Bird Watcher's General Store

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Ring-necked Ducks

Dear Bird Folks,

Please take a look at this very bad photo of a strange duck that I saw on Lily Pond in Pocasset. It was far away and the lighting was bad, but hopefully you can see enough details to help us identify what it is.

– Fran, Pocasset, MA


You are totally right, Fran,

I don’t agree with many people, but you are 100% correct. That is indeed a very bad photo. Oh, I’m just teasing you. Even a subpar snapshot is better than hearing someone’s verbal descriptions. Verbal descriptions of birds are frequently misleading and inaccurate. Plus, folks can get defensive if I question what they are saying. I’d much rather look at photos; photographs don’t ever argue. People, on the other hand…

Your mystery bird on Lily Pond is a Ring-necked Duck. Ring-necked Ducks are the Red-bellied Woodpeckers of the duck world because their common name is a bit misleading. At first, “ring-neck” seems like a perfectly good descriptive name. It’s not. From a distance or even up close, there is no noticeable ring around this bird’s neck. Why did they give it such a confusing name? When seen in just the right light, the drake, in breeding plumage, has a faint collar of chestnut. Early naturalists must have thought this vague splotch would make for an appropriate name. Either that or they had been drinking and decided to mess with everyone. (I’ll bet it was the second thing.)

Ring-necked Ducks are common winter visitors on Cape Cod, heading our way after their northern breeding grounds freeze up. While occasionally found in brackish bays, they generally prefer quieter freshwater ponds. I’ve never been to Lily Pond in Pocasset, but the name alone sounds like a place a ring-neck would like. Ring-necked Ducks resemble both Greater and Lesser Scaup, but if you don’t know what either of those ducks look like, forget what I just said. The drake ring-neck is mostly glossy black, with gray along the sides. He has bright yellow/orange eyes and his head is somewhat peaked in the back, like he’s sporting a man bun covered by feathers. The hen, like most female ducks, is mainly brown and far less distinctive. However, both sexes have a characteristic white ring around the end of their bills. Yes, you read that right. Both sexes have a noticeable “white ring” around their bills. Gee, I wonder what a better name for this duck could have been.

Ring-necks are diving ducks, plunging below the surface in search of food. But unlike many diving birds, they are not big fish eaters. Instead, they readily consume snails, insects, aquatic worms and everyone’s favorite, leeches. Also, in an effort to remain healthy, they add a significant amount of veggies to their diet. This includes pondweed, sedges and, yup, lilies. Once again, your Pocasset pond is the perfect place for them.

One of the best locations in the country to see Ring-necked Ducks is Minnesota’s Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Located between Minneapolis and the western tip of Lake Superior, this refuge is noted for vast acres of wild rice and huge numbers of migrating ducks. One year, nearly a million ring-necks were counted on Rice Lake. Whoa! There is no word on the number wild rice grains counted that year, but I’ll bet it was a lot.

We don’t get a million ring-necks around here, but we do see several hundred, usually spread out in small flocks throughout the Cape. When foraging, some duck species will dive down to 40, 50 or even 200 feet, but not ring-necks. Being 200 feet below the surface is much too scary for them. Instead, they are shallow divers, only descending a few feet while searching for pondweed and those delicious leeches. As result, they prefer smaller ponds or at least ponds with shallow bottoms. In fact, anytime I’m going to search for Ring-necked Ducks, I just tell my wife I’m headed out to look for shallow bottoms. My hope is to get a reaction, but the most I get is her “whatever” face. I get that a lot.

We don’t have your Lily Pond on the Outer Cape, but we do have Eastham’s Great Pond and Herring Pond and both are reliable locations to see Ring-necked Ducks. I remember a cold afternoon in the winter of 1975, standing on the edge of Great Pond, trying to figure out this new (to me) duck species. I had to try to remember all the field marks, so I could look up the bird in my book when I got home. (I could have used one of your really bad photos that day.) I noted the dark body, light sides and distinctive white ring around the tip of the bill. When I got home and discovered that I had seen my first Ring-necked Duck, I was pleased and also confused. How could I have missed the ring around the neck? A few days later I went back and looked again, but still didn’t see the ring and likely never will, unless I see it in just the right light…or take up drinking.

I’m glad you sent that photo, Fran. It made identifying your mystery bird much easier. Maybe someday, when it’s safe to go out of town again, you should take a trip to Rice Lake and experience those huge flocks of Ring-necked Ducks. Just don’t make an internet search for ducks and wild rice. I tried that and ended up with pages of recipes. Apparently, some people enjoy ducks differently than I do.