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Ruddy Duck

Oxyura jamaicensis ORDER: ANSERIFORMES FAMILY: ANATIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Ruddy Ducks are compact, thick-necked waterfowl with seemingly oversized tails that they habitually hold upright. Breeding males are almost cartoonishly bold, with a sky-blue bill, shining white cheek patch, and gleaming chestnut body. They court females by beating their bill against their neck hard enough to create a swirl of bubbles in the water. This widespread duck breeds mostly in the prairie pothole region of North America and winters in wetlands throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

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Keys to identification Help

Ducks
Ducks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These are small, compact ducks with stout, scoop-shaped bills, and long, stiff tails they often hold cocked upward. They have slightly peaked heads and fairly short, thick necks.

  • Color Pattern

    Male Ruddy Ducks have blackish caps that contrast with bright white cheeks. In summer, they have rich chestnut bodies with bright blue bills. In winter, they are dull gray-brown above and paler below with dull gray bills. Females and first-year males are brownish, somewhat like winter males but with a blurry stripe across the pale cheek patch. In flight, Ruddy Ducks show solidly dark tops of the wings.

  • Behavior

    Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on aquatic invertebrates, especially midge larvae. They feed most actively at night, so you’ll often see Ruddy Ducks sleeping during the day, head tucked under a wing and tail cocked up.

  • Habitat

    They nest in marshes adjacent to lakes and ponds, primarily in the Prairie Potholes region. In migration, they flock to large rivers, ponds, and lakes, and also gather in coastal estuaries, frequently mixing with other diving ducks such as Bufflehead and goldeneyes.

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Similar Species

Similar Species

While breeding male Ruddy Ducks are distinctive, females and nonbreeding males can pose some confusion. Size and shape is an excellent clue for Ruddy Ducks in all plumages: look for their compact shape, big scooped bill, and long, stiff tail often held out of the water. Female Masked Ducks, which are very rare visitors from tropical America, show two dark facial stripes instead of just one on female and first-year male Ruddy Ducks. Female Bufflehead have restricted white patches on their heads, shorter tails that they don’t cock upward, and white patches on the upperwing. Female Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, and White-winged Scoters are larger and less compact than Ruddy Ducks; they show rounded heads, different bill shapes, and they lack a stripe across the cheek.

Find This Bird

Look for Ruddy Ducks from fall through spring on open water, both inland and in protected coastal areas such as harbors and small bays. During the day, they often sleep with their heads tucked, and they gather in tight flocks. Because of this, these little divers often look like gray-brown or chestnut blobs with a long, rounded tail (for a duck, anyway) held up at an angle. In summer, look for them swimming and diving in wetlands of the prairie pothole region and the interior West. The male’s white cheek patch is often distinctive from great distances.