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Abundant redheads easy to identify once out of eclipse stage

As the name implies, male redheads are known for their rusty red heads along with gray bodies, black breasts, and black-tipped blue bills.

Eclipse (i klips), n. the partial or complete obscuring, relative to a designated observer, of one celestial body by another, according to the American Heritage Dictionary. But this wasn't the definition I was seeking. Actually none of the three dictionaries I accessed had it. But such is often the case when words are borrowed and narrowed by specific fields of endeavor.

It wasn't until I looked in the Encyclopedia of North American Birds that I found the eclipse I was looking for, but instead of noun usage, it's now an adjective, as in eclipse plumage. Here goes: "Term for the dull, female-like plumage into which many brilliantly colored male ducks molt during the summer..."

Solar and lunar eclipses witnessed from earth are rather short-lived and while very predictable, long periods of time often elapse between phenomena. But the eclipse male ducks go into is an annual event lasting a month or two. During this molt period, the ducks lose all their flight feathers and cannot fly. The molt is over by now and although some male ducks still look a little "off," most are back looking like they belong on the cover of Ducks Unlimited Magazine. And male redheads (Aythia americana) actually have red heads again.

The duck species in North America can be split down the middle into two distinct groups: dabblers and divers. The dabblers are the familiar mallards, teals, and such and whose rear ends we see while the ducks are feeding. They typically burst into the air with a leap out of the water. Divers, on the other hand, most often completely submerge to feed and usually need a long runway of pattering feet before taking to the air.

Redheads are divers and nest commonly here in the prairie pothole region of the country. The birds currently are on their way to wintering areas to our south. Along the Gulf of Mexico, redheads can be found in groups of hundreds of thousands. It's thought roughly half of our North Dakota redheads end up in the Laguna Madre area of Texas.

Males are distinct, with head color reminiscent of canvasbacks but with gray backs. Its breast and hind quarters are black and it sports a bluish bill with a black tip. With females the suffix -ish is used quite a bit, as in brownish, grayish, and whitish. It's fair to say the birds are mostly drab but with head shape and posture a person should be able to identify them.

When asked if redheads were particularly sought after, fellow West Fargoan and local duck hunter Dean Riemer said, "Around here, no. It's a regional thing, but most people locally shoot puddle ducks (dabblers) like mallards." That's not to say the bird isn't worth taking, apparently. Riemer said, "Of the diver ducks, it's one of the easier ones to get, though, and it's a decent tasting bird."

As a whole, ducks arguably are the most studied group of birds in the country, thanks mostly to the fees and licenses paid by hunters and the presence of such organizations as Ducks Unlimited. Out of those research efforts come knowledge and understanding that leads to better management of these game birds.

Studies also provide we lay folk with juicy kernels of information like the egg-dumping habits of redheads. Known as facultative brood parasitism, the redhead is easily the most common duck to lay its eggs in the nests of other ducks, even other species. Redhead eggs have appeared in the nests of other marsh birds like American bittern and even northern harrier, a raptor.

This behavior actually is more common among birds than most people realize. In the case of redheads, it appears egg-dumping is related to the quality of the nesting habitat. That is, the lower the water levels and such, the more likely the female will lay her eggs in the other nests. Dumped eggs, by the way, can not only disrupt the host's nesting efforts to a degree, but are less likely to hatch for a variety of reasons according to research.

With another month or so of the waterfowl season still open in North Dakota, ducks of all sorts are on the move, with redheads among them. We no longer have that pesky drab eclipse plumage to muddle with, so picking out these egg-dumping, Texas gulf coast loving, diving ducks shouldn't be a problem.