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Pochards and Ruddy Ducks Break Rules

A handsome South American male rosy-billed pochard struts his stuff.

In my post Dabbling vs Diving Ducks, I shared that most freshwater ducks feed only on the surface, while ducks that spend a significant amount of time in the ocean dive for their food. Well, I must admit that this isn’t always true! Just like any good rule, there are some exceptions that are just wonderful to learn about. Let me introduce you to the graceful pochards and the misfit ruddy ducks!

Like their dabbling duck cousins, these two species are primarily found on freshwater lakes, streams, and marshes. Unlike the dabblers that share their ponds, pochards and ruddy ducks are able to throw off the shackles of their crowded buoyant prison and escape to the relatively untapped resources at the muddy bottom. Okay, that may be a goofy way to put it, but I just think that a diving duck that also lives in fresh water is a very cool thing! If I heard about a dabbling duck that lived in the open ocean, I’d be equally impressed.

There are five pochard species that are fairly common in North America. They all have their legs placed far back and apart for good underwater propulsion. They are also hesitant to come to land, as their legs aren’t well suited for walking. The male greater scaup and lesser scaup and the ring-necked duck have black heads and chests with white flanks and a black tail. The females have a subtle beauty all their own in their finely barred gray and brown feathers.

My favorite pochards, though, are the canvasback and the redhead. The canvasback has such an elegant, sloping forehead that it seems as if its bill and head have no definite boundary—one seamlessly blends into the other. While the canvasback female has a fairly normal nesting strategy, redheads are a different story. The redhead female may sometimes choose to lay her eggs in another duck’s nest! This behavior is known as parasitic brooding. The female redhead waits until another duck leaves her nest, and then she races in, lays an egg, and hopes that the owner of the nest takes care of the egg and then the duckling! Ducks aren’t very good at counting, so there is a good chance that a returning hen won’t realize there is one more egg in her nest. After running around the pond laying eggs all over the place, the redhead may then decide it’s time to make her own nest and lays 8 to 10 eggs to take care of by herself. It’s an odd behavior, but you can imagine that it is a good way to make sure that she passes her genes on even if her own nest fails.

The ruddy duck male has a glorious blue bill, among other attributes!

Ruddy ducks are just beyond this world. The breeding male’s bright-blue bill, white cheeks, black head, rich-burgundy body, and cocked tail make this bird unmistakable. His display is equally unforgettable: he bounces his bill on his chest like an avian King Kong while slowly swimming. The vibrations created by this action cause little bubbles to form across his bow-wave. How does he cap this charming display of machismo? He stretches his neck out, flicks his cocked tail, and utters the most adorable duck “quack.” If that doesn’t bring the ladies, I don’t know what will!

The San Diego Zoo is lucky enough to have a number of ruddy ducks in our collection. You can see a pair of them in the lagoon exhibit just north of the San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company on Front Street. If you find yourself by the polar bear exhibit, walk downhill just a bit and check out the marsh exhibit to see our two male ruddy’s and our pair of aristocratic canvasbacks!

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, The Secret Life of Eiders, Part II.