Waterfowl are among the planet’s most diverse and fascinating species. Ducks, geese, and swans can be found almost anywhere there is water, inhabiting every continent except Antarctica.
Waterfowl have extraordinary skills and do remarkable things to live in these complex ecosystems.
Table of Contents
- Deep divers
- On a protein diet
- Weight watching
- Mega Size
- Just cruising
- Pintail Landing
- Whew! Double duty
- Hear my whistling
- Huge Feather Flex
- Golden Birds
- Masked Up
- Birds can be deadbeats too!
- Flight! Flight!! Flight!!!
- Colourful living
- The Preference for taste
- Mysterious Ducks
- Catching Flights
- Amazing View
- What do we say about early birds?
- Bottom Feeders
- Roughruddy labour
- Slaying with dark edges
- Fattening up
- Drake Ratio
- Long Fall
- Blow me away
- Ancients here
- Does altitude create Attitude?
- Northern Exposure
- Pan Americanism
- Roosting Heron
- We are thankful
- Touched by Grey
- Late moult
- Company of three
- Dense Nest
- Leaping to avoid predators
- Causes Unknown
- It rained ducks!
All waterfowl can dive, but some species are much better than others at it. The long-tailed duck (once known as the Oldsquaw) is the greatest diver of all Waterfowl.
Over 80 of the birds were reportedly captured at a depth of 240 feet in fishing nets off Wolfe Island, Lake Ontario. The emperor penguin, which was recorded at an amazing depth of 1,770 feet, is the champion diver in the world of birds.
On a protein diet
Seventy-five grams (2.6 ounces) of invertebrates must be consumed by female wood ducks to acquire sufficient protein and minerals to produce one egg. Birds must eat more than 300 invertebrates every hour for eight hours to obtain these nutrients.
The female green-winged teal can weigh as little as six ounces, making it the smallest Waterfowl in North America. Branta hutchinsii minima, the bird, once known as the cackling Canada goose and now seemingly stuck with the unfortunate cackling goose moniker, is the smallest of the geese. It can weigh as small as three pounds under either name.
The trumpeter swan can weigh over 35 pounds, and it is the largest Waterfowl in North America. The Common Eider is the largest duck in the northern hemisphere, weighing as much as six pounds.
At speeds of 40 to 60 mph, most waterfowl migrate, with many species averaging approximately 50 mph. Migrating mallards are capable of flying 800 miles during an eight-hour flight with a 50 mph tailwind.
Studies of duck energy have shown that to replenish the energy lost during this eight-hour ride, and a mallard will have to eat and rest for three to seven days.
A hen pintail with a satellite transmitter landed on a shrimp boat off the northern Oregon coast while migrating from Alaska. The shocked crew safely took the duck to shore and released it into the surrounding wetland.
Whew! Double duty
The only North American waterfowl known to routinely raise two broods in one year are wood ducks. Mild temperatures allow wood ducks to start nesting in the South as early as late January, and studies of southernwood ducks have shown that in a single season, more than 11 per cent of females may produce two broods.
Hear my whistling
Both common goldeneyes and Barrow’s are also called whistlers. The resonant whistling sound created by the goldeneyes’ rapidly beating wings can be heard a half-mile away on cold, windless days.
Huge Feather Flex
For feather control, Waterfowl have as many as 12,000 different skin muscles used. To help control body heat, dive underwater, and express emotions such as hostility or amorousness, ducks and geese raise or compress their plumage in different ways.
waterfowl need to eat small particles of stone, gravel, and sand, which are held in their gizzard. Hard foods such as grain, acorns, and clams. In 1911, in western Nebraska, a gold rush was spurred after hunters discovered small gold nuggets in the gizzards of ducks they caught. However, the origins of these nuggets of gold were never found.
With darker feathers forming a cap on their head and lines running over their eyes, many female ducks and ducklings have drab plumage. This “masking” helps conceal the reflective eyes of the birds, which could be seen by predators or pecked at by starving offspring or siblings.
Birds can be deadbeats too!
Several waterfowl follow a breeding technique known as nest parasitism, where females lay eggs in the nests of other females of the same genus, including redheads, canvasbacks, wood ducks, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, and snow geese.
