by Linda de Kort

“Why did the artist paint that duck with a bright blue bill?” That is a question posed by those admiring the colorful Montana Audubon license plate. The answer is: because that is an accurate representation of the sky blue color of the bill of the male Ruddy Duck during breeding season. In addition to their unique blue bills (the only other duck species that sports a blue bill is the Masked duck which lives only in the tropics), the breeding male Ruddy Duck has bright white cheek patches, which are highlighted against a shiny chestnut body. They hold their tails upright as they bob along in the water; they look very cocky. The females and young are less conspicuous with grayish brown feathers and a single dark line across the light cheeks. Ruddy Ducks are smaller than our resident Goldeneyes and a bit larger than our Buffleheads. (Length 13.8–16.9 inches; wingspan 22–24.4 in; weight 10.6–30 oz.)

Unlike our hearty Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, the Ruddy Ducks, (Oxyura jamaicensis) are now basking in the south, as far as the Caribbean. They will be returning to wetlands and potholes in the north in the spring. You can expect to see them here in the Flathead Valley in May. Some will be migrating through to breeding areas farther north, and you can spot them on open water. Those staying to raise their young in our valley, however, will usually choose shallow marshes with lots of vegetation and some open water. They will begin their unusual pair bonding and courtship as soon as they arrive; be ready for a great show. The males will stick their tails straight up and strike their colorful bills against their inflated necks. By doing this they create bubbles in the water and a low rattling sound. In addition, they will run across the water making popping noises with their feet. They are extremely aggressive toward other males during this courtship time and will also protect their mate once the pair is formed. The female chooses the nesting site, which is usually over water in cattails or grasses. The nest can be as large as 12 inches across and is well concealed, often with a woven canopy of vegetation. Nesting can occur from mid-June to mid-August. The female lays large yellowish white eggs (2.5 inches in length) that are proportionally the largest of all waterfowl; the clutch size is relatively small, about 8 eggs. The advantage of these large eggs seems to be a substantial food supply for the embryos; the ducklings hatch well developed and are covered with down; they stay in the nest for less than a day and then are on their own. The food and feeding habits of adults and ducklings are similar. They forage by diving to the bottom of shallow ponds and strain food through thin plates on their bills. They all seem to select areas that are rich in midge larvae.

Except for migration, Ruddy Ducks spend the majority of their time on the water. They will surface dive, rather than fly to escape raptors and other predators. In addition to predators, Ruddy Ducks are threatened by habitat loss. Like all waterfowl, they depend heavily on wetlands, which are degraded by grazing, burning and drainage. For that reason, it is quite appropriate that the winner of the 2014 Federal Duck Stamp contest is an acrylic painting of Ruddy Ducks. The artist is Jennifer Miller who has kindly granted us permission to print this preview of the image which will come out in stamp form later this summer. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, sales of Federal Duck Stamps since their inception in 1934, have generated more than $800 million, which has been used to purchase or lease over 6 million acres of wetlands habitat in the United States. Numerous bird, mammal, fish, reptile and amphibian species that rely on wetlands have prospered; an estimated one-third of the nation’s endangered and threatened species find food or shelter in these refuges. Moreover, these protected wetlands help purify water supplies, store floodwater, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation, and provide spawning areas for fish.

There are many reasons to buy Duck Stamps. Hunters over the age of 16 must purchase a Federal Duck Stamp each year if they want to hunt migratory waterfowl. Birders and other visitors to national wildlife refuges gain free admission. Conservationists buy Duck Stamps because they know that they are protecting America’s wetlands. Collectors buy Federal and Junior Duck Stamps because the beautiful stamps can gain value over the years and are an important part of America’s outdoor culture. Finally, educators, conservationists, hunters, parents and students buy $5 Junior Duck Stamps to support conservation education programs. Among the refuges funded in part by Federal Duck Stamps are our local Lost Trail and Swan River National Wildlife Refuges as well as our Waterfowl Production Areas. So buy your Federal Duck Stamp (available at the post office in July) and celebrate National Wildlife Refuges and the duck with the sky blue bill.