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Canvasback

Aythya valisineria

Male canvasbacks have a rusty red head and neck, a black breast and a white body. (babyruthinmd/Flickr)
Male canvasbacks have a rusty red head and neck, a black breast and a white body. (babyruthinmd/Flickr)

The canvasback is a large diving duck with a distinctive long, sloping facial profile. It visits the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers from autumn through spring.

Appearance:

The canvasback's head slopes into its long, dark bill, giving it a distinctive silhouette. It varies in color depending on sex: males have a rusty red head and neck, a black breast, a white body and a black tail, while females have a brownish head and chest, a whitish body and a brownish tail. This duck grows 18 to 22 inches in length.

Habitat:

Found in shallow, vegetated areas on the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal rivers. Large flocks often congregate over deeper, open waters.

Range:

Visit the Bay region beginning in December, leaving in spring to spend the summer in the Prairie Pothole region of North and South Dakota and southern Canada.

Feeding:

The canvasback eats leaves, buds and roots of bay grasses, particularly wild celery. It has adapted to feed on snails, macoma clams, insect larvae and other small invertebrates due to declining bay grass acreage. It dives to find its prey.

Predators:

Canvasbacks are preyed upon by bald eagles, snapping turtles, great black-backed gulls, black-crowned night herons and other large predators. Humans also hunt canvasbacks.

Flight:

The canvasback takes off by running across the water’s surface. One of the fastest flying ducks, it reaches speeds of 55 miles per hour in the air. It can be identified in flight by its white body and black chest.

Voice:

Canvasbacks are usually quiet during non-breeding season.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Courting begins and pairs form in early spring, before the ducks leave the Bay region for northern breeding grounds. The oldest recorded canvasback was 22 years old.

Other Facts:

  • Gets part of its scientific name, valisineria, from the scientific name of wild celery, Vallisneria americana, its favorite food
  • The largest diving duck species
  • Canvasbacks are powerful swimmers. However, like other diving ducks, they are clumsy on land because their legs are located far back on the body.
  • Nearly half of North America’s canvasbacks used to winter in the Chesapeake Bay region. That figure has since declined to about 20 percent because of lack of available food. However, canvasback populations appear to be slowly recovering due to better protection measures.

Sources and Additional Information:

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