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The need for speed

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Ducks take advantage of southern winds to head north to breeding grounds

MEMPHIS, Tenn., May 7, 2007 - A duck’s flight speed depends on two factors: its ability to fly through air using its own energy, and the helping or hindering influence of wind. Ordinary flight is around 40-55 mph for most ducks. (Add an additional 10-12 mph when chased.) Canvasbacks, when chased, have reached 72 mph. Thus, a frightened canvasback with a 28-mph tailwind is capable of reaching 100-mph ground speed.

Drake Red Breasted Merganser. ShareAlike.
The red-breasted merganser is the fastest duck ever recorded, attaining a top speed of 100 mph while being pursued by an airplane. This eclipsed the previous speed record held by that canvasback mentioned above at 72 mph. Blue-winged and green-winged teal, thought by many hunters to be the fastest ducks, are actually among the slowest, having a typical flight speed of only 30 mph. It’s the dipping, darting and diving of a flock as it strafes the decoys that make some hunters go all thumbs as the tiny birds rocket by.

With a 50-mph tailwind, migrating mallards can travel up to 800 miles during an eight-hour flight. Studies reveal a mallard must feed and rest for three to seven days to replenish the energy spent during this eight-hour journey.

Black Brant
The long-distance flying champion of all waterfowl is the black brant. Brant migrate nonstop from coastal Alaska to their wintering grounds in Baja California. The 3,000-mile journey is made in just 60 to 72 hours. The birds lose almost half their body weight during this marathon flight.

Pintails raised in Alaska and wintering in Hawaii make a similar trans-Pacific flight of about 2,000 miles.

Blue-winged teal migrate farther south than any other North American waterfowl. A bluewing banded near Oak Lake, Manitoba, was shot by a hunter near Lima, Peru, more than 4,000 miles to the south.

A pintail banded in 1940 in Athabasca, Alberta, survived until January 1954 when it was shot near Naucuspana, Mexico, roughly 3,000 miles away. If this pintail migrated between these two locations every year throughout its known lifetime, the bird could have logged nearly 80,000 air miles.

Ducks usually migrate at an altitude of 200 to 4,000 feet but are capable of reaching much greater heights. A jet plane over Nevada struck a mallard at an altitude of 21,000 feet—the highest documented flight by North American waterfowl. And a 1954 climbing expedition to Mount Everest found a pintail skeleton at an elevation of 16,400 feet.
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