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Ring-necked Duck

These ducks can often be found in lakes and ponds across North America.

The breeding and wintering ranges of the Ring-necked Duck are well separated, except in western North America. Migration takes place at night in small flocks. Weather has less effect on migration timing than might be expected, for the Ring-necked Duck’s internal clock seems to be the primary signal for migration.

There are records of several other species of ducks laying eggs in the nest of Ring-necked Ducks. Female Ring-necked Ducks often return to the same area to nest in subsequent years. The longest known living wild Ring-necked Duck was about 20 years old.

Length: 17 inches

Wing span: 25 inches


Description of the Ring-necked Duck


The Ring-necked Duck is a diving duck slightly smaller than a Redhead, with a bluish-gray bill, a white subterminal band, and a black tip.  This species is named for the dark reddish collar of the males, though it is seldom visible in the field.

Males have gray flanks with a vertical white patch at the front, and black upperparts, breast, neck, and head.

Ring-necked Duck

Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Females have brownish flanks, darker upperparts, a brown cap, and gray cheeks.

Seasonal change in appearance

Males in nonbreeding plumage are similar but browner.


The immature Ring-necked Duck is similar to the adult female.


Ring-necked Ducks inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, and marshes.

Ring-necked Duck

Female. Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Ring-necked Ducks primarily eat roots, leaves, seeds and other plant material, but will also eat insects and mollusks.


The Ring-necked Duck dives in shallow water to forage, or gleans food from the water’s surface.


Ring-necked Ducks occur throughout most of the U.S. and Canada, breeding in northern 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 is generally stable.

Fun Facts

The Ring-necked Duck was named, as were most of North America’s birds, after examining specimens that had been shot, making such features as the collar (or “ring”) of the Ring-necked Duck easier to see than is possible with binoculars from a distance as most birds are now seen today.

Unlike most diving ducks which require a running start to leave the water, Ring-necked Ducks can take flight directly from the surface.


Female Ring-necked Ducks give a growl, while males are generally silent.


Similar Species

  • Male scaup have paler upperparts, and female scaup have dark brown heads.


The Ring-necked Duck’s nest is a bowl of grasses and weeds lined with down, and placed on a hummock or on floating vegetation

Number: Usually lay 8-10 eggs.
Color: Olive or buff.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 25-29 days and leave the nest soon after hatching, but may return to the nest at night, and cannot fly for about 7-8 weeks


Bent Life History of the Ring-necked Duck

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Ring-necked Duck – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Although usually classed with the scaup ducks and resembling them in general appearance, this species seems to be more closely related to the European tufted duck than to any American species. Wilson figured and described it under the name, “tufted duck,” supposing it to be identical with that species. Its gray speculum separates it from the scaups and its black head and conspicuous crest make it seem very distinct from the redhead, though female ringnecks and redheads look very much alike. I am interested to note that, since I wrote the above, Mr. Ned Hollister (1919) has very ably advanced a similar theory. Its distribution is similar to that of the lesser scaup. It is essentially a fresh-water duck of the interior. It pre- fers the marshes and sloughs to the open lakes and streams and is less gregarious than the scaups.

Spring: It is not an especially early migrant in the spring but usually appears soon after the breaking up of the ice, coming along with the scaup ducks and frequenting much the same resorts, but flocking by itself in small scattered groups around the marshy edges of the ponds and in the sloughs.

Courtship: Audubon (1840) refers briefly to the courtship of this species as follows:

They have an almost constant practice of raising the head in a curved manner, partially erecting the occipital feathers, and emitting a note resembling the sound produced by a person blowing through a tube. At the approach of spring the males are observed repeating this action every now and then while near the females, none of which seem to pay the least attention to their civilities.

Nesting: The first account we have of the breeding habits of the ring-necked duck was furnished by Dr. T. S. Roberts (1880); he found a nest on May 27, 1876, near Minneapolis, Minnesota, and on June 1 he shot the female and collected the eggs. He described the nest, as follows:

The situation chosen for the nest was in a narrow strip of marsh bordering a large shallow pond or slough. About halfway between the shore and the edge of the open the hind neck to the back; narrow dusky postocular streaks are faintly suggested: the dark color of the back changes gradually from “sepia” anteriorly to “bister” posteriorly; the under parts are “ivory yellow” tinged with “cream buff;” there are two large scapular patches, two narrow wing stripes and two small rump patches of “cream buff”; there is also a narrow streak of the same color in the center of the upper back. All of these colors would probably be richer and brighter in a younger bird.

