Bird of the Month: Redhead

By Andy McCormick

PC: Mick Thompson (Redhead)

PC: Mick Thompson (Redhead)

Scientific Name: Arthya americana

Length 19 in

Wingspan 29 in

Weight: 2.3 lb

AOU Band code REDH

The Redhead is one of seven North American members of the genus Aythya, from the Greek aithuia, a kind of diving bird. The other members of the genus are four breeding ducks: Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, and Lesser Scaup, and two vagrants: Common Pochard, and Tufted Duck. These are diving ducks that gather in coastal bays or large lakes in winter. The Redhead is most often seen in Eastern Washington in summer and spotted along Puget Sound and Lake Washington in winter. 

The rufous round head of the male Redhead distinguishes it from all other ducks except the Canvasback, which differs in that it has a sloping forehead which forms a continuous line along its long bill. Like other Aythya ducks the chest and hindquarters of the Redhead are black. The back is dark gray where the Canvasback is light gray. The Redhead has a tricolored bill with a black tip, white subterminal band and a pale blue base. The female is plain brown with a pale eye ring and a bill similar to that of the male. 

The Redhead is in breeding plumage in the fall when pair bonds are formed. Migration from the wintering area will begin in late January with nesting beginning in May and extending through June. After breeding, Redheads move farther north to return to shallow molting lakes scattered though the boreal forest region. There they remain flightless until the molt is complete and they can begin southward migration toward the coast in October.

Redheads breed in the Prairie Pothole Region of central North America and part of Eastern Washington. Like many ducks they lay eggs in the nests of others, but the Redhead is a specialist in this endeavor. Females regularly parasitize each other’s nests, which are often massed in close proximity in bulrushes and cattails. They have even been known to lay their eggs in the nests of American Bitterns and Northern Harriers, a predator! (Kaufman). Females will lay eggs in several nests and most will raise a brood of their own. They have also been known to lay eggs in nests that are never incubated. Some of these “dump nests” can have dozens of eggs in them (Kaufman). Incubation is only by the female who leads hatchlings away from the nest about a day into their lives. The young feed themselves and take first flight in about two months.

The Redhead population responds to changes in the amount of water in the breeding area and annual breeding numbers can fluctuate from around 350,000 to one million individuals. Redheads are easily hunted and due to their gregarious nature they will readily respond to decoys. For this reason some hunters have nicknamed it “the fool duck” (Woodin and Michot). The Redhead has benefitted from the North American Waterfowl Management Plan which has preserved and created wetlands in the Prairie Potholes Region and the Great Basin.