Canvasback – Feeding and Fighting Behavior

In April of 2008 I photographed some interesting Canvasback feeding and fighting behaviors at a local pond.   At the time I was still a relative novice at bird photography so I’ll say up front that this blog post is more about the behaviors than it is about image quality.  The almost white plumage and dark head made for a tricky exposure for a beginner and there was a significant issue with specular highlights caused by reflections off of the shiny mud.

  Dive, eyes open

  Dive, eyes open

On this day there was one drake feeding quite close to me and I was very interested in the whole process.  He would continually dive down to the muck at the bottom of the pond and come up with his head completely covered in thick dark mud.  Sometimes he would dive with his eyes open, like this.


 Dive, eyes closed

  Dive, eyes closed

And other times he would dive with his eyes closed.  Either way, mud and grit in the eyes never seemed to be a problem for him. 


 Ol' Muddy Head 1

 Ol’ Muddy Head 1

When he would emerge, this is what he would look like.


 Ol' Muddy Head 2

 Ol’ Muddy Head 2 

And this.  It never failed – a true mud facial.  Canvasbacks are often referred to as the “aristocrats of ducks” but it’s hard to look very aristocratic with a face full of mud. 


 Shakin' the mud off

Shakin’ the mud off

Occasionally he would try to shake as much of the mud off as possible but it never seemed to change the look of him much – still muddy, just not quite as thick.  


 Creature from the Black Lagoon

 Creature from the Black Lagoon

When these birds surface from a dive they do so very quickly as their buoyancy brings them up swiftly – they simply pop onto the surface.  So, I decided to try to get a shot of him just as he was emerging, with muddy water still running off of him.  Easier said than done because you have to somehow anticipate where he will surface and focus on that spot first to get it sharp – there was simply no time to lock on to him after he surfaced and get what I wanted.  I’m sure I spent over an hour trying to get this shot because he nearly always came up where I wasn’t focused or he had his back to me or his head turned.

It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the images on my screen that I saw what was actually going on.  I had assumed he was simply finding food on the bottom and eating it before he came up.  But from these shots I surmise that he got a big mouthful of mud down there and then strained the food from the mud as he came up and just after he surfaced.  Here you see a thick stream of thick muddy water being strained and coming out of his bill just as he is emerging.  I have other shots that show it coming out the sides of the bill also.    


 A mouthful of mud

  A mouthful of mud

This shot gives you an idea of what’s left behind in his mouth after much of the water has been strained out. 


 Canvasback aggression

 Canvasback aggression

I know these two look almost like lovebirds but that’s far from the case.   While I was watching Ol’ Muddy Head feed, another male swam in and tried to feed in the same area.  Muddy Head would have nothing to do with that and immediately swam up to the other male and they started pushing against each others chests, swimming hard in an aggressive manner and turning in a clockwise direction. 


More aggression

 The aggression continues 

This went on for several minutes.  A long time with both birds continuing to turn in a circle (always clockwise) and push on each other, like two sumo wrestlers.   


 Fight begins

The fight begins

Eventually a full blown fight broke out. 


 Fight continues

 Fight continues 

The fight lasted for quite a while – perhaps 15 seconds.


 A winner!

 And the winner is…

But eventually Ol’ Muddy Head was the victor and drove off the interloper – which surprised me slightly because he seems to be the smaller of the two ducks.   I’d guess it’s because he figured he was the “owner” of the feeding territory and that made him more aggressive. 

I had a blast photographing these Canvasbacks, despite some mediocre image quality in some of the shots.  I have to remind myself that I was still a novice at bird photography at the time  And my success in getting the Canvasback emerging from the water (Creature from the Black Lagoon) gave me some inspiration to try some new things in the future.  And some of them have even turned out! 



3 comments to Canvasback – Feeding and Fighting Behavior

  • Chuck Ganags

    A great observation and well told story, and I agree with Rich that these could be posted for critique. My guess is that they would be well received.

  • I just saw my first Canvasback last week at Sweetwater and I will have to watch and see if they do anything like this. Interesting story and good pictures to go along, well done.

  • This is a very interesting set of photos and great documentation of behavior I’ve never witnessed.

    Personally I wouldn’t hesitate to post ## or #4 for critique – I love the red eye showing out of the mud mask.