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.
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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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
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.
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.