Sporting a dapper black cap, a sky-blue bill accentuating a chestnut-brown body, a gleaming white cheek patch, and black perky tail feathers, a male Ruddy Duck in breeding season assumes an entirely different bearing from his nondescript winter alter ego. All in all, with its small size, broad flattened bill, disproportionately large head, and distinct, stiff tail, the Ruddy Duck just looks cute whatever the season.
Ruddies prefer habitats with extensive stands of aquatic vegetation and open areas for takeoffs and landings. In winter, they also use coastal bays ranging from fresh to brackish, marshes,
and tidal estuaries. In San Diego County, the Ruddy Duck is locally common as a breeding bird and abundant as a winter visitor in lagoons and freshwater lakes and ponds. Indeed, at many places, it is the most abundant wintering duck, although less conspicuous than others because of its small size, reluctance to fly, and drab winter plumage.
Ruddies eat both vegetation (e.g., duckweed, pondweed, arrowhead, bulrushes) and animal matter (adult and larval insects). During breeding season, though, both adults and ducklings feed extensively on midge larvae. If available, Ruddies will also capture crustaceans, zooplankton, and other invertebrates. Adults forage almost exclusively by diving but occasionally they skim the water surface, straining food from water.
Nesting locations for the Ruddy Duck are scattered throughout San Diego County’s coastal slope but are most concentrated in the northwest. The San Diego County Bird Atlas reported the
largest concentration at our very own Buena Vista Lagoon and in the west basin.
San Diego County’s population of Ruddy Ducks expands greatly in winter, thanks to migrants from the north and northeast. The winter migrants arrive in October and November and begin to leave in March. In large part because of their large, broad bills, Ruddies remind people of different characters, depending on their frame of reference. Looney Tunes? Daffy Duck. Classic literature? Cyrano de Bergerac. Muppets and Sesame Street? By overall cuteness, Ernie’s bathtub Duckie. So stop by a nearby body of water while these sprites are most plentiful and make your own association.