SCHIESS: Ruddy ducks — the showoffs of the duck world
If a duck could strut while swimming it would be the male Ruddy duck with its tail held up, chest puffed out and head bobbing.
Its posture resembles your average yellow rubber ducky except for the color. Instead of being school-bus yellow, this showoff resembles a clown with its red body, a black and white head, touched off with a turquoise blue bill.
Once you have seen a male Ruddy in breeding colors, you will never forget it. I remember the first one that I saw in the 1960s while hiking the wetlands of Hibbard before they were drained and houses were built there. The color combination was something I marveled at.
In the Ruddy-world, the male exists for three purposes: to give the species their name, the color of his body to look handsome and to keep up the numbers of little Ruddies swimming around. He does all of these things very well.
The female Ruddy, less dramatic and conservative in action and color, is the workhorse of the species. She builds the nest, incubates up to 10 eggs, feeds and protects the young while the male is out cruising the water edge with his buddies looking for an unattached female.
The males usually arrive in southeastern Idaho in early May a week or two earlier than the females to set out their territory, practice their mating calls and drive off any other males from their chosen area. They do this by inflating their necks, raise tuffs of feathers on their head and drum their bills against their chest while issuing a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r” sound, the only vocalization that Ruddies make.
After the females arrive, the courtship and control of territories become priorities for the males. The vocalization and displays are exaggerated with the blowing of bubbles as they beat their chest with their bills. While this happens the females chose their mate and start building a nest in the reeds and cattails which is often built with a dome over the nest to protect it from flying predators like Northern Harriers.
One of the odd things about the female Ruddy is that she lays large eggs compared to her body size. The eggs are about 2 inches long and white in color. She can lay up to 10 eggs which is difficult to cover with her 14 inch body. Usually from four to six hatch and she begins teaching them to eat.
Ruddies are mostly bottom feeders where they eat algae, pondweed and aquatic bugs — generally crud from the bottom of ponds. The more slimy and green-looking water, the better they like it.
The best places to view these birds are at Market Lake, Chester wetlands and Camas National Wildlife Refuge in our area. But the males are losing their striking colors and will soon look much like the females for the winter.
These small waterfowl will migrate from Idaho to Mexico and southern California near the coast. These migrations happen mostly at night and with their short rounded wings, the flight is often described as that of a large hummingbird.