. The largest breeding area for the Ruddy Duck is North America’s prairie pothole region in south central Canada and in north central U.S. The species also breeds in Eastern Washington, favoring the central Columbia Basin, the Palouse, and river valleys in northern counties.

The male’s courtship displays include raising his tail over his back and bouncing his head rapidly so that the bill slaps against the chest. The male will also make short rushes across the water while splashing with his wings and feet. The first two photos illustrate courtship displays. You can watch the action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o4ziiL7k9o. Once a pair is formed, it will select a nest site in dense marsh vegetation over shallow water. The nest, built by the female, is a woven platform of cattails and grasses and lined with down.

The female typically lays eight eggs that are quite large for the size of this small duck. It is common for a Ruddy female also to lay eggs in the nest of other Ruddy Ducks, and in those of other duck species and marsh birds. The female incubates her eggs for 23-26 days. The young leave the nest within a day after hatching. They are able to swim and dive almost immediately. Only the female tends the young, but the ducklings are able to feed themselves. They are preyed upon by Black-crowned Night-Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, California Gulls, minks, and raccoons. They can take their first flight at about six weeks of age.

The oldest Ruddy Duck of record was a male, at least 13 years and 7 months of age when found in Oregon in 1964. He had been banded in British Columbia in 1951. This species migrates mostly at night, in small flocks. In both spring and fall, migration extends over a considerable period.

For conservation purposes, the Ruddy Duck is of low concern. Its population was stable across North America from 1966 to 2014. Hunters take about 50,000 of this species each year, which is not enough to impact its overall population. Over a recent 45-year period, the population has averaged annually about 500,000 birds. Population stability can be linked to the health of North America’s prairie pothole region. The population will diminish with further degradation of the potholes, such as continued draining of wetlands. It has been said that the future success of this species will depend on the protection and restoration of the potholes region. The species is also vulnerable to poor water quality, pollution, and oil spills.

The song of a male Ruddy Duck can be heard here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/109911.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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