Birds

Birds of Ocracoke: The Redhead

Male and female Redheads in the pond near the Ocracoke ferry terminal. Center back is a male Mallard, and resting far right is a Green-winged Teal. Photo by Peter Vankevich

By Peter Vankevich

In the long waterfowl tradition of Ocracoke, perhaps the most endearing species for hunters, decoy carvers and bird lovers is the duck simply known at the Redhead (Aythya Americana).
There is a good reason for this. Starting in mid-fall, Redheads can congregate in the Pamlico Sound by the hundreds, if not the thousands.

From the dunes looking toward the sound someone without the aid of binoculars or a spotting scope may think there is a new shoal. But that dark area would be a raft of Redheads.
Or, you may notice a dark mass in the air rapidly and erratically moving up and down, left and right. The likelihood is that this a large flock of Redheads.

Redheads are diving ducks, part of the tribe known as pochards or scaups which feed by diving beneath the surface of the water. Other members of this group found in the region are Greater and Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks and Canvasbacks. Unlike sea ducks that also use their wings to move under water, Redheads use only their feet to propel while foraging.
Their diet consists of wide variety of food sources including seeds, buds and tubers of sub-aquatic plants, larvae, eggs, snails and other aquatic invertebrates.

Redheads. Photo by Peter Vankevich

The adult male has a rufous head and neck, black breast, gray body, black hindquarters, yellowish eye, and blue-gray bill with black tip and white subterminal band. The female is brownish with a whitish belly, grayish secondary wings and a dark eye.

The most similar appearing duck is the Canvasback which is not very common around Ocracoke but is in much of eastern North America. Male Redheads are best distinguished from male Canvasbacks by a more reddish head and neck. The Canvasback head shape has a noticeable sloped forehead.

The Redhead, created by Dan Robinson, is the featured decoy for the Second annual Ocracoke Waterfowl Festival April 20. Photo: Peter Vankevich

Redheads nest primarily in ponds and other wetlands of the Midwest’s prairie pothole region where there are dense plants that provide for food and cover. Smaller breeding populations are scattered across marshes and rivers from Alaska to California’s Salton Sea, on lakes and wetlands, streams and cropland and sewage ponds.

Comfortable in both salt and fresh water habitats, Redheads have an extensive wintering range throughout the United States.

Hatchlings are precocial. Born fully covered with down, they leave the nests within a day or two. The mother hens often lead their broods, usually from five to seven young, to nearby deeper marshes or lakes to raise them. The mother hen abandons the chicks at around eight weeks old and before they are capable of flying. They ducklings remain flightless for another two to four weeks. Males usually abandon their mates early in incubation.

In addition to laying and raising their own clutches, more than any other North American duck, they engage in extensive brood parasitism by laying their eggs in other species nests as well as their own. This parasitism may be practiced more by inexperienced younger females.
Redheads most often lay their eggs in Canvasbacks nest, but Redheads may lay eggs in the nests of Mallards, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck and Ruddy Ducks.

The foster hens raise these redhead ducklings as their own. There are even records of them laying eggs in nests of American Bittern and, amazingly, a record in a Northern Harrier nest.

Listen: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a variety of Redhead recordings. Click here.

When to see: Fall into spring, arrivals and departures vary from year-to-year. 

Where: Sound, inlets, off Springer’s Point, Silver Lake harbor, along the ferry routes 

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Redhead Ducks off Portsmouth Island. Photo by Brian Smith

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