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These diving ducks are widespread across all of North America.

Despite being quite widespread in winter, the Canvasback has a much smaller population than most other ducks, and in drought years it may not nest at all. The Canvasback’s preferred winter diet of buds and tubers of underwater plants restricts it to relatively deep marshes and ponds that do not easily dry up.

As a member of the group of ducks known as diving ducks, the Canvasback’s legs are set well back on its body to make it efficient at swimming and diving. This same adaptation also makes it very poor at walking, which it seldom does.


Description of the Canvasback


The Canvasback is a large diving duck with a gradually sloping forehead and a black bill.

Males have a white body, black breast, and reddish head and neck.  Length: 21 in.  Wingspan: 29 in.



Females have a pale grayish body and brownish head and neck.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males in nonbreeding plumage are similar but grayer.


The immature Canvasback is similar to the adult female.


Canvasbacks inhabit lakes, marshes, and salt bays.


Canvasbacks primarily eat roots, leaves, seeds and other plant material, but will also eat insects and mollusks.


Male displaying. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


The Canvasback dives in shallow water to forage on plant stems and roots.


Canvasbacks occur throughout most of the U.S. and Canada, breeding in the northwestern portions of the U.S. north to Alaska, and wintering across a broad swath of the central and southern U.S., as well as the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts. The population fluctuates considerably, based largely on weather conditions, especially moisture.


Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History


Fun Facts

Redheads often lay eggs in Canvasback nests, which can cause the Canvasback to lay fewer eggs.

The second part of the Canvasback’s scientific name, valisineria, comes from the genus name of wild celery, one of the species’ favorite foods.

During severe drought years, Canvasbacks may not breed at all.


Female Canvasbacks give a hoarse growl, while males give a strange series of hoots.


Similar Species

  • Redhead: The Redhead has a more steeply sloped forehead, a paler bill with a black tip, and darker upperparts.


The Canvasback nest is bulky basket of dead vegetation lined with down, and placed in a marsh.

Number: Usually lay 7-12 eggs.
Color: Olive.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 23-28 days and leave the nest almost immediately, but cannot fly for about 8-10 weeks.

Comparing Male and Female

Male Canvasback

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Male Canvasback. Canvasbacks have the same reddish head, black chest and pale side and back as the Redhead. Canvasbacks are larger and have a large bill and slopping forehead.

Female Canvasback

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Females have a similar color patterns as the males, albeit much less strongly marked. The large, slopping bill is a give-away.

Male Canvasback displaying

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Male in courtship display. Note the red eye.

Male Canvasback displaying

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Preening or perhaps scratching an itch.

Female Canvasback

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Females may show a pale area around the eye.

Male canvasback in flight

Photograph © Glenn Bartley,

Note the long bill and slopping forehead.  Belly and under-wing linings do not show sharp contrast.

Male canvasback in flight

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Male canvasback in flight

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Canvasbacks and other diving ducks lack the colorful speculum seen on most of the dabbling ducks.
The relatively long neck and slopping bill and head are distinctive.

female canvasback landing
Flaps down as this female comes in for a landing.

To Wrap It Up

Canvasbacks are medium to large-sized diving ducks with a distinctive, sloping profile and a reddish-brown head with a black chest and a white body. They have long, narrow bills that are black in males and grayish-blue in females. Their wings are broad and pointed, and they have strong, webbed feet that are set far back on their body.

Compared to other diving ducks, Canvasbacks have a unique head shape, with a distinctive sloping forehead that extends down to their long, narrow bill. They also have a larger body size and a more streamlined profile than many other diving ducks. In addition, their reddish-brown head and black chest make them easily identifiable, especially in flight.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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