Waterfowl are among the most diverse and interesting creatures on the planet. Inhabiting every continent except Antarctica, ducks, geese, and swans can be found just about everywhere there's water, from the High Arctic to the tropics and from the ocean to the desert. To survive in these varied environments, waterfowl have incredible abilities and do amazing things.
Have you ever wondered which duck flies fastest, migrates farthest, or dives deepest? Do you know the largest number of waterfowl ever seen in one place, or why the Labrador duck became extinct? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and much more about the waterfowl of North America and beyond.
All of this continent's waterfowl can dive, but some species are much better at it than others. The best diver of all waterfowl is the long-tailed duck (formerly known as the oldsquaw). More than 80 of the birds were reportedly caught in fishing nets off Wolfe Island, Lake Ontario, at a depth of 240 feet. The champion diver in the bird world is the emperor penguin, which has been recorded at the incredible depth of 1,770 feet.
Female wood ducks must ingest 75 grams (2.6 ounces) of invertebrates to obtain enough protein and minerals to produce one egg. To acquire these nutrients, the birds must consume more than 300 invertebrates an hour for eight hours.
Female green-winged teal can weigh as little as six ounces, making them the smallest of North America's waterfowl. The smallest of the geese is Branta hutchinsii minima , the bird formerly known as the cackling Canada goose and now apparently stuck with the unfortunate moniker of cackling cackling goose. By either name, it can weigh as little as three pounds.
The largest of North America's waterfowl is the trumpeter swan, which can tip the scales at more than 35 pounds. Weighing as much as six pounds, the common eider is the largest duck in the northern hemisphere.
Most waterfowl fly at speeds of 40 to 60 mph, with many species averaging roughly 50 mph. With a 50 mph tail wind, migrating mallards are capable of traveling 800 miles during an eight-hour flight. Studies of duck energetics have shown that a mallard would have to feed and rest for three to seven days to replenish the energy expended during this eight-hour journey.
While migrating from Alaska, a hen pintail carrying a satellite transmitter landed on a shrimp boat off the northern Oregon coast. The surprised crew carried the duck safely to shore and released it on a nearby wetland.
Wood ducks are the only North American waterfowl known to regularly raise two broods in one year. Mild temperatures enable wood ducks in the South to begin nesting as early as late January, and studies of southern wood ducks have found that more than 11 percent of females may produce two broods in a single season.
Both common and Barrow's goldeneyes are often called whistlers. On cold, windless days, the resonant whistling sound produced by goldeneyes' rapidly beating wings can be heard a half-mile away.
Waterfowl have as many as 12,000 separate skin muscles used for feather control. Ducks and geese lift or compress their plumage in various ways to help regulate body heat, dive underwater, and express emotions, such as aggression or amorousness.
Waterfowl ingest small particles of stone, gravel, and sand, which are kept in their gizzard to help them grind up hard foods like grain, acorns, and clams. In 1911, a gold rush was spurred in western Nebraska after hunters found small gold nuggets in the gizzards of ducks they had shot. The source of these gold nuggets, however, was never discovered.
Many female ducks and ducklings have drab plumage with darker feathers forming a cap on their head and stripes extending across their eyes. This "masking" helps camouflage the birds' shiny eyes, which could be seen by predators or pecked at by hungry offspring or siblings.
Several waterfowl—including redheads, canvasbacks, wood ducks, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, and snow geese—pursue a breeding strategy known as nest parasitism, where females lay eggs in the nests of other females of the same species. Some wood duck nest boxes have been found with as many as 50 eggs laid by multiple hens. Female redheads regularly lay eggs in the nests of other duck species. In one study conducted on Manitoba's Delta Marsh, more than 90 percent of canvasback nests contained redhead eggs. The unsuspecting foster hens raise the redhead ducklings as their own.
The long-distance flying champions of all waterfowl are black brant, which migrate nonstop from coastal Alaska to their wintering grounds in Baja California—a journey of roughly 3,000 miles—in just 60 to 72 hours. The birds lose almost half their body weight during this marathon flight. Pintails raised in Alaska and winter in Hawaii make a similar trans-Pacific flight of about 2,000 miles.
