After the canvasback, the redhead is the second largest member of North America's pochards, a family of diving ducks that also includes scaup and ring-necked ducks. As its name indicates, the redhead is named for the drake's striking reddish brown head.
The hen is much less conspicuous, having mostly pale brown plumage. Both sexes have a white belly and blue-gray bill marked at the end with a white ring and black tip. At a distance, redheads can be distinguished from canvasbacks by the shape of their heads and bills. Redheads have a rounded head and gently tapered bill, while canvasbacks have a flatter head and a larger, wedge-shaped bill.
More than three-quarters of North America's redheads breed in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada. The remainder of the population nests in the Western Boreal Forest and the U.S. Intermountain West. Redheads are versatile breeders. They will nest both on land and over water on mats of vegetation..
Many females lay eggs in the nests of other ducks in a reproductive strategy known as nest parasitism. In one study conducted on Manitoba's Delta Marsh, more than 90 percent of canvasback nests contained redhead eggs. The unsuspecting foster hens raise these redhead ducklings as their own, while the young birds retain their identity as redheads later in life.
In autumn, the vast majority of redheads follow the Central and Mississippi Flyways to their primary wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast. Some 80 percent of the continent's redheads winter on the Laguna Madre of South Texas and northern Mexico. Smaller numbers of redheads migrate east across the Great Lakes and winter along the Atlantic coast on estuaries such as Chesapeake Bay and Currituck Sound. Many redheads raised in the Intermountain West follow the Pacific Flyway and winter with other redheads on California's San Francisco Bay and along the west coast of Mexico.
During fall and winter, redheads mainly graze on plants like musk grass or sago pondweed in the north and shoalgrass in southern coastal lagoons. They also eat tubers, rhizomes, plant stems, and some invertebrates. Their largely vegetarian diet makes them excellent table fare, and during the market hunting era, redheads were almost as highly prized in East Coast markets as canvasbacks.
Redhead populations are currently healthy. In 2009, slightly more than 1 million breeding redheads were tallied in the traditional survey area, a level 62 percent above the long-term average and near a record high. U.S. hunters bagged an estimated 120,000 redheads during the 2008-2009 waterfowl season, with the largest harvests occurring in Texas, California, the Dakotas, and Great Lakes states.
Learn more about redheads and their habitats by visiting the Waterfowl ID section of the DU website.