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Ducks Unlimited: Ruddy Ducks Among Our Many Ducks

Updated: Jan 22

There are more than 130 different types of ducks worldwide! About 30 are native to the United States. Some common Illinois ducks include mallards, wood ducks and gadwalls, but there are many more that stop by. Let’s learn about a less frequent visitor, the ruddy duck.  

A female (left) and breeding male ruddy duck. (Photo via Shutterstock)

In Illinois you can find ruddy ducks in both winter and summer, although they are most common here during migration. They are fast flyers, and some may head as far south as Honduras, Central America, for the winter. Their favorite habitats include marshes, ponds and small manmade bodies of water like reservoirs. When migrating they are less picky and will stop in many different waterways. 

Mating behaviors

Most of the time the male and female look similar. From their bill to the tip of their tail they are 15 inches to 16 inches long with gray feathers and a gray bill. They both have a white patch on their cheeks, but the female is always recognizable because she has a dark line running across her cheeks. 

A ruddy duck on the water.
A male ruddy duck in its non-breeding plumage. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Summer is mating season, and it brings about many changes in the appearance and behavior of the male ducks. The plumage of the male’s body changes to a lovely chestnut color. In fact, it is this “ruddy” color of the breeding male that this duck is named after. Their beak changes to a vibrant sky blue, and if you look closely, you may notice two little horn shapes on their heads.

Normally the silent type, males will make one call that sounds like “chick-ik-ik-ik-k-k-k-krrr.” They will swim in front of a female with their tail feathers erect and fanned out repeating their call and courtship display. They tip their tails forward, inflate their necks and pump their bills onto their chests. This action produces hollow thumping sounds and creates a ring of bubbles in front of them. Watch this video to see the magnificent courtship display of the male ruddy duck. 


They build floating nests at the water’s edge, hidden in cattails and other plant life. This bowl-like nest is often woven with dead, dry plant materials. They will also weave a canopy to cover the nest. Anywhere from three to 13 eggs are laid, and they are incubated for about four weeks.


Words to know

Erect: Rigidly upright or straight.

Plumage: A bird’s feathers collectively. 


Chicks are born well developed and active. The mother will aggressively protect her young for up to a month before leaving them. The now independent ducklings will spend another month before learning how to fly on their own. 

Daring divers

The placement of ruddy ducks’ feet near the back of their bodies makes them very clumsy and awkward when walking on land. But it helps them be excellent swimmers. They will dive into the water to escape predators, including red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, minks and raccoons. They also dive to get their food, heading straight to the bottom and taking big muddy mouthfuls. Then just like a colander catches all the noodles while the water drains, their teeth-like structures strain out the mud and water, keeping just the tasty insects to digest. 

Want to learn more about ducks in Illinois? You can pop into Four Rivers Environmental Education Center anytime and check out the bird board to see what waterfowl are visiting this winter.


Follow Willy's Wilderness on Facebook for more kid-friendly nature stories and activities.


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