The coloration of waterfowl plumage is produced in two ways: by pigments or by the physical structure of the feathers. The two main types of pigments, known as melanins and lipochromes, produce black, brown, red, yellow, green, and violet shades. The appearance of blue and iridescent colors results from these pigments in combination with fine feather structures. This explains why some waterfowl feathers appear to change color as they are moved in sunlight.
In the fall, wood ducks largely feed on acorns in flooded bottomlands. Researchers who conducted a "taste test" on captive wood ducks found the birds preferred tiny willow oak acorns over larger acorns produced by other oak species. Biologists have found as many as 15 pin oak acorns packed into the gizzard and esophagus of a wood duck.
The location of the spectacled eider's wintering grounds remained a mystery until fairly recently. In March 1995, researchers followed birds marked with satellite transmitters into the heart of the Bering Sea, where they found massive concentrations of spectacled eiders gathered in fissures in the pack ice. Biologists assume the birds gather in these areas to feed, since they acquire heavy fat reserves during the winter months.
In January 1999, a tornado and violent hailstorm deposited more than 3,000 dead waterfowl across a seven-mile-long swath in eastern Arkansas.
Waterfowl wings provide the two essential elements of flight. Primary feathers (those on the tips of the wings) provide thrust, while secondary feathers (those on the rear edge of the wings) provide lift.
In the January 1940, legendary U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Johnny Lynch observed on Louisiana's Catahoula Lake one of the largest concentrations of ducks ever surveyed from the air in the United States. Although there were far too many waterfowl to count, he claimed as many as 8 million ducks could have been on the lake at the time.
When a pale-bellied brant marked with a satellite transponder stopped moving for several days on Canada's Cornwallis Island, British researchers flew there to investigate. They tracked the bird to the home of an Inuit hunter, where they found the brant in the freezer and the transmitter still in place on the bird's back.
Genetic analysis of mallard broods has shown that many clutches include eggs that were fertilized by different drakes. Biologists speculate that hens may actually seek multiple mates to ensure their clutches will be successfully fertilized. This behavior also produces greater genetic variation among broods.
Scoters are named for "scoting" (scooting) through breaking waves while feeding offshore.
A study of breeding mallards conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Service found that ducklings hatched during the first five days of the hatching period accounted for 40 percent of the first-year hens that survived to breed the following spring.
Harlequin ducks typically nest on snags or in rocky crevices along streams. These remarkable birds feed on invertebrates by diving to the bottom of rushing torrents and walking upstream along the rocky bottom.
Ruddy ducks produce the largest eggs relative to their body size of any duck. A clutch of ruddy duck eggs can weigh more than the hen that laid them.
Most waterfowl have black tipped feathers on the leading edges of their wings. These feathers contain the pigment melanin, which imparts a structural rigidity that makes them less subject to wear and abrasion.
Buffleheads are often called "butterballs" by waterfowlers for good reason. Researchers have found that these birds store upwards of four ounces of fat—more than a quarter of their body weight—in preparation for fall migration.
According to harvest surveys, hunters in many northern states bag an average of two drake mallards for every hen, while hunters in many southern states harvest three or more greenheads for every susie.
On Christmas Day 1947, nearly 1,000 waterfowl were swept over New York's Niagara Falls and plunged to their death. Unusually strong current and dense fog are believed to have caused this waterfowl disaster.
With eyes located on either side of their head, waterfowl have a field of vision of almost 340 degrees, enabling them to see just about everything above, below, in front of, and behind them at the same time. The saucer-shaped eyes of waterfowl also allow them to see both close and distant objects in sharp focus simultaneously.
Fulvous whistling-ducks are common in Mexico and parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, as well as in central and southern Africa. Nobody knows how these two populations became established, but one likely explanation is that members of the African population were carried across the Atlantic to North America by strong westerly winds.
The oldest known duck to be taken by a hunter was a canvasback harvested at the ripe old age of 29. The oldest known goose to be taken by a hunter was a Canada goose of the same age.
In some waterfowl species, including lesser scaup, common eiders, and Canada geese, two or more broods may congregate in a crèche under the supervision of several hens (in the case of ducks) or sets of parents (in the case of geese). In eiders, hens take turns watching ducklings while others feed. The babysitting hens are known as "aunts."
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.