In the juvenal plumage, during the early fall the two sexes are very much alike. The upper parts are dull, dark brown, or blackish brown, with lighter edgings; the under parts are mottled with dull, light brown, and whitish; the wings are similar to those of the adult female, the secondaries in the speculum being dull gray, subterminally dusky and only very narrowly, if at all, tipped with ‘white: the sides of the head and neck are mottled with brown and whitish; the crown is deep brownish black, mottled with brown; and the chin is broadly white.

During September and October the sexes differentiate rapidly. New black feathers appear in the head and neck of the young male; new black feathers with a greenish gloss gradually replace the brown feathers of the mantle; and the under parts become whiter, with white vermiculated feathers appearing among the brown feathers of the flanks. By the last of December the young male is in nearly full plumage with the two rings on the bill in evidence with only a few brown feathers left in the back; the brown neck ring is hardly notice- able, the wing is still immature and all the colors are duller. Further progress is made toward maturity during the winter and spring, but it is not until after the new wings are acquired, at the complete molt the next summer, that young birds become indistinguishable from adults, when about 14 months old.

I have never seen the eclipse plumage of the ring-necked duck but it probably has a partial eclipse plumage, or a prolonged double molt in August, very much like what takes place in the tufted duck, to which it is closely related.

Food: Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) says:

The feeding grounds are more inshore than those of the bluebills, and they feed more upon seeds such as frog bit, duck and pond weed, being very fond of bulbs of the nonscented water lily, upon which they will gorge themselves and get exceed- ingly fat; at that time they are counted a delicacy for the table. The playgrounds are in open pieces of water surrounded by weeds and lily pads, in buck brush, willows, and wild rice. The roosting grounds are in buck brush, the edges of timber, down smartweed, and flags.

In his food chart for the ring-necked duck he gives the same list of foods as given for the scaup duck. It is also said to feed on minnows, small frogs, tadpoles, crawfish, snails, insects, aquatic roots~ various seeds, and even grains. Audubon (1840) says:

Whilst in ponds, they feed by diving and dabbling with their biUs in the mud amongst the roots of grasses, of which they eat the seeds also, as well as snails and all kinds of aquatic insects. When on rivers, their usual food consists of small fish and crays, the latter of which they procure at the bottom. A male which I shot near Louisville, in the beginning of May, exhibited a protuberance of the neck so very remarkable as to induce me to cut the skin, when I found a frog, the body of which was nearly 2 inches long, and which had almost choked the bird, as it allowed me to go up within a dozen or 15 paces beforo I took aim.

Mr. Arthur H. Howell (1911) writes:

The food of the ringneck consists mainly of the seeds and stems of pond weed, hornwort, and other aquatic plants, with many nymphs and larvae of water insects.

Behavior: Although the ring-necked duck feeds largely in the shallow water of the marshes, it is nevertheless a good diver and can, if necessary, dive in deep water. Its feet are large and powerful, it dives with its wings tightly closed and swims below the surface very rapidly by the use of feet alone. It swims lightly and rapidly on the surface and rises readily from the water, making a whistling sound as it does so. Its flight is swift and vigorous and it is as lively as the other scaup ducks in all its movements. It flies mostly in small flocks of open formation, rather than in close bunches or lines, so that it does not offer such tempting shots as the other bluebills. While on its feeding grounds it is also usually more scattered and more often flushed singly or in pairs. It should be easily recognized in flight by its general resemblance to the scaups and by the absence of the white speculum; the males are conspicuously marked and can be easily recognized by the black back and crested head and by the ringed bill, if near enough; the small white chin does not seem to be very conspicuous in life. Mr. Horace W. Wright (1910) has called atten- tion to another good field mark; he says:

A conspicuous feature of his plumage as he sits on the water, even at some dis- tance, is a white band on the side of the breast in front of the wing when closed, having the appearance of a bar, but continuous with the white under the wing when the wing is spread. With closed wing as the bird sits ou the water the upper portion of this white bar lies between the black of the breast and the black of the wing; the lower portion between the black of the breast and the finely barred side.

