Once you are familiar with the distinctive characteristics of the male canvasback (Aythya valisineria), you should have no problem identifying it even at a great distance. For starters, this species is quite large, one of the heaviest ducks in North America. It has a distinctive sloping forehead that runs smoothly into a large, curved black bill. Another giveaway is its high-contrast appearance, created by a white body, black breast, and black tail. At a distance, its red head and neck may appear to blend into its darker parts. Close up, notice the male’s red eyes.
The female is somewhat similar, but lacking in contrast. Instead of a white body, she sports a grayish-brown covering of feathers. Her head and neck are a pale, rusty brown, with a paler wash on the front of her neck and behind her dark eye. However, even she can be identified by the unique sloping head and large bill.
When in flight, both the male and the female canvasback display largely white underwings, as well as a relatively long, slim appearance for a diving duck. Canvasbacks fly directly, usually close to the surface of the water, with strong, fast wing beats.
Best Field Marks
- Sloping forehead.
- Long black bill.
- Red head and neck (male only).
- Highly visible white body (male only).
The canvasback is not known for its melodious voice. The male croaks, grunts, and growls. The female quacks.
Distribution & Occurrence
While the canvasback is considered uncommon in Kansas, when it does arrive, usually in October, it can be found in flocks numbering in the hundreds. These flocks stop at marshes, ponds, lakes, and particularly western playas with sparse or floating vegetation. The ducks may remain all winter long if the weather permits, progressing further south only if the water freezes up.
Most canvasback ducks depart in April. A few may be found on a casual basis during the summer. While the canvasback has been known to nest at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, there is too little breeding habitat in Kansas for widespread nesting to occur.
The canvasback is a particularly wary duck, usually sticking together in flocks solely of its own kind and usually well away from the shore. These flocks typically come in toward land only when the weather is too windy and rainy to permit staying out on the open water. The flocks may fly together either in lines or in a V formation.
One of the diving ducks, the canvasback mostly consumes underwater vegetation and roots. Wild celery is its favorite plant, but it will consume grasses, sedges, and a variety of weeds. The remainder of its diet consists of insects and mollusks, usually snails in Kansas.
This species is monogamous and raises only one brood per year. The female builds the nest, usually out of dead reeds and sedges, and lines it with down. The nest is large and bulky, but quite sturdy, and is usually placed in marsh vegetation just above shallow water. However, sometimes the nest is placed on dry ground.
The female may lay anywhere from 7 to 12 eggs, each just under 2-1/2 inches in diameter and a grayish or greenish color. The incubation period lasts 23 to 29 days. Once the ducklings hatch (already showing the characteristic sloping forehead of this species) the female tends to them. The ducklings are usually able to fly at about two months of age.
Most birdwatchers will not be able to attract canvasbacks to their backyard.
Duck hunters use decoys to attract canvasbacks. However, the fact that this species congregates on larger bodies of water far from the shore presents special challenges. Particularly sturdy decoys are required. Large numbers of decoys are grouped together to ensure that they will be visible from the air on broad expanses of water.
At first glance, the redhead duck may appear very similar to the canvasback. However, both the male and female redhead are darker than their larger counterparts. In particular, note that the male redhead presents far less contrast with his gray body than the canvasback with his striking white body. Also, the sloping forehead of the canvasback is very distinctive and can be used to clinch the identification with complete accuracy.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.