A large, fast-flying duck admired by birdwatchers and hunters alike. By mid-November, large flocks of this species can be found along the Mississippi River and Chesapeake Bay. A smaller number begin to arrive along the Gulf Coast; these numbers will swell over the next two months.
This big diving duck, the largest member of its genus, is wary and swift in flight, earning the respect of hunters. It is a characteristic bird of prairie marshes in summer and saltwater bays in winter. The Canvasback dives for its food, mainly the bases and roots of plants growing underwater. Its specific name, valisineria, refers to the scientific name of wild celery, an aquatic plant that is among its favored foods.
Field MarksMale: Very white-looking, with a chestnut red head sloping into the long blackish bill. Red eye, rufous neck, black chest. Female: Grayish, with a brown chest; pale rust on head and neck. Both sexes have long, sloping profile. Flocks travel in lines or V formations.
Size20-24" (50-60 cm)
VoiceMale, a low croak, growling notes; in courtship, cooing notes. Female, quacks, etc.
RangeAlaska, western Canada, northwestern United States. Winters to Mexico, Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
MigrationGenerally migrates late in fall and early in spring. Migrating flocks fly high, often in V-formation. During years of major drought on the northern Great Plains, many Canvasbacks continue moving north, with larger numbers appearing in Alaska.
HabitatLakes, salt bays, estuaries; in summer, fresh marshes. For nesting, shallow marshes in prairie regions. Also large marshy lake complexes in boreal forest regions to the north, and a few to edge of tundra. In migration mostly on large lakes. Winters mainly near coast, on protected bays and estuaries; also on lakes in interior.
FeedingDiet: Mostly plant material. Mainly eats the leaves, roots, and seeds of aquatic plants: pondweeds, wild celery, sedges, grasses, and others. Also eat mollusks, insects, some small fish. In one study done in summer, adult males continued to eat mostly plants, while females and young fed on aquatic insect larvae.
Behavior: Dives for food, usually in water only a few feet deep. In very shallow water may stir up bottom sediments with feet, then upend to feed; also takes some food from surface of water.
NestingPair formation occurs mostly at stopover points during spring migration. Several males may court one female. Displays of male include snapping the head far back and then thrusting it forward, while giving clicking and cooing call notes.
Nest: Site is in marsh, in stands of dense vegetation above shallow water. Sometimes on dry ground. Nest (built by female) is basketlike and bulky, built of dead vegetation, lined with down.
Eggs: 7-12. Olive-gray. Redheads often lay eggs in Canvasback nests; when this happens, female Canvasback is likely to lay fewer eggs. Incubation by female only, 23-28 days.
Young: Several hours after hatching, young are led to open water by female. Young feed themselves. Female remains with young for several weeks, but departs before they fledge; young are capable of flight roughly 60-70 days after hatching. 1 brood per year.
ConservationNumbers vary from year to year, but species has been generally declining for some time. Loss of nesting habitat may be main threat.