The first time I saw a ruddy, I was jump shooting ducks. I jumped up close to a cute little male with its tail held high expecting it to either jump off the water like similar sized green-winged teal, or at least run across the surface to fly away like American coot. Instead, to my surprise, it dove under the water only to reappear out of my gun’s range. Because this tiny duck was so unusual I returned home to research what I had just seen.
I found that this duck is very unusual, indeed, and is the only species found in its genus called the stiff-tailed ducks. This small but chunky duck only has a wingspan of 15 inches, but has an over-sized head. Unlike any of our other duck breed the most conspicuous field characteristic for the male is its relatively large, brownish-black, fan-shaped tail that points straight up, and can be seen at a distance. Although they have a chestnut colored body during the breeding season, the males always have heads that are black on top with bright white cheeks below, and a bright light blue or grayish bill making this species very easy to identify.
As with most ducks, the females are not as flamboyant, with only a light bar on their cheeks and a greyish bill. The females do not hold their long tail in the air. Neither sex makes any significant sounds.
Although mostly solitary, these funny little ducks can be seen during their breeding season “sailing” around like toys in little groups with their tails held high. However, during early winter they can often be found swimming around with other ducks. They inhabit mostly wetlands during the summer, but pass through our area in late fall and winter as they migrate south. I see them mostly on more open water areas like the Surplus Canal or the Jordan River north of town.
Although they are poor fliers with short little wings, they are expert swimmers and even better divers, and can disappear under the water in a wink. They can also swim around with only their heads above water like little submarines. Although I have never tried to shoot them since that first experience, I always enjoy seeing them, and you should too – a great addition to any birdwatcher’s list.