This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the canvasback.
North America’s largest diving duck can be found on open waters in our area during winter months. The male canvasback’s bright white body, sandwiched between his black chest and rear, make this bird stand out within a group of distant ducks. His neck, head and eyes are red. Females are paler-colored, brownish versions. Both sexes display a characteristic stout neck and gracefully sloping forehead that blends to a large bill.
These birds forage both night and day, diving to depths from 7 to 30 feet to feed on the roots and seeds of submerged plants. During winter, the buds and stems of aquatic wild celery are a preferred food and impart a distinct flavor to this game bird.
The introduction of refrigeration in the late 19th century allowed tasty canvasbacks to be hunted commercially for consumption in upscale restaurants and led to population declines. Fortunately, later protections of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prevented extinction of this species.
Most canvasbacks breed in the prairie pothole region, one of the richest wetland systems on earth and critically important to nesting waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland birds. This area of grasslands and shallow wetlands covers parts of five central states and three Canadian provinces. Many of these small wetland areas have been negatively impacted by changes in land use, drought, pollution and climate change.
In dry years when wetland breeding areas disappear, canvasback hens delay or skip nesting. The loss of wetlands, the elimination of wild celery caused by water pollution and the ingestion of lead shot are all threats to the survival of these beautiful birds.
For information on activities, visit www.weminucheaudubon.org and www.facebook.com/weminucheaudbon/.