If you’re wandering the waterways of Washington State and see a “stiff-tailed” duck plying the surface you have sighted our State’s only stiff-tail representative of the Anatidae family, the ruddy duck. While the ruddy duck is present in both eastern and western Washington, the Okanogan and Columbia Highlands are this species prime breeding ground within our state, with scattered breeding habitat also found in southeastern portions of the state.
Stiff tail ducks are known for holding their spiky tails up in a distinctive stance that makes them quite conspicuous on the water surface. These are a short winged, diving duck that must get a ‘running start’ across the water’s surface to achieve flight. Additionally the breeding males, which are cinnamon colored with black heads, distinctive cheek patch, and a bright blue bill, “run” across the water as part of a courtship dance and/or territory defense. The Seattle Audubon Society describes the female of this species as such, “mottled gray overall with black on the top of her head and a dark, horizontal line that bisects her white cheek. Her bill is gray. The juvenile is similar to the female, but the black on its face is less pronounced.”
Not known as long-range migrators, for the ruddy duck in the NE Washington Highlands the migration pattern are mixed – they may fly off to points south as far as Mexico or a flock may simply ‘hop’ over the Cascade Range in the winter and inhabit shallow saltwater bays and estuaries along the Salish Sea or ice-free, inland lakes and ponds. These ducks are usually nocturnal migrators.
The ruddy duck male makes quite the showing when courting females by stiffening up their tails, bills beating against their inflated necks hard enough to create a cascade of water in the air and swirl of bubbles in the water below. Most often they punctuate the end of such displays with a belch-like call. This may be followed by the short, burst of water running described above with their webbed feet making popping sounds during the “run”. This from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology “The bright colors and odd behavior of male Ruddy Ducks drew attention from early naturalists, one 1926 account states, “Its intimate habits, its curious nesting customs and ludicrous courtship performance place it in a niche by itself…. Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman.”
These ducks are fast fliers (30+mph) but their short wings create maneuverability challenges when air borne, thus their normal response to prey is to swim or dive for escape. Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, mink, raccoons and other mammals as well as humans prey on this duck.
Ruddy Duck populations are stable across North America according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.