Some wood duck nest boxes have been observed with as many as 50 eggs laid by different hens.
Flight! Flight!! Flight!!!
Black brant, which migrates nonstop from coastal Alaska to their wintering grounds in Baja California, is the long-distance flying champion of all Waterfowl, a journey of about 3,000 miles in only 60 to 72 hours.
During this marathon flight, the birds lose nearly half their body weight. A similar trans-Pacific flight of about 2,000 miles is produced by pintails raised in Alaska and winter in Hawaii.
The colouration of the plumage of Waterfowl is created in two ways: by pigments or by the feathers’ physical structure. Black, brown, red, yellow, green, and violet hues are formed by the two main forms of pigments, known as melanins and lipochromes.
In conjunction with fine feather structures, the presence of blue and iridescent colours derives from these pigments. This explains why, as they are moved in sunlight, some waterfowl feathers tend to change colour.
The Preference for taste
In the fall, wood ducks in flooded bottomlands mainly feed on acorns. The birds favoured small willow oak acorns over larger acorns produced by other oak species, researchers who conducted a ‘taste test’ on captive wood ducks found. Biologists have found as many as 15 acorns of pin oak packed into a wood duck’s gizzard and oesophagus.
The origin of the wintering grounds of the spectacled eider has remained a mystery until very recently. Researchers tracked birds identified by satellite transmitters into the heart of the Bering Sea in March 1995, where they discovered large concentrations of spectacular eiders captured in cracks in the pack ice.
Biologists believe that birds gather to feed in these regions, as they accumulate strong reserves of fat during the winter months.
In January 1999, in eastern Arkansas, a tornado and violent hailstorm dumped over 3,000 dead waterfowl throughout a seven-mile-long swath.
Waterfowl wings provide the two basic elements of flight. Main feathers provide thrust (those on the tips of the wings), while secondary feathers provide lift (those on the rear edge of the wings).
In January 1940, the fabled U.S. The biologist, Johnny Lynch of the Fish and Wildlife Service, observed one of the highest concentrations of ducks ever surveyed from the air in the United States on Louisiana’s Catahoula Lake.
While there were far too many waterfowl to count, he believed at the time there may have been as many as 8 million ducks on the lake.
Genetic study of mallard broods has shown that eggs fertilized by various drakes are part of several clutches. Biologists speculate that multiple mates may be pursued by hens to ensure successful fertilization of their clutches. This action also creates more genetic variation among broods.
What do we say about early birds?
A survey of breeding mallards undertaken by the Canadian Wildlife Service showed that 40 per cent of the first-year hens who lived to breed the following spring accounted for ducklings hatched within the first five days of the hatching period.
Usually, harlequin ducks nest on snags or near streams in rocky crevices. By diving to the bottom of flowing torrents and walking upstream along the rocky bottom, these amazing birds feed on invertebrates.
Ruddy ducks produce the largest eggs of any duck compared to their body size. It is common for a clutch of ruddy duck eggs to weigh more than the hen who laid them.
Slaying with dark edges
On the leading edges of their tails, most waterfowl have black-tipped feathers. The pigment melanin is found in these feathers, which imparts a structural rigidity that makes them less susceptible to wear and abrasion.
Buffleheads are also, for a good reason, called “butterballs”. In preparation for fall migration, researchers have found that these birds store upwards of four ounces of fat, more than a quarter of their body weight.
Hunters in many northern states bag an average of two drake mallards for each hen, according to harvest surveys, while hunters in many southern states harvest three or more greenheads for each Susie.
Nearly 1,000 waterfowl were swept over New York’s Niagara Falls on Christmas Day 1947 and plunged to their death. It is thought that this waterfowl tragedy was caused by an extremely strong current and thick fog.
Waterfowl have a field of vision of almost 340 degrees with eyes positioned on either side of their faces, allowing them to see just about everything above, below, in front of and behind them at the same time. The saucer-shaped waterfowl eyes also allow them to simultaneously see both near and distant objects in sharp focus.
Blow me away
In Mexico and parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, as well as in central and southern Africa, full whistling-ducks are common. Nobody knows how these two populations were formed, but one possible reason is that strong westerly winds brought members of the African population across the Atlantic to North America.
