Tails High

Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis)

A very few Ruddy Ducks have been on the North Basin since late October. For reasons known only to themselves, they mostly kept their stiff tails down and blended with other ducks, notably scaup, in the distance. They’ve grown into a flock of a dozen or more with their signature tails up only recently. They stand out among waterfowl on a number of points apart from their stiff tails: they have the largest feet relative to body size of any duck; they lay the largest eggs with the thickest shells; their wings don’t change in appearance with age or gender; and in their breeding habitat, they’re the most pugnacious of all waterfowl.

They’re beloved by birders for the males’ colorful plumage during breeding times (still plainly visible here in winter) and for their courtship displays (not visible here). Unlike most other waterfowl, they start pairing up, or trying to (males generally outnumber females) only after they reach their breeding grounds. These lie mainly in west-central Canada and in the Dakotas, the so-called Prairie Pothole region. This makes them intermediate-range migrators. Those that breed in Canada tend to fly to our coast in small flocks by night, with typical stopovers in the Klamath Basin of southern Oregon and northern California.

Hunters, luckily for these birds, have problems with them. A commercial duck hunter website notes that ruddies are not attracted to wooden decoys, as are other ducks; that when startled on the water they tend to dive rather than take off in flight, so that the most effective way to bag one is to shoot it on the water, “which is not very sportsman like to most avid waterfowl hunters.” (It’s also illegal in at least some states, e.g. Washington.) Another duck hunting blogger notes that ruddies by reputation are “garbage ducks” that taste “like low tide on a hot day,” although the author found them delicious, if not for everyone. That being said, hunters in North America have killed an estimated average of 50,000 Ruddy Ducks annually in recent years, with numbers declining. If that seems a lot, compare it with an average annual hunting “harvest” of more than 4 million Mallards. The North American population of ruddies is believed to be stable or increasing.

Ruddies are divers, while Mallards are dabblers. They have one thing in common with Mallards, though: their drive to copulate with other species. In Europe, artificially introduced Ruddy Ducks interbred with the rare and endangered native White-headed Duck, flooding the gene pool with hybrids, and threatening extinction of the native species. Governments undertook major culling programs and reduced the population of ruddies from more than about 6,000 in the 1990s to a few hundred in the teens, with complete eradication possible. Our beloved natives are their noxious invasives. And so it goes.

Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) Female in the middle.

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