The 'King of Ducks' arrives in the Dakotas: Mark Grovijahn

Mark Grovijahn
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks
Mark Grovijahn, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Wildlife Biologist

The canvasback duck, often referred to as the “King of Ducks”, is making its way down the flyway. This majestic duck has earned a special place in many waterfowlers hearts. If you have ever held a bull (male) canvasback in hand, then you know what I’m talking about. Everything about the canvasback equates to power - from the large feet, its powerful flight, and its large body size. Bull canvasbacks can weigh 3.5 pounds and sport a crimson red head with a black, sloping bill.

The “can” is a diving duck which means it dives for its food underwater. Most of their diet consists of aquatic vegetation but also some invertebrate like snails. It shows preference to rhizomes, buds and tubers of these plants while feeding. Sago pondweed is another top choice. Shallow, smaller wetlands to large lakes are suitable for the canvasback and their preference is largely driven by food availability, safety, and protection from weather.

There is some breeding that occurs in South Dakota but more so in North Dakota and the southern provinces of Canada. Most nesting occurs over water and the female will build a nest in emergent vegetation and lay a clutch of eggs varying from 6 to 10 or so. Larger wetlands with cattail and/or bullrush are very important to the lifecycle of this duck as they need this cover to build a nest and raise a brood. The cattail provides the security, overhead cover, and protection from the elements the canvasback needs to successfully nest. I have found nests on shore before but usually within feet of the waters edge because the “can” is not built to walk much as its feet are set far back on the body to aid in diving versus walking.

Once the eggs hatch, the young are ready to go. The hen will lead the bright yellow ducklings to a safe area where they will immediately start feeding on invertebrates in and on the water. They grow quickly and will reach flight stage around 8 to 9 weeks of age.

Historically, the canvasback was prized for its delicious table fare. Thousands of them were shot throughout the Midwest and sent by rail to the east coast where they were served in restaurants. