Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Winter Ducks
Nature Bulletin No. 252-A   January 14, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

All through the winter, along the shores of Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Erie, considerable numbers of wild ducks may be seen in areas of open water. Favored locations are those comparatively free from pollution and kept free of ice by the continual discharge, into the lake, of warm water from large stations generating electric power. They are also commonly seen near Lincoln Park in Chicago, attracted there by the feed put out for the captive wild ducks and geese in those lagoons. Every year, expert observers report a few stragglers of several kinds which mostly migrate to regions farther south and, occasionally, one or more kinds usually found only on the Atlantic or Pacific coastlines. Most of the ducks that winter here are of four species the American Golden-eye, the Old Squaw, the White-winged Scoter, and the American Merganser.

The first three belong to a group known as the Diving Ducks which inhabit the larger inland lakes and the sea coasts where they feed by diving, often to considerable depths. Other than a few Black Ducks, seldom do we find wintering here any members of the other large group known as Surface-feeding Ducks or, locally, as "puddle" ducks or "dipper" ducks because they frequent the shallow fresh waters of the interiors and feed by up-ending themselves to dabble on the bottom.

Most diving ducks taste "fishy", and are hunted solely for sport, because their food consists mainly of shellfish, crustaceans, small fish, some insects, and small amounts of deep-water aquatic plants. Two notable exceptions are the Redhead and the Canvasback. The wing patch, if any, is less brightly colored on the diving ducks and the legs are set farther back on the body -- which increases their ability to dive and swim. Most of them patter along on the surface of the water for some distance before rising into flight.

The American golden-eye is also known as the "whistler" because of the vibrating whistling sound made by its wings in flight. On the water, the male appears mainly white, with some black on the back, and its large blackhead has a round white spot in front of the golden-yellow eye. Most of them breed in Canada, from Newfoundland to Alaska, and this is one of the few ducks that invariably nests in a hollow tree or stump.

The old squaw, so-called because it is a noisy talkative duck, is distinguished by its very long tail and its peculiar twisting flight just above the water. They alight by dropping in suddenly with a great splash. They nest on the ground in the sub-Arctic tundras and nearly nine-tenths of their food is animal.

The white-winged scoter is a large black duck with a small white patch near the eye and a white wing patch -- our only black duck so marked. It nests on the ground in western Canada and its food is almost entirely animal -- chiefly mollusks which it swallows whole. Shells of oysters, scallops and mussels that require a hard hammer-blow to break, are readily ground-up in its gizzard.

The American merganser has a stream-lined body and a narrow cylindrical bill -- red and toothed -- which enables it to dive, pursue and catch the fish upon which it feeds almost exclusively. This large handsome bird flies swiftly, low over the water, with its bill, head, neck and body all held perfectly horizontal. They nest in trees, cliffs or on the ground.

We'll take our oysters on the half-shell.

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