Ducks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Females are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. When taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. By now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!
Happy Spring Everyone!!! Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of “Save Them All“