A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: A regional migrant, the American black duck is prized by Kentucky hunters

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series about the ducks taken by hunters in Kentucky during waterfowl season.

The American black duck (Aix rubripes) is a regional migrant prized by hunters because of its scarcity.

They are most often taken in the eastern third of Kentucky while hunting the Ohio River, its backwaters and tributaries, from Cincinnati to Ashland.

This large dabbling duck in the family Anatidae was first described in scientific literature in 1902 by William Brewster, an American ornithologist and naturalist.

Last season hunters in Kentucky bagged 4,444 black ducks, which ranks seventh in harvest in the state, according to the Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest report for the 2017-18 hunting season, compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Kentucky led the 14 states of the Mississippi Flyway in black duck harvest last season.

Since the 1950s black duck populations have declined. Studies suggest the mallard’s steady eastward expansion has resulted in hybridization, mallards breeding with black ducks, and increased competition between the two species (Photo provided)

Size and Description

Black ducks are similar to mallards in size, and resemble the female mallard in coloration, though the black duck’s plumage is darker. The male and female black duck look a lot alike, but the male’s bill is yellow while the female bill is a dull green.

The black duck’s head is slightly lighter brown than its dark brown body, and the speculum (wing patch) is iridescent violet-blue with predominantly black margins. In flight, the white underwings can be seen in contrast to the dark brown body.

Males are slightly larger than females, standing 22 inches tall, and weighing about 2.7 pounds, with a 35 to 37-inch wingspan.

Waterfowl hunters often refer to black ducks as black mallards.

The male and female black duck look a lot alike, but the male’s bill is yellow while the female’s is a dull green. (Photo by Michael Furtman, courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

Food Habits

The black duck feeds in water, on land and is omnivorous.

Its diet varies, depending on the season and habitat — inland or coastal.

In fresh water, they feed mainly on plant material, including seeds, leaves, roots, berries, pond weeds and sedges. Its animal diet includes snails, mussels, small fish, and amphibians. Young ducklings eat many insects.

Range and Distribution

Black ducks are present in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.

The highest populations are along the Atlantic coast. They are hardy birds that winter farther north than most dabbling ducks.

Their breeding grounds are mostly in eastern Canada, but includes the northernmost reaches of Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Fall migration is often late season, as waters freeze, and black ducks migrate at night.

Most black ducks winter from Iowa, south to Tennessee, east to North Carolina and up the Atlantic coast, but not in large numbers throughout the deep South.

Young black ducks fledge in about two months, and are abandoned by the female about that time (Photo courtesy of Audubon Society)

Nesting

Older birds sometimes pair up in early fall and remain together until following summer.

Nest sites are usually near water, on banks or small islands of lakes of wetlands, among clumps of dense vegetation. The female builds the nest, a shallow depression of plant material, lined with down.

Female lays and hatches about 6 to 12 creamy white eggs, with a greenish buff. Incubation is typically 26 to 29 days.

All eggs typically hatch in space of a few hours. The female black duck leads her young to water, often after dark, and the ducklings find their own food. The young fledge in about two months, and are abandoned by the female about that time.

Since the 1950s black duck populations have declined. Studies suggest the mallard’s steady eastward expansion has resulted in hybridization, mallards breeding with black ducks, and increased competition between the two species

Hunter Harvest

The American black duck is prized by hunters because of its scarcity. (Photo courtesy of Audubon Society)

In the 17 states of the Atlantic Flyway, hunters harvested 85,758 black ducks during the 2017 season while in the 14 states of the Mississippi Flyway, hunters bagged just 17,855 black ducks.

Nationwide there were 2,850 confirmed mallard x black duck hybrids taken last season, and no black ducks were reported taken by hunters in the Central or Pacific flyways.

The annual duck harvest in the U.S. is based on data collected by the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP), which requires licensed migratory game bird hunters to register annually in each state in which they hunt. Hunters are asked a series of questions about their hunting success the previous year, and this information is sent to the USFWS and compiled as an annual hunter activity and harvest report, which is released in August.

Kentucky has about 10,100 active duck hunters. Last season they spent about 78,400 days afield, according to survey data.

Kentucky’s 2018-19 duck season dates are November 22-25, and December 3 through January 27.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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