Diverse Divers

Fleeing before a wild north wind, they materialize like wraiths. Scimitar wings slice through the air with a sound like a huge curtain tearing. The spectacle always sends a chill down my spine.

Say “duck” and most Missourians automatically conjure the image of an emerald-headed drake mallard. But if you spend enough time around big water, you will encounter several different types of ducks.

These ducks dive 40 feet or more for food instead of tipping bottom-up or dabbling for seeds in shallow water. Consequently, they are commonly known as “diving ducks,” in contrast to their shallow-water cousins, the “puddle ducks.” You are most likely to see diving ducks along the Mississippi River or a big lake.

Diving requires a streamlined shape and legs far back on the body. A denser body helps these birds get down to food. It also causes them to ride lower in the water on the surface, giving diving ducks a distinctive, low profile.

Dense bodies are harder to launch into flight, and so most diving ducks must run along the surface of the water to achieve flying speed with their relatively short, pointed wings. Once in the air, they must move faster than other ducks to remain aloft. If giant Canada geese are B-52s of the waterfowl world, diving ducks are the fighter jets.

Exactly how fast they fly depends on conditions. Puddle ducks routinely cruise at 40 mph, while teal swoop and wheel at 60 mph. Canvasbacks have been clocked at 70 mph. With a stiff north wind at their backs, divers make challenging targets. A hunter who can hit them consistently is not someone to bet against in a shooting contest.

Any duck with fast wing-beats and plumage that looks distinctly black and white is a likely suspect for the moniker “diver.” However, several diving ducks flout this rule, and hens of most species tend to be gray or brown.

Diving ducks are further divided into bay ducks, sea ducks, mergansers and stiff-tails.

Immigrants noticed the similarity of North America’s bay ducks to the common pochard of Europe, and you still hear this term applied to some, especially the canvasback and redhead.

The canvasback (Aythya valisineria) is our most imposing pochard. It is the largest, with adults averaging 21 inches from head to tail. Drake canvasbacks’ coloration is very similar to redheads’, but the canvasback’s black, chisel-shape bill is unmistakable, even at a distance.

You see canvasbacks mostly in bigger, deeper waters than