The male redhead duck (Aythya americana) is a medium-sized duck that may at first glance resemble the larger canvasback. However, his appearance is actually quite distinctive. He has a puffy, rounded red head (hence his name). His bill is bluish with a black tip. His eyes are yellow. A black breast and rump cap the ends of an otherwise gray body.
Like many ducks, the female redhead is a soft brown. Her color is paler on the face near the chin and base of the bill, but subtly so.
Some good field marks are visible in both the male and female redhead when they are in flight. Besides their rounded heads, note that they have a gray stripe on the trailing edge of the wing. If you happen to get a closer look at the wing, you will notice that this stripe is tipped with white. The redhead flies swiftly and directly.
Best Field Marks
- Rounded head.
- Reddish head (male only).
- Gray back and sides (male only).
- Lack of distinct facial markings (female only).
- Gray wing stripe.
Both male and female redhead ducks are usually silent, although the latter may give the occasional grating “squak” call when taking off.
During the breeding season, however, these quiet ducks suddenly become quite vociferous. The male makes a variety of meowing and purring sounds, but is also known for a wheezing “whee-ough” call. The female, on the other hand, softly repeats guttural “err-err-err” sounds.
Distribution & Occurrence
The redhead is a common migrant in Kansas. It first arrives in October, with ducks continuing to pour into the state into mid-November. At this time, the species may be found on nearly any sizeable body of water in the state, but particularly the deeper reservoirs. Most of the ducks eventually depart to spend the winter along the Gulf of Mexico, but some occasionally remain during the colder months.
Come March, the redheads pass through Kansas again on their way to the northern breeding grounds, often as far as Canada. Most leave in April, but some pairs nearly always stay to nest at Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, and, less commonly, Slate Creek Marsh. These ducks seek out the rushes and cattails along the marshes, and usually turn up again with their ducklings in July, making this the only diving duck species likely to be seen in summer in Kansas.
The redhead is an extremely gregarious duck, which can make it rather interesting to watch. Enormous flocks, or rafts, of redheads will congregate on one body of water during the day, usually near canvasbacks. When dusk comes, the ducks will grow more active, doing much of their flying and feeding at this time. At night, they will often come closer to the shore, then move around to feed again at dawn. Redheads can be quite aerobatic usually flying high in a V formation, but with rapid twists and turns.
The redhead primarily feeds by diving, but it prefers water less than six feet deep for this purpose, and it may come in closer to the shore to dabble, as well. About 90% of the diet of the redhead is aquatic plants and algae. The remainder is primarily aquatic insects, along with some mollusks.
The courtship behavior of the redhead is peculiar in that the female takes the initiative, aggressively pursuing prospective mates until a pair bond is formed. After mating, the female may proceed to lay her eggs in the nests of other ducks. This completed, she then settles down to build her own nest, an unusually substantial combination of dead plants and down firmly anchored to reeds, cattails, and marsh grasses.
Because the redhead duck uses others ducks’ nests, it is difficult to say how many eggs the female lays per year. Her own nest, however, will typically contain 9 to 14 off-white, buffy, or olive eggs, each just under 2-1/2 inches long. In Kansas, this phase of the nesting process usually occurs between May 15 and July 11. After an incubation period of 23 to 29 days, the eggs hatch. The ducklings are typically ready to leave the nest the next day, at which point they set forth to find their own food, although they are still guided and protected by the female. The young are ready to fly at about two months of age.
Backyard birdwatchers are not likely to be able to attract redhead ducks.
Hunters have excellent success with redhead decoys, but this species will typically respond to just about any diving duck decoy.
The redhead looks strikingly like a little canvasback, but there are several key differences that can be used to clear up any confusion with accuracy. The canvasback’s distinctive sloping forehead and long bill is a giveaway, as is its high-contrast white body. Also note that the canvasback has a dark bill, while the redhead’s bill is gray with a black tip.
Female and Immature Scaup
Female ducks of all types can be confusing. However, the best clue to the female redhead’s identity is her almost complete lack of field marks. Scaup have distinctive white patches on their faces at the base of their bills, unlike the soft, diffused paleness of the female redhead’s face. In some individual scaup, this patch can be small and hard to see indeed, but it is always a high-contrast marking. Also note the high-contrast white wing stripe of the female scaup.
Female Ring-Necked Duck
The white facial markings that can be used to differentiate scaup from redheads also work with ring-necked ducks. However, ring-necked ducks sport a few additional field marks to make identification even easier. The female ring-marked duck has a white ring around the bill, plus a distinctive peaked head shape.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.