One of Minnesota’s most interesting and special species of waterfowl is a little duck that lays big eggs and has a big bill: the ruddy duck.
I remember the first ruddy duck I ever saw. On a North Dakota prairie pothole many springs ago, I watched in amazement as a colorful male ruddy duck, performing his courtship display, rapidly slapped his rusty reddish breast with the bottom of his blue bill and then emit a guttural call from his throat as he quickly stretched his neck out.
Each time the duck drummed his puffed-out breast with his bill, rings and bubbles would appear on the surface of the water all around him, thereby enhancing the overall display and sounds. His behavior was laughable, his plumage was beautiful, and his call and sounds were delightful. He was such a spectacle that it was no wonder to me that nearby ruddy duck hens were watching the drake, too. He was mesmerizing.
I stood and observed those diminutive ducks for a long time. And throughout the few field seasons that I was privileged to spend observing and estimating populations of ducks and other birds on prairie wetlands and grasslands, I never grew tired of watching the always entertaining and sociable ruddy duck.
As mentioned earlier, it turns out that ruddy duck hens lay the largest egg of any duck in proportion to their size. A small duck as ducks go, ruddy ducks aren’t much heavier than a pound and not much longer than 15 inches. Big feet, short stubby wings and a short thick neck, broad bill, and stiff tails that the male holds straight up as he swims and courts females, are only some of the several distinctive features easily recognized as uniquely ruddy. Indeed, it would be difficult to confuse the ruddy duck with any other species of duck.
Classified as a diver duck, ruddy ducks are adept divers and require a sheet of open water to skitter across while furiously flapping their wings in order to become fully airborne. Diving under the surface of the water, ruddy ducks feed on a variety of favorite foods that include various aquatic insects and parts of a wide variety of plants.
Ruddy ducks feed heavily on midge larvae, an important and abundant part of their diet, but all types of insects are also consumed. Like all ducks, ruddy ducks use their bills to strain food items as they sift through mud and silt bottoms of wetlands and sometimes the surface of the water as they search for food.
Abundant throughout the United States and Canada, ruddy ducks breed and nest primarily in the Great Plains and western United States, including parts of western Minnesota and Canada. Though very interesting to observe and photograph, ruddy ducks are not an especially sought after duck by most waterfowl hunters. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, some 50,000 ruddy ducks are annually harvested by hunters each fall. The total worldwide population is estimated at over 650,000.
Platform nests of grasses and cattails are built by ruddy duck hens just a few inches above the water, but sometimes on top of muskrat lodges, and are lined with soft down feathers as incubation advances and grow closer to hatching. In less than a month, the large eggs hatch with well developed ducklings that are able to fend for themselves in a short period of time. And some 40 to 50 days later the little ruddy duck ducklings are able to fly.
These interesting ducks as previously noted are widespread throughout the continent during the breeding and nesting season, including even Alaska. Some populations are also known to exist year around in the Caribbean islands, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Sightings of ruddy ducks have also occurred in Europe, Iceland and South America, too.
If ever you’ve seen a ruddy duck, you likely haven’t forgotten that first encounter. A beautiful little duck, few ducks resemble it and none behave like it as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.