Redhead (Aythya americana)
The Redhead is a well-known and widely
distributed North American diving duck. It is an open-water bird and
during migration is sometimes found in huge congregations, called "rafts,"
well out from shore in larger lakes and bays.
Redheads winter mainly in the Gulf of Mexico. Smaller numbers winter
along the Pacific coasts of Mexico and the United States, and along the
Atlantic coast from Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina. Several thousand
Redheads winter on the Finger Lakes of upper New York State. Spring
migration occurs early, with large numbers of birds arriving in southern
Ontario by late March and in southern Manitoba by late April.
The Redhead's principal breeding range is in the prairies of Canada and
the United States. A particularly high concentration occurs near Great
Salt Lake in Utah.
The genus Aythya, to which the Redhead belongs, includes 12
species, all of which are well adapted to diving. The body is rounded and
thick with large feet, legs set back on the body, and a broad bill. Body
shapes vary from the big, long-necked, long-billed Canvasback to the
short-billed scaup. The genus is represented in North America by the
Canvasback, Redhead, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked
Ducks at a Distance
The adult male is a large, grey-backed, white-breasted duck with a
reddish-chestnut head and black neck and chest. It resembles the larger
male Canvasback. At close range, the head appears puffy, with an abrupt
forehead and a short, broad bill, while the Canvasback's bill is longer
and slopes down from the forehead. The adult female is a large,
brown-backed, white-breasted duck with a brown head, whitish chin, abrupt
forehead, short, broad bill, and pearl-grey wing patches. Female Redheads,
although larger, may be confused with female Ring-necked Ducks and
In autumn young Redheads resemble adult females, although their breast
plumage is dull grey-brown, rather than white. During November and
December, the young begin to develop the adult plumage, which has almost
completely grown in by February.
Because of its short legs and webbed feet, the Redhead is a slow,
relatively awkward creature on land. However, it is a powerful flier
capable of speeds in excess of 50 mph.
On the feeding grounds, Redheads move about in large flocks of
irregular formation. They use areas of shallow water with dense growths of
aquatic vegetation. Flocks rise from the water in apparent confusion as
each bird patters along the surface for several metres before becoming
airborne. For no apparent reason, large groups often fly up en masse into
the air for a few metres and then resettle. Occasionally a flock flying
over a large congregation on the water suddenly breaks up. Each bird drops
out of the sky in a rapid zigzag fashion, as if with a broken wing, its
flight path crossing that of other birds during the descent and its wing
movements making a loud whirring sound. The periods of greatest activity
are early morning and late afternoon. Redheads roost in different, secure
areas from where they feed. Like many diving ducks in the fall, they feed
throughout the night, especially on moonlit nights with light winds.
During migrations Redheads move in regular V-shaped flocks.
Redheads feed by diving in water and sometimes feed
on the surface in muddy shallow areas, as do dabbling ducks. Redheads
consume a higher proportion of plant material than any other diving duck,
with 90 percent of their diet including such plants as pond weeds, musk
grass, sedges, grasses, wild celery, and duckweed.
Courtship and nesting
In late winter, courting parties of several males and one or two
females may be seen. In one of several displays, the male throws his head
back until the crown almost touches the tail feathers. The voice of the
courting adult male is unique. He makes a mewing sound like a cat to
attract a potential mate. A female sometimes approaches a male with her
head erect, flicking her bill up and down and calling.
Pair formation occurs in late winter or in early spring during
migration. The birds do not pair for life. After pair formation has
occurred, the male follows the female back to the breeding grounds,
generally near the place where the female was reared. Redheads are late
layers, and in the more northern breeding areas, incubation might not
begin until midJune, or even early July.
Redheads commonly breed on larger sloughs and marshes surrounded by
cattails, bulrushes, and reeds, although nesting also occurs on smaller
ponds. Nests are usually well hidden in emergent vegetation growing in
shallow water, but have been found on dry ground far from water. They are
bulky structures made of reeds or cattail blades, deeply hollowed and
lined with whitish down. As incubation proceeds, the down layer thickens
and eventually an insulating blanket is created with which the female
covers the eggs before leaving the nest.