The female is not so easily recognized, as it closely resembles the female redhead, but, if near enough, the white cheeks, faint white eye-ring and ringed bill may be seen.

Fall: The fall migrations of these ducks come along slightly in advance of the scaup ducks, southward through the Mississippi valley and southeastward to the South Atlantic States. They frequent the marshes and small ponds on the way and become very abundant. in the rice fields and bayous of the Southern States, where they remain all winter and furnish excellent sport for the gunners. They are generally very fat at that season, when they have been feeding on vegetable food, seeds, and grain, and their flesh becomes excellent in flavor.

Game: The methods employed for shooting the “ringbills” as they are called, are the same as for the “bluebills.” Blinds are set in their fly ways or passes, to and from their feeding grounds, where they decoy well to wooden decoys and where large numbers are killed. Although not so universally abundant as some other species and not so well known, this is one of the most abundant ducks of the South Atlantic and Gulf States in winter. On the coast of Louisiana these ducks spend the night out on the Gulf, but come into the ponds to feed at daybreak. They come in small flocks of from 3 or 4 to 10 or 12, flying with great speed, and drop at once without circling, into the pond they have selected. They seem to have certain favorite feeding ponds, for while one pond will yield excellent sport, the gunner in an adjoining pond may not get a shot. They are naturally not shy and are not easily driven from their favorite feeding grounds. Mr. Arthur H. Howell (1911) writes that on Big Lake, Arkansas, “in November and December it is often the most abundant duck, and gunners there frequently kill as many as 50 birds in a few hours. A few remain all winter.”

Breeding range: Central North America. East to northern Sas- katchewan (Athabaska Lake region), western Ontario (Lac la Seul), and southeastern Wisconsin (Lakes Koshkonong and Pewaukee). Has been known to breed in southeastern Maine (Calais). South to northern Illinois (formerly at least), northern Iowa (Clear Lake), northern Nebraska (Cherry County), and northern Utah (Salt Lake County). West to northeastern California (Lassen County), central southern Oregon (Klarnath Lake), and central southern British Columbia (Chilliwack and Cariboo district). North to the central Mackenzie Valley (Fort Simpson) and Athabasca Lake (Fort Chip- ewyan). Breeding records from farther north are open to question.

Winter range: Southern North America. East to the Atlantic coast of United States, the Bahama Islands and rarely to Porto Rico and Cuba. South throughout Mexico to Guatemala. West to the Pacific coast of Mexico and United States. North to southern British Columbia (Okanogan Lake), probably Nevada, New Mexico, and northern Texas, to northeastern Arkansas (Big Lake), southern Illinois (Ohio Valley), and eastern Maryland (Chesapeake Bay). Casual in winter as far north as eastern Massachusetts (Boston).

Spring migration: Early dates of arrivals: Pennsylvania, Erie, March 15; New York, Niagara Falls, March 10; Massachusetts, Essex County, April 7; Indiana, English Lake, February 27; Iowa, Keokuk, March 4; Minnesota, Heron Lake, March 15; Alberta, Stony Plain, April 19. Average dates of arrival: Pennsylvania, Erie, April 16, Indiana, English Lake, March 11; Iowa, Keokuk, March 14; Minnesota, Heron Lake, March 27. Late dates of departure: Florida, Leon County, March 24; Indiana, northern, May 11; Kansas, May 24. Fall migraiion: Early dates of arrival: Louisiana, Gulf coast, about September 15; Valley of Mexico, September 28; Virginia, Alexandria, October 6. Late dates of departure: Ontario, Ottawa, November 21; Massachusetts, November 23; New York, Brockport, December 10; Pennsylvania, Erie, December 3; Michigan, Hillsdale, November 26; Indiana, English Lake, November 22. Casual reeords: Accidental in Bermuda (November 13, 1850). Only record for Great Britain is questioned by latest authorities. Has wandered east to Nova Scotia (Sable Island, 1901). Egg dates: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta: Thirteen re- cords, May 31 to July 6; seven records, June 7 to 19. Minnesota and North Dakota: Five records, June 1 to 18.

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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