A canvasback harvested at the ripe old age of 29 was the oldest known duck to have been captured by a hunter. A Canada goose of the same era was the oldest recorded goose to have been taken by a hunter.
Two or more broods can assemble in a crèche in some waterfowl species, including lesser scaup, common eiders, and Canada geese, under the supervision of several hens (in the case of ducks) or parents’ sets (in the case of geese). Hens in eiders take turns watching ducklings as others eat. The babysitting hens are referred to as “aunts.”
Does altitude create Attitude?
Ducks usually fly at an altitude of 200 to 4,000 feet but can reach far higher altitudes. At an altitude of 21,000 feet, a jet plane over Nevada hit a mallard, the highest recorded North American waterfowl flight. And at an elevation of 16,400 feet, a 1954 climbing expedition to Mount Everest found a pintail skeleton.
In distribution, some ducks are Holarctic, implying that they occur across the northern hemisphere (including North America and Eurasia). Northern shovelers, northern pintails, mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, common goldeneyes, and greater scaup are included among these birds.
The Cinnamon Teal is the only North American dabbler or diver that breeds in South America. On both continents, full and black-bellied whistling-ducks also breed.
Big blue herons ate 10 of 48 ducklings fitted with radio transmitters in one report on the survival of wood duck ducklings. The biologist used his receiver to track the heron to its roost site, where it regurgitated the transmitter when a researcher found that one of the transmitter signals was coming from a live heron.
We are thankful
Pileated Woodpeckers create many of the nesting sites used by wood ducks and other larger cavity-nesting ducks—Buffleheads nest in holes made by nesting flickers, a common woodpecker species, in hollow trees.
Touched by Grey
When they grow older, humans may not be the only ones that get”grey.” In a banding analysis of 1,700 redheads on Texas’ Laguna Madre, researchers found that an accurate age estimate could be given by the number of grey feathers on a hen’s head. Ultimately, some hens have so many grey feathers that their heads are almost white.
Did you know that during late fall or winter, the hen mallards moult? The birds substitute darker brown “alternate” plumage for their “basic” plumage acquired during the summer moult. When nesting in the spring, these darker, more clearly developed feathers help camouflage the birds.
Company of three
Three African magpie geese consisting of a male and two females share incubation duties by laying eggs in a single nest.
In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, some of the continent’s highest densities of nesting ducks exist, where some maintained habitats host as many as 1,000 breeding ducks per square mile. That’s more than one nest for a duck per acre.
Red-breasted merganser that attained a top airspeed of 100 mph while being chased by an aeroplane was the quickest duck ever recorded. The previous speed record set by a canvasback clocked at 72 mph eclipsed this.
The blue-winged and green-winged teal, considered to be the fastest ducks by many hunters, are among the slowest, with a typical flight speed of only 30 mph.
Leaping to avoid predators
Barnacle geese nest on cliffs up to 150 feet high along the Greenland coast to hide from predators. They leap off the cliff when the goslings hatch, and freefall far below to the ground or sea.
The Goslings are unharmed because the impact is effectively absorbed by their light, downy body. The same is true of wood duck and Canada goose broods that are high in trees jumping from nests.
Nesting Canada geese often inhabit abandoned raven and raptor nests in trees in some areas, providing more protection for birds from land-based predators.
The only confirmed extinct North American waterfowl species is the Labrador duck. In the fall of 1875, allegedly off Long Island, New York, the last recorded wild Labrador duck was taken by a hunter. Hunting, however, is not thought to have caused the loss of the species.
Waterfowl biologists suspect a range of other variables and believe that the introduction of new threats to the breeding grounds of the Labrador duck or changes in their food supply may have contributed to their extinction.
Occasionally, extreme weather can cause a mass waterfowl migration known as a grand passage. In early November 1995, millions of migrating ducks and geese jammed radar systems and grounded flights in Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri, following a severe blizzard in the Prairie Pothole Area.
It rained ducks!
In Stuttgart Arkansas, on the Main Street, Hundreds of ducks fell from the sky and rained down, smashing windows and destroying vehicles. It was assumed that most were killed by hail, but the wind killed some. This happened in 1973.