Early in its history the Redhead suffered from identity crises. Ornithologists (even the well-known Audubon and Wilson) identified it as being identical to the Common Pochard – a European duck. It wasn’t until later that it was recognized as being a distinct North American species.
The identity crisis of Redheads is carried over into the present day. Male Redheads can be confused with Canvasbacks as they both sport a distinctive chestnut/red head. However, on closer inspection you can see that instead of the elegantly sloping forehead and long beak of the Canvasback, Redheads have an abrupt forehead and a short broad blue bill with a dark tip.
Drake Redheads have a reddish head and upper neck. Their lower neck, foreback and breast is black while the back is a dark grayish colour. They have a broad band of light grey extending across their wing and on to the primaries.
Females have a duller, reddish brown head, neck and breast. Their bill is a duller blue than the males. Their chin and throat are a buff white. They also have a very faint eye ring and stripe behind the eye. Flanks are breast are brown. Female Redheads can be mistaken for Ring-necks at a distance.
During the breeding season, Redheads are found across the prairie pothole region and smaller groups nesting in interior British Columbia. They have also been recorded in the southern end of the Yukon, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
When the Redheads move south for the winter, things get a bit complicated. To start with, in June males gather on large lakes to moult. During the moult, which starts in August, the birds are flightless for nearly 4 weeks. Following moult, the majority of Redheads migrate nearly due south from the breeding grounds to wintering areas in the Gulf of Texas and Mexico with some moving from the western prairies/BC to the Pacific coast.
Redheads that breed in the eastern prairies follow a more complex migratory pattern. Some go southeast to northern tributaries to the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf coast. There is also a large movement of Redheads through the Lake of the Woods area in Ontario which then goes on to Lakes St. Clair and Erie where they congregate with Canvasbacks and Scaup. This results in mixed flocks of 20,000 – 40,000 ducks. In late October, early November, these ‘super flocks’ move through the Finger Lakes of New York State on the way to the wintering areas on the Atlantic coast.
In breeding season, Redheads are generally found in non-forested areas with larger sloughs and marshes that are surrounded by tall vegetation such as cattails, bulrush and reeds.
During the winter months, redheads can be found on freshwater lakes, ponds, marshes, coastal waters and bays.
Redheads usually feed during the early morning and late afternoon in muddy, shallow areas of water. Like many diving ducks, they have been known to eat all night when there is a good moon in the sky and a light wind. These ducks are mostly vegetarians, with 90% of their diet made up of plants such as pond weeds, musk grass, sedges, grasses, wild celery and duck weed. Once in a while, they can be seen ‘bottoms up’ just like a dabbling duck near the shoreline in search of some delectable prey item.
Romance for the Redhead begins late in the winter with several males competing for one or two females. Male Redheads go through complex display behaviors to prove to the females how attractive they are. For instance, in one gymnastic like display, the male throws back his head until his crown nearly touches his tail feathers. Along with physical displays, the males can also be heard making a ‘meowing sound’ to attract females.
Redheads are considered ‘over-water nesters’. That is, their nests are found on mats of vegetation in shallow water. Again, there are exceptions to this rule and the occasional nest is found in the uplands. Their bulky nests of reeds/cattail blades padded with breast down contain an average of 10-15 eggs.
Hens lay one egg a day until the clutch is complete. Only hens incubate the eggs. After the last egg is laid it is 25 days until the eggs start to hatch.
The Redhead has the habit of passing off the duty of parental care to others by laying eggs in other Redhead nests, and even in other duck nests such as the Canvasback. Thus, leaving the care and raising of their young to others. This behavior (parasitism) tends to occur more often when breeding conditions are poor (e.g. a drought year).
Conservation and Management
Being a sought after game bird, the Redhead suffered population issues in the 1900’s, mostly due to market hunting which was prohibited in 1917. In the 1960’s when there was a dramatic fall in numbers, Canada and the US brought in restrictive hunting regulations after which the population rebounded in the 1970’s. However, it is important to keep in mind that hunting regulations alone do not have a major bearing on population numbers. Today, Redheads are limited by factors such as wetland breeding, staging and wintering areas being lost to development and agriculture. As well, periodic drought plays a role. Breeding population numbers from 2002 (560,000) are below the numbers from 2001 and the overall population is below the long-term average.
Sources of Information
Bellrose, F.C. 1976. Ducks, geese and swans of North America, 2nd edition. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
Woodin, M. C., and T. C. Michot. 2002. Redhead (Aythya americana). In The Birds of North America, No. 695 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia,
PA.Johnsgard, P.A. 1978. Ducks, geese, and swans of the world. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.