December 2022
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

Wintering Ducks

Everyone knows that birds go south in the winter, right? Well, we have to determine what exactly “south” means. While its definition is undeniable, a lot of the people I come across in my profession assume that the southward journey of migrating birds always takes them south of us. When we take into account that over 60% of the globe’s northern latitudes are above us, that makes us “south” for a vast population of birds. Many species have determined that our relatively mild climate is just right!

For one species we will touch on, its breeding range extends into Canada’s Northwest Territories. A quick Google search just told me that it’s currently 3°F in Jean Marie River, NWT, and it’s noon in early November. Yikes! So, while our recent winter zephyrs have us longing for September, it could be way worse. Godspeed to the good folks of Jean Marie River!

Taking a break from our monthly bird, let’s touch on an entire group that we can study through our cooler months.

A group of birds embodying this migration pattern is Prescott’s wintering ducks. On any given day during these months there is a high probability of observing hundreds if not thousands of ducks. Since these birds are in constant flux, determined by weather and food supply, the amount you’ll see and species you find can vary on an hourly basis. That said, there are several species you can bet on sighting at our two largest bodies of water, Watson and Willow Reservoirs.

In this group of stalwart aquatic quackers you’re almost sure to see northern shoveler, bufflehead, ruddy duck, ring-necked duck, gadwall, mallard, green-winged teal and American wigeon. On a more limited basis you can find canvasback, redhead, common merganser, hooded merganser, northern pintail, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, and more! This group represents a wide range of behaviors and visual attributes to help compare and contrast them.

What binds the birds of this group together is their high probability of association with water. Their diets largely consist of aquatic flora and fauna. All these species carry dense, insulating feathers with an oily secretion to repel water, and are high in fat. We’re warmer than northern Canada, but there’s nothing warm about Watson in December, and these attributes help them regulate body temperature.

From there we can divide these birds into two distinct groups: dabblers and divers. Dabbling ducks tend to favor shallower waters, where they feed by tipping forward and submerging their front halves to snatch aquatic life from the muddy bottom. This group not only includes our Jean Marie summer resident, the understated gadwall, but also the ubiquitous mallard, the elegant northern pintail and, to a lesser degree, the teal family, which tends to feed on the surface. The feet of dabbling ducks are usually farther forward on the body, acting as a pivot to tip them forward while feeding. These birds are generally easier to observe because they stay closer to shore.

Venturing to deeper waters you’ll encounter diving birds like the stout ruddy duck, the torpedo-like mergansers and the diminutive bufflehead. Divers tend to have larger feet placed farther back on their bodies. This difference provides more propulsion to power their sleek frames through the water. While some of the divers feed on plant matter, birds like the mergansers prefer a meaty diet. Mergansers break from the typical duck bill and instead use their slender, serrated beaks to snare slippery fish from the depths.

One of the more abundant species you’ll find is the boldly patterned northern shoveler. While they’re technically dabblers who use their large spatulated bill to filter through silty water in search of invertebrates and plant matter, they have developed a behavior that allows them to feed in a wider variety of waters.  In one of the countless instances that make us ponder how smart animals actually are, shovelers form large groups of dozens or even hundreds of birds. They pack tightly together and swim in circular formation. Slowly this creates a submarine vortex that lifts the organic matter from the bottom in deeper water. Once the rich food source has been sucked up, they can then go sifting through the murky mess in search of breakfast.

Taken together, the many feeding styles of this single group of birds ensures that the waterways are evenly hunted, harvested and fertilized, which helps keep them all strong and healthy.

Our local wintering ducks provide a diverse palette to practice on. They are easily accessible and associated with habitat that supports a huge percentage of Arizona’s avian

population. In my opinion there isn’t a better group for the budding birder to observe and pick apart. Much of your perception of how behavior aids you in identification can be gleaned from this group, building a strong foundation for developing your skills.

So get out there and do it! Until next time, happy birding!

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at