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Redhead (Duck)

These ducks are easily recognizable by their distinctive rusty-red heads.

Redhead Ducks are very widespread across North America, particularly in migration and winter, and they winter in large flocks along the Gulf Coast. Redheads are well known for parasitizing other duck nests, and some females do not even build a nest of their own, but instead lay all of their eggs in the nests of other ducks.

As a diving duck, Redheads are rarely seen on land, and they require a running start across the water to take flight. Pairs form during the winter, and they move north to the breeding grounds together. The record known lifespan for a wild Redhead is 21 years.

Female Redheads are a gray-brown with a variable reddish wash on the head.  (sorry, no images of Lucille Ball or Ann Margaret). Fine eye ring and line behind the eye. Similar to female Ring-necked Duck.

 

Description of the Redhead

Breeding male

The Redhead is a large diving duck with a steeply sloping forehead and a bluish-gray bill with a black tip.

Males have a gray body, black breast, and reddish head and neck.  Length: 19 in.  Wingspan: 29 in.

Male Redhead

Males have a black chest. Flanks and back not as pale as Canvasback.  Photograph © Alan Wilson

Male redhead

Note the black nail and the narrow white band that fades into blue on most of the bill. Photograph © Alan Wilson.

Female

Females have a brownish body, head, and neck.

 

Seasonal change in appearance

Males in nonbreeding plumage are similar but browner.

Juvenile

The immature Redhead is similar to the adult female.

Juveniles, eclipse males are all similar in appearance.  Depending on the age, sex and molt stage there can be significant difference in the appearance but all can usually be identified, if by nothing else, than “what else could it be?”

Habitat

Redheads inhabit lakes, marshes, and salt bays.

Diet

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

Behavior

The Redhead dives in shallow water to forage.

Related: What do ducks symbolize?

Range

Redheads 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, Gulf, and Atlantic Coasts. The population fluctuates considerably, based largely on habitat conditions.

Fun Facts

Redheads often lay eggs in the nests of Canvasbacks or other ducks, or in unincubated “dump” nests which have been known to contain as many as 87 eggs.

In winter, flocks of tens of thousands of Redheads may be found off the coast of Texas

Vocalizations

Female Redheads give a nasal yelp, while males give a distinctive “meow.”

 

Pictures of Redheads

The bird below has the typical bill color and a stronger broken eye ring than other females on this page.

Female redhead

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Female redhead

A close up of the head.  Pale cheek patch.  Almost no eye ring. Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Male redhead in flight

Pale wing linings underneath.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Male redhead in flight

Thin white line on trailing edge of wing.  Wings generally have a 2-tone appearance but lack a colorful speculum.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Male redhead stretching his wings

Male stretching his wings before take off.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Redhead female in flight

Female.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Redhead female in flight

Female.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Redhead female in flight

Female.  Note dark feet and legs.  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Redheads in flight

Can you spot the female?  Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Redheads in flight

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Long, pointed wings.  Males distinctive, females generally plain looking with white belly and pale area at the base of the bill.  Pale area at the base of the bill less striking than on female scaup.

Redheads in flight

Photograph © Greg Lavaty

Male Redheads are easy to identify at a distance, lone females would offer a greater challenge.

 

Similar Species

  • The Canvasback has a more gently and evenly sloped forehead, a dark bill, and whiter upperparts.

Nesting

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

Number: Usually lay 9-15 eggs.
Color: Olive.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 23-29 days and leave the nest almost immediately, but cannot fly for about 4-6 weeks.

 

 

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. 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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