The Science of Sustainability

Dabbling and Diving Ducks: Catch the Spring Show

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Many ducks come to the Bay to spend the winter.  Photo by Ingrid Taylar

Many species of ducks come to the Bay to spend the winter. Photo by Ingrid Taylar

“The ducks would appear in flocks, darkening the air…” William Heath Davis; Yerba Buena (San Francisco). c. 1846.

Our winter ducks are getting ready to take flight for their summer breeding grounds. Subdued patterns have been replaced with vibrant breeding colors — for the males at any rate.  Any morning now, with the longer days and warm weather, we'll awaken and they'll have departed overnight.

Male ruddy duck attracting attention in full breeding plumage.  Photo by Dick Daniels.

Male ruddy duck attracting attention in full breeding plumage. Photo by Dick Daniels.

Scientists generally divide ducks into three categories: divers, dabblers, and “Sea Ducks”. Here are a few of my favorites starting with the diving ducks.  Ruddy ducks are built for underwater speed and agility, with their stiff tails used for steering underwater and large, webbed feet placed far back on their chunky bodies to propel them as they chase fish. Males are currently showing off their tawny red body feathers with bright blue bills set off against creamy cheeks. The females remain camouflaged brown with creamy cheek patches, good for sitting on nests unobserved. They’ll be migrating to Prairie Potholes soon where they’ll build nests in reeds suspended over shallow water.

Enchanting Northern pintail ducks remind me of graceful ballerinas. Their slim shape and longish neck — accented by a “racing stripe” of feathers on the males — and elegant head are the essence of refinement. The male’s tail, which have the longest tail feathers in the duck world, gives them their name. They seem to be continually enacting “Swan Lake,” including their habit of dabbling by tipping, butts up, to feed on underwater vegetation and insects. They’ll be migrating to freshwater ponds from California and northeast as far as Canada and Alaska. They nest on the ground in brush or grass where the female can sit camouflaged until the ducklings hatch.

A graceful male Northern pintail duck rests atop the water.  Photo by Mehmet Karatay.

A graceful male Northern pintail duck rests atop the water. Photo by Mehmet Karatay.

Striking buffleheads, identified by the large white patch on the back of the male’s head and white bodies, are in the group known as Sea Ducks. Though they’re small, buffleheads migrate to Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds in aspen and boreal forests near lakes and ponds. A few isolated populations nest more locally. They seek out woodpecker holes 5-20 feet above the ground for their young and mates stay together for several seasons, which is unusual among ducks.

You can help with duck conservation by supporting efforts to maintain and restore healthy Bay habitats locally and nesting grounds further afield. You can also purchase "Duck Stamps", a surprising way to support ducks even if you're not a hunter.

Related

Explore: , ,

Category: Biology, Blog

  • share this article
  • Facebook
  • Email
Sharol Nelson-Embry

About the Author ()

Sharol Nelson-Embry is the Supervising Naturalist at the Crab Cove Visitor Center & Aquarium on San Francisco Bay in Alameda. Crab Cove is part of the East Bay Regional Park District, one of the largest and oldest regional park agencies in the nation. She graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a degree in Natural Resources Management and an epiphany that connecting kids with nature was her destiny. She's been rooted in the Bay Area since 1991 after working at nature centers and outdoor science schools around our fair state. She loves the great variety of habitats stretching from the Bay shoreline to the redwoods, lakes, and hills. Sharol enjoys connecting people to nature with articles in local newspapers and online forums. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Cal Walters

    Lot's of good ducks out there these days and the colors are great. Lots of good birding happening right now – wish I was out there!