Monday, April 2, 2012

Seeing Red

A favorite time of year is passing.  Fall migration brings to my region of the world a most fascinating group of birds, ducks.  With the advent of spring, they start for their northern reaches and prepare for mating season and nesting.  The North doesn’t get all the fun of watching new ducklings hatch and grow.  The South still has some of this with Wood Ducks, Black Bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks. But I digress.
Canvasback pair, copyright Dr. Spencer Moore

 The real intent of this piece is to explore two species of ducks that for some reason confuse enough birders and hunters alike that special care needs to be taken in the field.  The two in question are the Canvasback and the Redhead.  Seeing red, quick and often erroneous identification takes place.  I once heard a group of duck hunters tell the story of the time they had labored a couple of days dragging equipment and building a blind setting out decoys, getting everything just right for opening day.  They had talked of being able to spend a whole enjoyable day in the blind.  Before dawn on a very cold opening day they made their way carefully and quietly into the blind.  At light, the ducks came in.  Someone yelled “Redheads”!  Shots fired and two ducks fell.  The dogs retrieved.  One hunter, who was also the better birder, took one look at the ducks and said, matter-of-factly, “Canvasbacks”.  And a silence fell upon the group.  Nothing said for several minutes.   One guy finally said it was time to go home.  Within 15 minutes of the beginning of the season, their day was over.  They had bagged their limit according to the point system in place at that time.

 Birders can make the same mistake, especially when there are many different species on the water.  One gets caught in the excitement of the moment. Perhaps not wanting to be the only one not finding and identifying something not yet seen by the rest of the crowd, one says there is a Canvasback when it’s really a Redhead.  It is understandable; we are drawn to and fascinated by the larger and more unusual.  Are we not?

 Both the Canvasback and the Redhead are diver ducks.  Both must run across the water in an effort to get airborne.  Yet, their food is quite different.  Canvasbacks eat much vegetative matter.  Their favorite food is wild celery.  Redheads will eat water plants but supplement their diet with clams and snails.
Canvasback, male, copyright Dr. Spencer Moore

The Canvasback is the largest duck in North America.  It is often referred to as the aristocrat of ducks.  The male has a very white body with a black front and rump.  The female is brownish-grey with a pale brown neck.  The female then is described as being two toned.

Redhead, male, copyright Dr. Spencer Moore

The Redhead is medium sized.  The male has a dirtier white back with a lot of grey in it.  Its front and rump are also black.  The female is a uniformed dull brown all over.

 The definitive field marks, however, lie on the head.  The head shapes, bill shapes and bill colors are decidedly different.  The Canvasback has a sloped forehead, and long black bill.  Many would characterize the Canvasback’s head as a ski slope.  On the other hand, the Redhead has a rounded head sitting on a shorter neck and its bill attaches more at a right angle.  The effect is the Redhead’s abrupt, smart look. Finally, the bill color is light blue.  In fact, some refer to Redheads as “Bluebills”.

If you see red, look twice, then make the determination.

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