For ten special days this first month of autumn, redhead ducks have made a conspicuous appearance very near my home. Have you ever really seen a redhead? I don’t mean the flat and featureless drawings of redheads with the impossible, artificial color combinations you can view in the reference books. I am talking about the living, moving, breathing aythya americana splendidly arrayed in living color before your very eyes.
Without a hint of their coming, there they were. Not a single duck or water fowl of any kind drifted or fished in that morning’s hours on the large farm pond. A pond that was filled to overflowing by the recent, blessed rains. A pond usually maintained as a fishing camp, but drastically and severely reduced in water volume and biological life by the drought this year. So presumably, it had not yet been able to replenish itself as a food source for neither man or creature in recent weeks. Or so I thought.
But in the early evening … a flock of over forty - most of them appearing to be drakes. I sped home, parked, and hiked breathlessly back to the pond with binoculars, afraid they would have already lifted off to another, less public, space to retire for the night.
The setting sun had sunk onto the western horizon low enough to cause the water to undulate as though it was pure liquid gold. A truly golden pond – with the surface dancing and shimmering with millions of sparkling white-gold diamonds looking for all the world as though stars had fallen from the heavens. The drakes rocked placidly in the midst of this stunning natural splendor and calmly watched me, in turn, as I cautiously approached and rested my arms on the top strand of barbed wire and lifted my binoculars.
What a glorious sight! Back lit by the lowering sun, their rounded heads and sloping necks were the very color of a lady’s red velvet cake. Even the form of the feathers seemed to have the fluff and lift and texture of that confection. Bills were a startling powder blue, tipped in glossy black. An impossibly enameled black, reflecting no other color, were their breasts and rumps. Most remarkable of all were the wings and backs. The bird guides will tell you they are gray. How unjust! The slanting light had lit their backs and sides with a solid silver sheen--- brilliant and flashing with a feather here and there lifted against the slight breeze and edged with golden light. The sight inspired awe, and a Spirit-filled remembrance of a psalm: “…even while you sleep among the campfires, the wings of my dove are sheathed in silver, its feathers with shining gold…”
The hens are a soft dove brown, with their primary and secondary feathers being a sedate, but subtly beautiful, shade of confederate blue-gray and their bills – in just the right light – are clearly a navy blue with the requisite shiny black tip. Their heads and necks are a fine, even cinnamon color. As I watched, a dozen lovely ladies drifted in, circling lower and lower, softly calling and settling near the drakes. They are leaving their vast breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and Midwest United States (and some western parts of Canada) and heading south into the southern United States, Mexico and Central America, to reside in warmer waters for the winter. They will feed and fatten there and return in fine fettle for their mating and egg-laying next spring.
They prefer sheltered lake inlets and calm, marshy lakes and ponds. They are a diving duck, and when they abruptly lunge for the depths, their wet, upturned rumps flourish shiny patent-leather black. In low-light situations, or from a great distance, their head color looks mahogany and their bodies look gunmetal gray, so keep a sharp eye out and be sure to use your binoculars to verify. You will see the color properly when your lenses bring them near to you. They will return to the north in the spring migration, so watch closely for them.
These birds are a favorite prey for duck hunters, but they are currently in no danger of reduced numbers. One of the reasons the redhead is a species of least concern (as determined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature) is that the females lay their eggs in the nests of other ducks. It is called intraspecific brood parasitism, and it is common among many duck species. However, while there is a documented diminution in the brood output of the host duck because of the redhead’s interloping, it is not nearly as serious as the cowbird’s parasitism of songbirds – primarily because ducklings are precocial (fully capable of moving around and feeding upon hatching) and require much less care than do the altricial (naked, blind and helpless upon hatching) young of songbirds.
And, yes, three more times last week I was gifted with the same glorious sunset sight before a confluence of weather, shortening days, and biological urges tugged this particular group away farther south. To be immediately replaced by still another wave of redheads in a pond blessedly still filled to overflowing from providential early autumn rains. Welcome resident color and cheer for the gray days of winter ahead.