Several ducks are Holarctic in distribution, meaning they occur throughout the northern hemisphere (encompassing North America and Eurasia). These birds include northern shovelers, northern pintails, mallards, gadwalls, green-winged teal, common goldeneyes, and greater scaup.
The only North American dabbler or diver that also breeds in South America is the cinnamon teal. Fulvous and black-bellied whistling-ducks also breed on both continents.
In one study on the survival of wood duck ducklings, great blue herons ate 10 of 48 ducklings fitted with radio transmitters. When a researcher discovered that one of the transmitter signals was originating from a live heron, the biologist used his receiver to track the heron to its roost site, where it regurgitated the transmitter.
Buffleheads nest in holes made in hollow trees by nesting flickers, a common species of woodpecker. Pileated woodpeckers create many of the nesting sites used by wood ducks and other larger cavity-nesting ducks.
TOUCH OF GRAY
People may not be the only ones who "gray" as they grow older. In a banding study of 1,700 redheads on the Laguna Madre of Texas, researchers found that the amount of gray feathers on a hen's head may provide an accurate prediction of age. Some hens eventually have so many gray feathers that their head appears almost white.
Did you know that hen mallards molt during late fall or winter? The birds replace their "basic" plumage acquired during the summer molt with darker brown "alternate" plumage. These darker, more clearly defined feathers help camouflage the birds while nesting in the spring.
African magpie geese form trios consisting of a male and two females that lay eggs in a single nest, and all three birds share incubation responsibilities.
Some of the highest densities of nesting ducks on the continent occur in Colorado's San Luis Valley, where some managed habitats support as many as 1,000 breeding ducks per square mile. That's more than one duck nest per acre.
The fastest duck ever recorded was a red-breasted merganser that attained a top airspeed of 100 mph while being pursued by an airplane. This eclipsed the previous speed record held by a canvasback clocked 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.
To escape from predators, barnacle geese nest on cliffs up to 150 feet high along the Greenland coast. When the goslings hatch, they jump off the cliff and freefall to the ground or sea far below. The goslings are unharmed because their light, downy body effectively absorbs the impact. The same is true of wood duck and Canada goose broods that leap from nests high in trees. In some areas, nesting Canada geese regularly occupy abandoned raven and raptor nests in trees, giving the birds greater protection from land-based predators.
The Labrador duck is the only known extinct North American waterfowl species. The last known wild Labrador duck was taken by a hunter in the fall of 1875, reportedly off Long Island, New York. Hunting, however, is not believed to have caused the species' decline. Waterfowl biologists suspect a variety of other factors and speculate that the introduction of new predators on the Labrador duck's breeding grounds or changes in their food supply possibly led to their extinction.
Severe weather will occasionally trigger a mass migration of waterfowl known as a grand passage. In early November 1995, following a severe blizzard in the Prairie Pothole Region, millions of migrating ducks and geese jammed radar systems and grounded flights in Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri.
In 1973, hundreds of ducks fell from the sky and rained down on Main Street in Stuttgart, Arkansas, breaking windows and damaging cars. Most were believed to have been killed by hail, but others were covered with ice when they hit the ground, suggesting that uplifting winds had carried the birds to high altitude, where ice accumulted on their bodies and wings.
Feathers typically make up about one-sixth of a bird's weight. Hummingbirds have the fewest feathers (some species have less than a thousand). Some swans, on the other hand, have more than 25,000 feathers.
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.
Biologists with the Michigan Department of Conservation caught the same black duck drake 18 times over a nine-year period. First banded as an adult in 1949, this wily black duck successfully eluded hunters and predators for 10 years. When biologists trapped the duck for the last time in 1958, they replaced its leg band, which had worn thin with age.
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 would have logged nearly 80,000 air miles.
While hybridization is very rare in the wild, mallards have been known to crossbreed with some 40 waterfowl species (including, in captivity, such genetically dissimilar species as the graylag goose). The wood duck, known to have crossbred with as many as 20 other duck species, takes second place in the annals of waterfowl promiscuity.
The Franklin's ground squirrel can be an insidious predator of duck eggs. Unlike larger predators, which destroy an entire clutch at once (thereby enabling the hen to renest), these rodents steal eggs one at a time over a period of several days. One study in Manitoba found that ground squirrels destroyed 19 percent of the duck nests in the area.
Compiled by Mike Checkett and Matt Young