When you first encounter the male ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), you may be surprised to find that he has no obvious ring on his neck. He actually does have a chestnut-colored collar, but it is nearly impossible to see in the field. Therefore, you will want to rely on other field marks to identify him. Notice instead the much more prominent white ring around his bill (perhaps he should be called the ring-billed duck).
The male is a rather handsome specimen overall, with his purplish head, yellow eyes, and black back. His head has a puffy, peaked appearance. Note the distinct white crescent mark separating his black breast from his grayish sides—this is a reliable field mark that can be seen a long way off, much more useful than the obscure collar marking!
The female ring-necked duck, like many female ducks, is brown overall. However, she does have a few distinguishing characteristics. For instance, her bill is like the male’s—gray, but with a white ring and a black tip. She has a white eye ring, a distinct white patch at the base of her bill, and a thin white line running back from her dark eye. She also displays a wash of lighter gray around her chin.
In flight, both male and female diving ducks show a white belly, bluish-gray feet, and a gray stripe on an otherwise dark wing. These are fast-flying ducks that propel themselves with rapid wing beats.
Best Field Marks
- Gray bill with white ring and black tip.
- Gray wing stripe.
- White crescent separating the breast from the sides (male only).
The ring-necked duck is usually silent. However, the male sometimes makes a faint, wheezy whistle, while the female makes a high-pitched but harsh “deeeer” call.
Distribution & Occurrence
The ring-necked duck is a common migrant in Kansas, where it can be found across the state on nearly any body of water but especially wooded wetlands and smaller lakes. It first arrives in the fall in October. Some individuals may stay over the winter. In spring, the ring-necked duck population passing through the state becomes even more abundant than in the fall, peaking in March before finally departing in April.
The ring-necked duck has been seen twice in Kansas during the summer, once in Pratt County and once in Russell County. Both sightings were in mid-June.
The ring-necked duck can be enjoyable to watch due to its lively demeanor. It collects in relatively small, loose flocks, flying somewhat erratically and swimming with an alert buoyancy.
This species is a diving duck, and it may go as far down as 40 feet under the water to find its preferred food on the bottom. Plants such as sedges, grasses, smartweed, and other pond weeds make up over 80% of its diet. The rest is primarily insects and snails.
While this species does not present too many attraction opportunities to the birding enthusiast, it is nevertheless more likely to appear on smaller farm ponds than most diving ducks.
Hunters use a combination of calls and decoys to attract the ring-necked duck.
Both the greater and the lesser scaup can be confused with the ring-necked duck, and either gender can present an identification challenge. For males, a glimpse at the peaked head, white bill ring, white crescent mark, and black back can positively confirm the duck as a ring-necked duck, while snowy white sides indicate a scaup. Females can be differentiated by the distinctive bill, eye ring, and stripe of the ring-necked duck, in contrast with the mostly solid brown head of the scaup. Also note that both male and female scaup have a white (versus gray) wing stripe, visible in flight. Scaup generally have a thicker, chunkier appearance overall.
Although quite rare, the tufted duck also presents an identification challenge. However, the peak of the ring-necked duck is nothing like the disheveled crest of the male tufted duck, and a glimpse of a white-ringed bill will definitely mark the bird in question as a ring-necked. Also, note that the male tufted duck has striking white sides, while the female lacks the eye ring and line of her more common counterpart. Both male and female tufted ducks display a white wing stripe in flight.
Male ducks of these two species are not likely to be confused, but the females are, as usual, tricky. The female redhead is more or less plain brown overall. The female ring-necked duck, besides a peaked head, displays a clearly defined white patch at the base of the bill.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.