Canvasbacks and Redheads

These two types of duck are similar in superficial ways but distinctly different upon close examination and study.  

Both are North American species, although a few Canvasbacks, the largest American diving duck, have crossed the Atlantic and appeared in England.  The Canvasback − thya valisineria − owes its Latin name in part to a wild celery plant which is a preferred food.  The drake (male) is recognizable by its rusty red head, sloping forehead and bill, red iris, and white body with black breast and tail feathers.  The female, mostly brown, presents the same distinctive silhouette, a prime identifying field mark. 

Canvasbacks feed in shallow water, mostly by diving and dabbling (up-ended bottom feeding), reaching for seeds, leaves, roots, tubers, snails, and insect larvae.  Seen in January on Lake Junaluska, these are migratory birds whose summer breeding grounds reach as far north as Alaska and Western Canada and winter in the lower 48 around coastal bays and
interior lakes. 

The Redhead (Aythya americana) drake has a rounded head and shorter neck, both bright cinnamon-red, with a black and gray body.  The female is brown and, like the male, has a black-tipped blue-gray bill.  Redheads sometimes gather in large rafts of 50,000 or more in the winter on the U.S. Gulf Coast and large inland lakes.  Their diet consists of water vegetation and, on salt water, shoal grass, small snails, and clams.  They are highly social creatures.

Like other birds, female Redheads are sometimes brood parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of other waterfowl to be incubated, fed, and fledged by females of other species.  Canvasback nests are often chosen by Redheads for such drop-in adoptions.  Mallard, Gadwall, and several other species of waterfowl are also parasitized by opportunistic Redheads who spend less time raising their own young and more time producing eggs for other adoptive nests.

Visit a local lake like nearby Lake Junaluska to experience the grace and beauty of our native American waterfowl.

The Highlands Plateau Audubon Society, focused on enjoying and preserving birds and their habitats, is a Chapter of the National Audubon Society and a 501(c) (3) organization.  For information on all our activities and membership, please visit