Monday, February 6, 2012

Species Profile: Ruddy Duck

Ruddy Ducks are my favorite of the "little" divers. Buffleheads are really the only other option I suppose, so the favoritism boils down to table fare. Ruddy Ducks, often called "boobies" are often overlooked when it comes to sporting quality and table fare. Ruddy ducks are rarely seen on the wing. Generally, they just appear from the depths into any stool of decoys. I wonder how they avoid those decoy lines? Either way, I never bagged a ruddy duck this year...but last year they were plentiful. Of course, that can be blamed on Mother Nature's warm spirit this season.

Ruddy Ducks are small-ish ducks. They generally weigh in at around 1.5 pounds. I have never seen one in flight, but I would imagine it is similar to that of a bufflehead, since they are both relatively the same size. Small and bubble-shaped, Ruddy Ducks are said to be good table fare...and I agree. I've only bagged around 10 of them...generally, my friends take home the birds and eat them, but I always like to try the first of a species. Ruddy Ducks primarily eat vegetation (about 70%) and small insects and crustaceans (15% and 15% respectively). It's the animal life that they ingest that makes them less desirable. However, it's common that most of our North Carolina Ruddy Ducks feed on plant life. They are most often found on open water stretches, where animal life has a hard time staying in a certain location...winds and waves tote those things right away. Most of the ruddies I've bagged came from areas loaded with shoal grass. Most aquatic vegetation is high in protein, which allows for duck, even Ruddy Ducks, to pack on the muscle. Most of our birds are on the lean side, but in concentrations of shoal grasses, ruddy ducks will stay put and not venture too far away. This allows them to also add a nice fat layer. Ruddy Ducks were once only bested by Canvasbacks and Redheads when it came to market prices.

A look at some of North Carolina's most famous decoys...especially those by Lee Dudley (who is said to have carved the best heads ever to be placed on a duck decoy) show that Ruddy Ducks became popular early in the 20th century. There are lots of old Ruddy Duck decoys in circulation from that era - and most are from Currituck County, North Carolina. One of the primary reasons that so many exist is that  there were so many carved. In the olden times, sink box hunters would deploy several hundred decoys. Most times, the stool consisted of several dozen cans, several dozen redheads, 20 geese, 2 swans (or a few, anyway), and then 200 ruddy ducks. Coots were also used by some, but I'm talking about ruddy ducks, so I'm using Ruddy Ducks in this equation. The swan and goose decoys were both confidence decoys and "hiders" of the sink box. The Ruddy Ducks were also confidence decoys. Ruddy Ducks usually existed only in large a large raft of fakes was also helped to bring in the big ducks, too. Yet, with the punt and battery guns, a pile of decoying ruddy ducks could be harvested...

When market gunners realized how many they could kill, they had to create a market for them. One famous gunner and outfitter took a box load of Ruddy Ducks and served them to a New York-owned Duck Club. The Club was also being recruited as clients to Currituck, so the visit was two pronged. Nevertheless, all of the diners believed the ducks were as good as the much-heralded canvasback. Ruddy Ducks brought as much as $4 per pair...and while the canvasbacks went for up to $8 per pair, it was the Ruddy Ducks diminutive size that kept it from higher prices.

There's nothing glamrous about the Ruddy Duck. North Carolina hunters rarely see them in "full" plumage, since Ruddy Ducks truly wait until the spring for spring plumage. Both sexes are fairly similar, even in January. A stiff, upright set of tail feathers is the first identifying marker. Both species are chocolate brown with gray highlights. The cheeks are a much lighter gray. Spring plumage on the males is brilliant and unique - with a powder blue bill and a rusty red body!

Ruddy Ducks are fun to pursue and cook. Generally, when present, the swim into decoys. Also, to avoid danger, Ruddy Ducks will dive instead of fly. I watched one dodge a bald eagle for 30 minutes, simply by diving. When I have flushed them from my decoy spread, they dove...never flying. Still, both the eagle and I won in our pursuit.

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