The Lovely Lesser Scaup, An Interesting Tale
A Duck With What?
The Lesser Scaup is a lovely migratory duck that I’d like to spend some time on today. There are two scaups, both the greater and the lesser, the lesser being much more common around the country. They are also a little harder to tell apart, but it is possible, though not from a distance, unless one has a spotting scope or a camera with a good telephoto lens. It is said that this is the most abundant diving duck in North America.
If one runs into a duck in fresh water with a bright blue bill, feet and legs, this is your scaup. If you see the male, his head and neck are purplish black, rather than greenish black gloss, which will be the Greater Scaup. You could see this duck, so bear the differences in mind.
Wintering Range and Migration
The wintering range is fairly great. There is a coastal belt around 200 miles wide, that runs from Washington state right around the perimeter of the US, up to about Connecticut and Rhode Island. It also runs up the Mississippi River up to southern Illinois, or thereabouts.
During migration, these scaups will nearly blanket the entire US. Breeding range covers eastern Alaska, the Canadian provinces of Yukon and Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It also includes the states of eastern Alaska, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Minnesota.
I'm Calling You...
Being on the quiet side these ducks have a “scaup, scaup, scaup” call, but they aren’t good at enunciation. The female has a harsher voice than the male, and she will sometimes make a “krrrr-rrrr” sound. The male coos and does a low, whistling “whee-ooo.”
Pairs tend to form on wintering grounds and these ducks trend to make an appearance just after the ice melts from the ponds. Since it wasn’t a bad winter here in Oklahoma, I noticed them in February.
The male displays to the female by bowing his head to her, then opens his bill wide and “scaups” at her. Sometimes she will swim around him with her head held high and lifts her bill with short, jerky movements. I have seen him rapidly flick his wings and tail, and tosses his head back to touch his tail, and he will do his whistling “whee-ooo.” If she likes him, the female will follow and he slowly swims off with his head turned away from her. They will perform the deed by signaling one another by dipping their bills in the water.
Though slow nesters, they also have a longer breeding season than most of the other ducks. They will then disappear from the lakes and nest in smaller ponds. Most of the nests are built on land, but if they choose to build off the water, they’ll be attached to reeds and rushes. The nest is fairly simple, a hollow in the ground lined with down and grass.
The female builds the nest and she lays 6-15 eggs, and incubates for around 25 days. The male deserts her, and he hangs out with the rest of the males on larger bodies of water. The males molt and become flightless during this period.
Ducklings and Flight
Meanwhile, the blue-billed ducklings travel in tight groups while feeding with their mother. If they feel threatened, they still swim as a group. They will resort to diving only if they feel that they are in imminent danger, and only then will they separate as a group. When the danger has passed, they will then regroup, and continue on their merry way. After about ten weeks, the little ones get their primaries and begin flight instruction. Surprisingly, the female molts and becomes flightless.
The scaups run along the water’s surface to gain enough momentum to establish flight. They can fly in the vicinity of 50 mph, which seems faster, as they perform erratic twists and turns. They make whistling sounds with their wings as they fly, and are relatively low flyers, unless it is time for migration. Then they become the high flyers.
Diet and Challenges
As a diving duck, its legs are placed toward the rear of the body. Therefore, it isn’t good on land, and keeps to the water. They eat mostly vegetable matter, but also will indulge in worms, snails, mollusks, tiny fish, and nymphs and larvae of water insects.
They are also challenged by both natural enemies, as well as ditching and draining of their habitat. Accidents, parasites and disease also take their toll, as well as fishing nets and lines. Since they are divers, they are also prone to lead poisoning, which still is available.
Can You Help Us?
Do your part while fishing, please. Dispose of tangled line properly and if you choose to hunt ducks, kindly use steel shot to make it a little more fair for these birds. Remember, that if you choose lead shot, you are still killing ducks, even while not on the water. Lead poisoning is a very slow, and painful death. Don’t try it at home.