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Redhead Life History


Lakes and PondsRedheads breed mainly in the seasonal ponds and other wetlands of the Midwest’s prairie pothole region, where emergent plants provide food and cover. Females often take their broods to a deeper marsh or permanent lake located near their nesting sites to raise them. Opportunistic in their choice of nesting sites, Redheads also nest on reservoirs, sewage ponds, streams, and cropland ponds, as well as on the large marshes of the Great Basin and Canada. Smaller breeding populations are scattered across marshes and rivers from Alaska to California’s Salton Sea and on lakes and wetlands throughout the Southwest. Molting birds gather on freshwater lakes throughout Canada’s southern boreal forest, and on reservoirs and lakes in the western U.S. During spring and fall migration, look for these gregarious ducks forming large flocks on lakes, reservoirs, river pools, and bays. In winter flocks gather by the thousands on Gulf of Mexico bays to feed on seagrass.Back to top


PlantsRedheads eat submerged aquatic plants, including green algae, muskgrass, hardstem bulrush, pondweed, and widgeongrass. Though they’re classified as diving ducks, you may also see them “dabbling” in shallow water by tipping tail-up to reach for submerged vegetation and invertebrates. Throughout the year invertebrates and fish eggs also feature in the Redhead’s diet, and include snails, zebra mussels, caddisflies, midges, and mayflies. Birds wintering in the Gulf of Mexico feed almost exclusively on shoalgrass and small snails and clams. Back to top


Nest Placement

FloatingA Redhead pair first inspects potential nest sites from the air, flying low over marshes in the morning and evening. The female swims into dense vegetation to investigate nest sites while the male waits nearby. Females choose stands of cattails and bulrushes, located over water where they are safer from mammalian predators. They also nest on uplands and islands within a few feet of the water. If water levels are high, females may nest atop muskrat houses.

Nest Description

The female Redhead works alone to build a circular nest, usually set on a foundation of underwater vegetation to hold it in place. She grabs plant material from within a few feet of the nest site with her bill and weaves a bowl, then plucks feathers from her breast to line the 3-inch deep nest. The finished nest measures from 9 inches to nearly 2 feet across, with the rim reaching 7–10 inches above the water. Females often create an arching cover or cupola by bending vegetation over the bowl, and some add a ramp of vegetation from the nest bowl to the water.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:7-8 eggs
Egg Length:2.0-2.6 in (5.1-6.7 cm)
Egg Width:1.5-1.9 in (3.9-4.7 cm)
Incubation Period:22-28 days
Nestling Period:1-2 days
Egg Description:Creamy white to pale, olive buff or sometimes pale, buffy brown.
Condition at Hatching:Alert with eyes open, fully covered with light, uniform-colored down, ready to leave nest within 1–2 days.
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Surface DiveRedheads fly faster than most ducks, with a rapid, shallow wingbeat and a flight pattern that’s more erratic than that of the similar-looking Canvasback. You’ll often see these sociable ducks feeding with Canvasbacks, Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, and American Coots. Sometimes the birds feed together on vegetation that a mixed flock brings to the surface. Redheads pair up on the wintering grounds and the pair bond strengthens during spring migration. During this time, unmated males often form “courting parties” with mated pairs. They seek the female’s attention by drawing their head and neck back and erecting the crown and neck feathers in a “kink necked” display, giving a meow call. The mated birds, particularly the female, typically chase the bachelor males with head held low and bill open. Seasonally monogamous, female Redheads use several strategies to maximize their chances of producing young: they can either brood their own clutch of eggs, “parasitize” another bird’s nest by depositing eggs into it, or combine the two approaches in a “semi-parasitic” approach, leaving eggs in another nest before laying a clutch to brood. Females are more likely to lay eggs in the nests of other ducks when water levels are low, leading to poor nesting and feeding conditions. Once the female begins to incubate, her mate departs to join other males in molting flocks. During this “eclipse” period, muted brown feathers replace the birds’ distinctive breeding plumage. Back to top


Low ConcernOverall, Redhead populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Though some areas had increased numbers during that time, significant declines were noted in the Great Basin, where populations declined by 87%, and in Idaho, where populations fell by 99%. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a North American population of 1.2 million in 2015. This number is up 76% from mid-twentieth-century averages. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Redhead is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Carefully managed hunting seasons combined with work to restore duck habitat have helped many duck populations increase from lows in the mid-twentieth century. Redheads’ gregarious nature and attraction to decoys make them a popular target of hunters, with estimated harvests of just over 300,000 birds per year in 2013 and 2014. Wetland restoration in the Prairie Pothole Region and at Gulf of Mexico wintering sites through the North American Waterfowl Management Plan are benefiting Redheads, which have lost breeding habitat to wetland drainage in the Midwest and Canada and to degradation of breeding sites in Chesapeake Bay. Limited water in the Great Basin and drought throughout the West also jeopardize breeding habitat. Other threats include disturbance by boaters at nesting and wintering sites, and collisions with power lines and buildings.Back to top


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