Bird of the Week: Ring-necked Duck

What Could Possibly Be Spookier Than Poor Nomenclature?

Species: Ring-necked Duck, or Aythya collaris

Family: Anatidae (waterfowl, i.e., ducks, geese, and swans)

Star sign: Aries

Rating: 13/10

Ideal Date: Going To Court To Get a Name Change

Let me tell you a horror story about the most evil duck alive: the Ring-necked Duck. Looking at it, you may think I’m referring to its appearance — it does, after all, look a little bit like a mallard that got possessed by a demon and then got talked into getting an unfortunate haircut. The piercing yellow eyes, the dark black feathers, the hooked beak and the face which seems set into a perpetual scowl— what could be more terrible than that? Or perhaps this duck carries in it the violence of a goose and the power of a hawk. But no — the answer is a tale of deception, lies, and treachery — the answer is that scientists gave it a really shitty name.

Do you see the Ring-Neck? I didn’t think so. (Image courtesy of National Audubon Society.)

Bird names, ideally, should have some meaningful semantic relationship with the bird they describe. The Black-Capped Chickadee is named for its black cap; the Red-tailed Hawk is named for its red tail, so on and so forth. When a scientist names a bird for a physical feature, it is often best to pick a feature that is both distinctive and unique — setting the bird apart from its peers and allowing birder’s to use the name as a tool of identification. But the Ring-necked Duck deceives us. This mysterious friend was named not for any obvious physical feature — such as, for instance, the distinctive white ring around its bill— but rather for something so subtle, so terrible, that in search of it one would go mad. In the right light, if you’re lucky, you may be able to perceive a dark-brown ring around the neck of a male duck, obscured in the surrounding black feathers. To spot this is a sisyphean task. It cannot be done by mortal eyes. According to All About Birds, the nineteenth-century ornithologists who gave this friend its name did so because they were primarily working with the dead, lifeless corpses of the birds, where up close it’s easier to see the dark brown against the black. But I fear something far more sinister was a foot — perhaps they simply wanted to watch birders for centuries to come struggle and suffer under the webbed foot of the deceiver Ring-necked Duck. 

Aside from its horrifying name, there is much to love about the Ring-Necked Duck. It is a cool and friendly diving duck which surprisingly likes to spend its time in shallow water edged by grasses, as opposed to deep lakes with lots of room for swimming. There is much to be said for its impressive, striking appearance — the obsidian feathers, the way its white underbelly swoops sharply around its wings, the glistening yellow eyes. Even so, its horrible name looms forever over it, like a shadow on its back — or a collar around its neck. 

Ring-Necked Ducks can be occasionally found in the Canyon during the winter months. Watch for ducks slightly smaller than mallards; males have black heads, chests, and backs with white undersides, as well as bright yellow eyes, whilst females are an unremarkable drab brown. Both genders of this deceptive duck have unique gray bills that are tipped with black and ringed with white, and both have uniquely-shaped oblong heads. To differentiate the male Ring-Necked Duck from the similar looking Scaups, note how the white underside of this week’s feathery friend seems to swoop up against the wing and form a sharp-ended curve. There are many ways to clock one of these wonderful waterfowl — but for the love of God, don’t try to use the Ring Neck to identify it.

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