Duck Family

Northern shoveler pair.
Royal Saskatchewan Museum

The cosmopolitan family Anatidae of approximately 154 species is varied, but its members usually have large heads with flattened bills, short tails, and legs with the three forward-pointing toes webbed together. They occupy a variety of aquatic habitats. Saskatchewan has records of thirty-eight species (see Table DS-1), which fall into three groups: geese are broad-billed grazers with both sexes of similar plumage; swans are large white, long-necked browsers on underwater vegetation; and ducks are smaller, water-feeding birds in which the sexes have dissimilar plumage (sexual dichromatism). They are often seen in large numbers during migration, when their calls can be heard throughout the day and night. All species migrate, although there are individuals that overwinter on open water.

Table DS-1. Ducks in Sasktachewan
Canadian Plains Research Center
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The only goose which breeds in the province is the Canada goose. It has gone from a species limited to nesting on larger water bodies to a very common bird of the sloughs and town ponds throughout the southern half; it is less common in the north. There are three separate races in the province: the large prairie race is the one which has adapted very well to human habitats and which regularly overwinters on open water in the cities; a medium-sized race nests in the north; while the small Arctic race is a transient. The other geese are regular and fairly common transients (greater white-fronted and snow geese) or uncommon transients (Ross’ goose, brant).

The tundra swan is a common transient to and from its breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra. The larger trumpeter swan still breeds in the Cypress Hills and Greenwater Lake. This once-widespread bird was nearly extinguished by hunting for feathers and sport in the late 19th century, but now has several successful populations in North America.

There are eleven genera of ducks. Their size ranges from the small ruddy duck and bufflehead to the large canvasback. Their bills reflect their food habits: from the deep-based bill of the canvasback, which feeds on the tubers of rooted aquatic plants; through the flattened bill of shovelers, which helps them sift material on the surface; to the serrated-edged, narrow bill of the fishing mergansers. The eleven species of the genus Anas include some of the most common ducks which nest in the province, particularly in the small sloughs and potholes of the glaciated grasslands. These are the green-winged and blue-winged teal, mallard, Northern pintail, gadwall, Northern shoveler, and American wigeon. The American black duck, cinnamon teal, garganey and Eurasian wigeon are uncommon to rare and occasional in the south. The members of this genus are called “dabblers” because of their habit of sitting on the surface and tipping over, feeding underwater.

The other common genus is Aythya, which contains five species; these are “divers,” which dive from the surface to feed underwater. The Roman-nosed canvasback and the smaller redhead are fairly common prairie nesters, although their populations have been reduced recently with drainage of the wetlands. The ring-necked duck and lesser scaup nest in the boreal regions as well as the prairies, although they are more common in migration in the south than as nesters. The greater scaup is an uncommon transient, with a few breeding records in the northern boreal forest. Several other species are common nesters. The little white-faced, blue-billed ruddy duck, with its tail cocked up during its courtship, is common on prairie potholes and permanent sloughs. The common merganser, bufflehead and common goldeneye are common boreal lake nesters and common transients further south. Others, such as the wood duck, surf scoter, white-winged scoter, hooded merganser, and red-breasted merganser are uncommon nesters in the deeper lakes and marshes of the parklands and boreal forests. The remaining species are transient or rare visitants.

Diane Secoy