Ruddy Flock

Ruddy Duck male (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Ruddy Ducks have been on the North Basin since November, and I’ve mostly ignored them. Shame on me. This week, a neat flock of an even dozen, all with their trademark tails upright, hung out near the eastern shore of the park, and I could not pass them up. They are among the luckiest of ducks (at least in the U.S.) in that hunters mostly despise them, while photographers appreciate them, especially in breeding season, when the males’ beaks become bright blue and their backs bright red. Breeding season hasn’t begun yet, so here the birds’ colors are muted. They typically don’t start pairing up and mating until they arrive at their breeding grounds. They’ll generally leave during April, sometimes early May.

The Ruddies do most of their breeding in the Prairie Pothole region of the Upper Midwest and central Canada. Millions of other birds do likewise, and all are threatened by agricultural development that is decimating the vital wetlands and ponds on which the birds depend. Ruddies migrate in small groups, such as the dozen here, during the night.

They can dive as well as dabble. They eat some vegetation but their preference is marine proteins such as insects, crustaceans, midge larvae, and the like. They get it by pushing their partly open bill through the mud underwater and filtering the edibles. It takes them a long time of running on the water to get airborne, but once in the air they are fast flyers.

Although a minor attraction for hunters in the U.S. and Canada, the Ruddy is the target of extermination campaigns in Europe, due to its interbreeding with the globally threatened White-headed Duck. The Ruddy got established in Europe by human efforts through escapes and deliberate private releases. Government campaigns to wipe it out have reduced its population there by more than 90 percent and extirpation is possible.

Ruddy Duck male (Oxyura jamaicensis)

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