Ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are considered migratory, with those that breed in the higher latitudes of North America moving further south for the winter. As long as our shallow lakes, ponds and marshlands are ice free, ruddy ducks can be found near our home throughout the year. They move to lower elevations when their habitat becomes covered in ice, returning as soon as the water is once again open.
Eagle Lake (Lassen County CA) still remains ice-free this winter. Recently I watched a single female ruddy duck feeding in the shallow water near the shoreline of Eagle Lake. Ruddy ducks often form large flocks, so a single duck contentedly paddling about was a bit unusual. She also was not too concerned with my sitting on the nearby rocks.
Ruddy ducks forage on aquatic plants, roots and seeds by diving underwater and straining the mud through their heavy, flat bills. They also eat aquatic insects, crustaceans and occasionally small fish.
The ruddy duck is a small, stiff-tailed duck, the only widespread stiff-tailed duck in North America. Its long, stiff tail feathers are used as a rudder when it dives. While swimming the ruddy duck often lays the tail feathers on the water. However, when resting the tail is often held cocked and spread. The male ruddy duck also uses his tail for courtship displays.
The male ruddy duck has a dark cinnamon body, a white face and black cap. His bill is baby blue during breeding season (thus the ruddy duck is often commonly called a blue bill) and a darker blue-gray in the winter. The female is brown-gray throughout the year with a dark crown and a single dark line across her buffy cheeks. Her bill is a brown-gray color.
Like many ducks that have small wings, the ruddy duck must run across the surface of the water to become airborne. Usually the ruddy will dive or swim away to avoid danger rather than fly.
The female ruddy duck was photographed near the Christie Area of Eagle Lake. I took the picture of the male last spring along Elkins Loop in the Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA). Yellow mustard plants in bloom are reflected on the water’s surface.