Foam Lake Birding No. 51

No. 51
In birding circles and conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited the Canadian prairies are known as the “duck factory” of North America and not without reason. About half of all ducks in North America breed here and we, in Foam Lake, are right in the middle of all the action. Places like the Foam Lake Marsh are ideal reproductive grounds, but almost any small slough will often have a family of ducks call it home.
In Canada all wildlife is legally property of the crown and therefore, cannot be owned by any individual or group. The taking or harvesting of wildlife is strictly controlled by the federal government and its designated provincial agencies. The idea of wildlife belonging to the people and not individuals is a relatively new one first developed in North America. For many centuries, in Europe especially, wildlife was the property of the respective landowner and the taking of game was controlled exclusively by him. Since almost all property was owned by the nobility or the church almost all hunting and fishing was restricted to those classes. The poor, who were always short of high grade protein, would often poach on the landlord’s property at great risk to themselves if caught. Sometimes the penalties were death to the offender. At any rate, one of the poacher’s favourite targets was a whitish bodied red headed duck that became known as the Pochard because it was so heavily poached.
The new British settlers in North America were no longer prevented from hunting game in the very abundant new lands, and as a result they provided most of their dietary meat by hunting and fishing. Curiously, we still depend on fish that is caught in the wild. Their favourite duck was a whitish bodied, red headed duck that was very similar in appearance and closely related to the Pochard back home. In fact, in this newly adopted homeland there were two such species – the Canvas Back and Red Headed Ducks. The Canvas Back is so named because the colour of its back resembles the canvas used in sailing ships that were prevalent at that time. The reason for the Red Head’s name is, well, obvious. Both were considered the most desirable game birds of all ducks with preference for the larger Canvas Back. However, the Canvas Back’s flight patterns and general skittishness made it a rather difficult duck to harvest, so the much more easily taken Red Head became the more widely hunted of the two. Over time, both were reduced in number to the point where hunting red headed ducks was severely restricted and, in some jurisdictions, was banned altogether. The latest information is that they have made a significant recovery and limited hunting is now permitted.
Both ducks have the same shade of red head which more accurately could be called rusty, and both have whitish bodies with black tails and breasts. At first glance they look the same – especially to a novice birder. However, there are two field marks that actually are quite noticeable even to the untrained eye. The Canvas Back’s body is almost pure white, while the Red Head’s body is a darkish grey; the profile of the Canvas Back’s head and bill resemble that of a swan or goose, while the Red Head”s profile is more rounded like that of all the rest of the ducks. Both ducks are closely related and live and breed in mixed flocks in the same sort of habitat, which really helps birders out because their differences can be more easily discerned.
This week’s photo was taken just a few kilometres east of town near where the Spotted Sandpiper was photographed. One should keep in mind that these two ducks require larger and deeper bodies of water because they are diving ducks and feed on vegetation at the bottom of deep water. Any particular slough does not have to have a very large surface area as long as it is at least a metre or so deep. Many sloughs around here fit the bill and spotting a Canvas Back should not be a problem.