Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ring-necked Ducks

     Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) are among our most commonly seen and widespread freshwater diving ducks. Freshwater diving or bay ducks, are often referred to as pochards in other parts of the globe. Though often just called divers, pochards around the world (there are 16 species in 2 different Genera worldwide) share some similar traits. First of all, most do not inhabit oceans and swim using only their feet (which like other diving birds are placed well back on their bodies). Sea ducks use their wings as well as their feet when swimming. Most male bay ducks also have similar plumage patterns, of dark patches with light colors, bright colored eyes, and very similar voices due to having the same voice box apparatus (called fenestrated bullae). They all share a common ancestor.  
     The Ring-necked name is not a very good one however. The males certainly do have a cinnamon or chestnut colored ring around their necks, but this is faint and a terrible field mark. It is really only evident in good light, at close range, and on an adult male in full breeding plumage. It was given to them from dead specimens that were held in the hand and so is not very recognizable in the field. They were originally described in 1809.
     A much more appropriate common name is used by others, specially hunters. They are often called Ringbills or Ring-billed Ducks, since the ring is much more noticeable on the bills of both adult males and females. Other common names that hunters use for them include Blackjacks and/or just Jacks due to their dark coloration.

A Ringbill showing both the crescent mark and ring around the bill that are the best field marks.

     But the best field mark, on the drakes (males) at least, is a white bar or crescent-shaped mark along the side that is often visible even from a distance. These medium sized (17" and between 1-2 lbs, drakes being larger) ducks have an overall dark appearance, the backs on drakes being black rather than the grey of their cousins the scaups. They also have a peaked or pointy looking head that has a purplish sheen on males in good light. Adult drakes also have yellow eyes. All in all a handsome duck.

A Blackjack drake

     Although they are diving ducks, these are a bit different from most other divers. For instance, most diving ducks (unlike dabbling or puddle ducks) need to run or patter along the water's surface before being able to take off. Ringbills are very strong fliers and can take off directly from the water with out much or any running necessary.
     Ring-necked Ducks also feed on much more vegetable matter than most other diving ducks (Redheads and Canvasback Ducks being notable exceptions). Three-quarters of their food is plant material throughout most of the year (though while nesting they need much more animal protein, as do the ducklings). Due to this mostly vegetarian diet, Ringnecks are considered to be mild tasting rather than "fishy" like other divers, and are thus favored table fare over them. They respond to hunters' calls and decoys (even those of other duck species) quite well which also makes them popular game birds.
     Ring-billed Ducks appear to be less wary than other diving ducks. Other divers gather in huge rafts, but are often in very deep water and so far in the distance that you cannot get very good views of them, even using binoculars or spotting scopes. You can often get much closer to Ring-necked Ducks before they either fly off or dive under.

A pair of Ringbills, hen to the left.

     Another difference between them and many other divers is that Ringbills prefer much shallower water, often 4' or less, where most of their plant food grows. This means they can utilize some food sources and habitats that many other diving ducks cannot. This includes beaver ponds, flooded fields, storm water control lakes, reservoirs, and just about any fresh body of water (they may use brackish water bays, but tend to stay away from salt water). Blackjacks also can eat a great variety of water plants, whether from flooded fields or even invasive hydrilla.
     This also means you can also find them just about anywhere and makes them much more common in our region than many other diving ducks such as scaup, redheads, or canvasbacks. Ringnecks tend to be in small flocks of half a dozen or so birds around here, but can congregate in the thousands in some of other areas. They also tend to be quite content mixing with rafts of other ducks, whether other divers (especially scaup) or dabbling ducks.

A lone Lesser Scaup drake, a close cousin in the same Genus, swims among Ring-necked drakes.

     Ring-necks can dive 40' or so feet underwater in pursuit of food, but usually make much shorter trips. In fact, they will sometimes just feed on the surface or tip-up much in the manner of dabbling ducks instead of the divers they are.
     Ringbills are powerful fliers. Their small flocks can fly day or night (indeed you can sometimes hear their whistling wings and recognize them for Blackjacks without even having to see them if they're near by and spooked). Blackjacks can travel very long distances, some straying all the way South to Venezuela and across the ocean into Europe. They are only with us during the winter, returning to their breeding grounds in March or April most years.
     Ring-necked Ducks breed mostly in Canada, although they also nest near the Great Lakes and have spread their range into the Northeast. They tend to choose ponds with lots of vegetation and may use the same ponds (and even the same nest) year after year. Older hens lay larger clutches and are more successful than younger ones (although some nest after the first year, many wait until after the second). Females may also dump their eggs into other Ringbill or even scaup nests.

A pair of Ring-necked Ducks, hen to the right.

     Hens nest in very precarious locations. This sometimes consists of just bending some vegetation over and laying the first egg on top of them right on the water. It may only be a couple of inches above the water level on a floating platform. She adds material as she lays a single egg each day until she has her complete compliment of 8-14 olive eggs and the nest is completed.
     Drakes are unusual in that they sometimes stay with the hen even as she's incubating her eggs (though like all ducks, he does not help with raising them). After about 27 days, the precocial young hatch. The next day, they follow the hen, but again differing from other diving ducks, may not look for open water but stay feeding in the aquatic plants near the edges. Ring-necks may creche their young, 1-3 females combining their broods. They can be bullied by larger birds, with Loons and Grebes having been documented as attacking them.
     After about 50 days, the young are fledged and can fly. Though diving ducks may abandon their young before they can fully fly, Ringbills tend to stay with them until they can fly successfully. If they're lucky, they may make it to the record life span of 20 years and 5 months that one banded bird made it to. The toughest task may not just be survival, but finding a mate if they're male. Of all our ducks, none has a more disproportionate male to female ratio than Ringbills. Seventy percent of them are drakes.

A raft of Ringnecks. Can you find the lone female? 

     Ring-necked Ducks, perhaps because of they're adaptability in both habitat and diet, are doing quite well. In fact, they've actually spread their range. Before the 1930's, they were considered rare in the Northeast. By the 1960's they were common. By the 1980's they spread into Alaska. They number now a steady 1.2 million or so and are our most common and widespread diving duck.
    These handsome waterfowl may be widespread and common, but I look forward to seeing them every fall and winter. I like being surprised when encounter them in unusual places and that I can often get better looks at them than I can most other diving ducks. I'm also happy that they've adapted and even spread due to their adaptability, even in our changing world.
     Here's a short video from the Capital Naturalist YouTube Channel showing them on the water:

Ring-necked drake displaying

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