American Black Duck

Anas rubripes

(c) Howard B. Eskin
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Ánade sombrio americano
  • Canard noir
Closely related to the better-known Mallard, the American Black Duck is among the largest of North American ducks. The Black Duck can be found in just about any type of aquatic habitat within its range, so long as adequate cover is present; it is a very wary bird. Like the Mallard, it is a popular game bird. Susceptibility to over-hunting, among other pressures, resulted in a continual population decline over the past century. Accordingly, the Black Duck is a species of concern, and has been identified as such on Audubon's 2002 WatchList of North American birds. Its WatchList status is "Yellow," meaning the species is considered to be in slow decline.
(c) Glen Tepke
Appearance Description
The American Black Duck was formerly known as the "dusky" duck— perhaps a more accurate name, as it is not actually black. Male and female Black Ducks are similar, with an almost uniformly dark brown body, and a contrasting gray head. A handsome purple speculum, or wing patch, is visible in good light. The bill is a pale yellow, brighter on the male, and the legs are reddish. In flight, Black Ducks can be distinguished from Mallards by their highly contrasting bright silver underwing.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
As the name suggests, the American Black Duck's world distribution is limited to North America. Its breeding area is primarily in the northeast, with the greatest concentration of birds between New England and Nova Scotia. From there, it breeds across Ontario and Quebec, and even as far north as the Hudson Bay in Manitoba. Introduced populations have been established in small pockets of the northwest. Most Black Ducks winter along the Atlantic coast as far south as Florida, but also west to the Mississippi and points between.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
An impressive array of habitats is utilized by this species, from wooded inland freshwater lakes and streams, to coastal marshes of all types. Black Ducks fare particularly well in tidal marshes, where they face less competition, especially from Mallards. One early 20th century ornithologist remarked that the Black Duck "nests in a variety of situations and does not seem to show any preference for any particular kind of surroundings, provided it can find sufficient concealment."
American Black Ducks often tip forward to feed in shallow water, sometimes upending themselves to get at vegetation or aquatic life below. They also "filter" feed by dabbling at the water's surface. Black Ducks make use of a wide variety of food sources, foraging for grains, stems, leaves, grasses, insects, mollusks, and small fish. 
Black Ducks are generally paired off before arriving on the breeding grounds in early spring. The female chooses the nest site and builds the nest—often little more than a scrape on the ground, lined with whatever materials are present. She often chooses a well concealed location; Black Duck nests are notoriously difficult to find. The male usually keeps watch over his mate for a while, but generally departs by the time the eggs hatch, leaving all rearing of the ducklings to the female. Ducklings hatch fully feathered, and are able to walk, swim, and feed themselves almost immediately.
American Black Ducks, well known for their hardiness, are among the first migrants to arrive in an area in spring, often before the waters are free of ice. Similarly, they are among the last to leave in fall. Black Ducks winter wherever there is open water, often quite far north, but the majority move toward the Atlantic coast during winter's coldest months. 
  • 910,000
  • 910,000
  • Regional population declines, serious threats to breeding
Population Status Trends
Population trends have been a matter of concern in recent decades. By the mid 1900s, conservationists recognized that American Black Duck numbers were declining. Over-hunting, combined with habitat loss, in the forms of deforested interior lands and drained coastal areas, resulted in a continually decreasing population over several decades. These twin challenges continued to exact a heavy toll on the species well into the 1980s, when the introduction of far more restrictive hunting regulations finally curbed the rapid decline. American Black Duck numbers appear to have stabilized in recent years, though it remains a species of concern. To further complicate its plight, Black Ducks are yielding to competition with Mallards at both breeding and wintering sites; the two species are closely related and share similar habitats. Hybridization between the two species is fairly common.
Conservation Issues
Regulated hunting practices have helped stem the severe decline of American Black Duck numbers that took place over the past century; however, current numbers are thought to be only half of what they were historically. Careful monitoring will be crucial to future decisions regarding the hunting of this popular game bird. Another major cause of the species' recent decline is the fact that Black Ducks are highly prone to hybridization with Mallards. In recent decades the Mallard has expanded its range into the northeastern portions of North America--the heart of Black Duck territory. This influx of Mallards, the genetically dominant and far more numerous species, has resulted in the swamping of the Black Duck gene pool. At inland breeding sites, Black Ducks generally lose habitat to Mallards in areas that become deforested or otherwise developed for human use. On the coastal wintering grounds, the Black Duck's traditional refuge from the Mallard has been vast areas of saltwater marshland. As these areas are lost to development, Black Ducks are forced to take refuge in less protected freshwater impoundments. The preservation of coastal saltwater marshland is vital to the preservation of Black Ducks.
What You Can Do
Remain aware of local, regional, and federal land management decisions, particularly those that affect our forests and wetlands.
Ask your legislators to support wise land management initiatives, such as wetland preservation and restoration.
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
The Black Duck Joint Venture (BDJV) is an initiative of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Goals of the BDJV are to monitor and research the species, and to form suitable conservation and management policies. More information can be found at the BDJV website.
Ducks Unlimited maintains important information on many current issues affecting North American waterfowl:
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Bent, A.C. 1919-1968. Life Histories of North American Birds. United States National Museum: Washington, DC. 26 Vols. Reprinted by Dover, New York, 1962-1968.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Kortright, Francis H. 1943. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C.
Longcore, J. R., D. G. McAuley, G. R. Hepp, and J. M. Rhymer. 2000. American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). In The Birds of North America, No. 481 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Conservation Status References
Kortright, Francis H. 1943. The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. The American Wildlife Institute, Washington D.C.
Longcore, J. R., D. G. McAuley, G. R. Hepp, and J. M. Rhymer. 2000. American Black Duck (Anas rubripes). In The Birds of North America, No. 481 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Longcore, J. R., and Clugston, D. A. "American Black Duck". U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. April 2006.
Lepage, C. and D. Bordage. 2003. Black Duck Joint Venture (BDJV) Web site:  Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Québec Region.