The Courtship of a Male Ruddy Duck

A male Ruddy Duck in full breeding plumage at Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands

Ch-chi-chuuruur came from my right, and I froze in my tracks, for I’d never heard that sound before. Coots, blackbirds, and Pied-billed Grebes had been calling since I arrived at Teal Lake twenty minutes earlier, and a Song Sparrow sang to my left. A scan of the lake had found Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and Blue-winged Teals. The Ch-chi-chuuruur drifted across the water as I crept toward it, binoculars ready.

Teal Lake
Teal Lake sits in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington. Numerous wetland birds nest there and many others use the surrounding habitats.

Teal Lake sits in a depression on the Okanogan Highlands, probably carved out by the Pleistocene glaciers. It is nestled between gently rolling hills covered with conifers. The blue water glistened on that June morning, and lush marsh habitat formed a wide literal zone around much of this fifteen-acre lake. The birds here always seem to put on a show.

Crouching down, I spotted the source of that strange sound, a male Ruddy Duck. Two females followed him as he swam right toward me, again doing that call. A second male lurked a dozen yards behind the three. This was the bubbling display that I’d read about. The male bobbed his head a few times and then dipped his bill while slightly extending his neck and head. The throat expanded while the sound radiated. He was courting the females. Then, with a sudden lunge, he ran across the water, wings flapping and hitting the surface, before settling back down and doing the call again. At first, I thought maybe I’d spooked him, but then it occurred to me that this was probably part of the display. A few seconds later, he did it again as he came closer and closer toward me.

Male Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A male Ruddy Duck sits in the Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands. They get a sky blue bill and red body plumage for the breeding season.

The male was in full breeding regalia. His bill was bright sky blue, an extra intense vibrance. The top of his head was black; he had a crisp white cheek patch and reddish back and side feathers. He held his stiff tail flat to the water. Ruddy Ducks aren’t like most ducks, acquiring their breeding plumage in the fall. Instead, these birds wait until spring, when they begin the courtship process to find a mate. 

This male ran across the water again, coming between a few cattails and the bank. He began to cruise along a channel coming even closer to me. The females seemed hesitant to follow, so I slowly backed away from the edge and gave them their space. 

As I strolled back toward my car, I continued to hear the Ch-chi-chuuruur from that male.

Female Ruddy Duck on Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.
A female Ruddy Duck cruises at the edge of the cattails in Teal Lake in the Okanogan Highlands.

Listen to other bird songs from the Okanogan Highlands on Spotify:

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