Redheads may incubate large clutches, the number varying from 6 to 27,
but averaging between 10 and 15 eggs. Larger clutches are the product of
two or more females of this species and/or females of other species laying
in the same nest. Redheads also lay eggs in the nests of other ducks,
notably Canvasbacks. In drought years, many Redhead ducklings are raised
by female Canvasbacks, when some Redhead hens lay eggs in Canvasback nests
but do not make a nest of their own.
Eggs average 60 by 40 mm in size. The egg shell is exceptionally
hard and is a glossy pale-olive buff or cream buff colour. The incubation
period is about 24 days; incubation is performed by the female only.
Incubating females do not leave the nest readily.
At about one day of age, the young are taken to suitable open water,
where they obtain their own food, mostly floating plant material. At about
seven or eight weeks of age, the young are fully feathered except for the
wings, which are about half grown. They remain with the adult female until
they can fly at about 70 days of age. Family units disperse in the early
fall and young may or may not winter in the same area as their parents.
Redheads can be longlived; a banded bird attained the age of
Adult males congregate on large lakes and bays in the northern
prairiesouthern boreal forest zone in June for the moult that starts
at the beginning of August. The birds shed the flight feathers all at once
and are flightless for almost four weeks.
The southern migration is sometimes dramatic, with large numbers of
Redheads and other diving ducks moving out of the prairies when suitable
weather conditions occur. Large-scale movements are associated with
northwest winds accompanying cold fronts. As the temperature drops in
early October, the migration is well under way. Migrating flocks normally
contain between 50 and 150 individuals.
By far the largest number of Redheads migrate almost due south from the
breeding grounds to wintering areas in the Gulf areas of Texas and Mexico,
although some move from the western prairies to the Pacific coast. From
the eastern prairies, the migration is more complex. Whereas some flocks
move southeast to the northern tributaries of the Mississippi River,
following the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf coast, there is a large
movement through the Lake of the Woods area in Ontario. Most of these
birds then move to Lakes St. Clair and Erie, where they congregate in
traditional areas with Canvasbacks and scaups, forming mixed flocks of
20 00040 000 diving ducks. In late October and early November, the birds that have
congregated on the Great Lakes move through the Finger Lakes of New York
State on their way to wintering areas along the Atlantic coast.
The Redhead is one of our most important and sought-after game birds.
All along its migration routes, market and sport hunters used to take
large numbers of Redheads for food. Market hunting was prohibited in 1917,
but the tradition of hunting Redheads with large sets of decoys, numbering
50100 blocks or more, has persisted.
In the late 1960s, Redhead populations decreased greatly. In an attempt
to allow the species to recover its former abundance, the federal
governments of Canada and the United States protected Redheads through
restrictive hunting regulations. Redheads increased again in the late
1970s and seem now to be in no danger.
Hunting regulations are based on the results of annual surveys
conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, in conjunction with provincial and state agencies. Each January,
a North American census of wintering waterfowl populations is conducted to
determine annual population trends. Breeding ground surveys are conducted
in May to record population levels and waterfowl distribution. Hunting
surveys provide important information on the rate at which a species is
However, restrictive hunting regulations alone do not have a major
bearing on Redhead populations. Waterfowl populations are limited today
because wetland breeding, staging, and wintering areas are being destroyed
by such activities as industrial development, urban projects, and
agriculture. Periodic droughts also severely reduce the reproductive
success of prairie waterfowl.
Federal, provincial, and state wildlife agencies in the United States,
Canada, and Mexico, along with many nongovernment organizations, have
developed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to conserve and
develop prime habitat throughout the continent for the Redhead and other
waterfowl. However, many marshlands and sloughs continue to be destroyed,
and much work remains to be done by all sectors to conserve wetland
Waterfowl management is playing a vital role in maintaining Redheads
and many other aquatic species. Through efficient use of our land
resources, provincial and federal policies seek to preserve an adequate
supply of wetlands essential to meet continental waterfowl population
goals. So long as people realize the need for, and actually conserve, our
wetlands, it is certain that the Redhead will continue to be a valuable
resource far into the future.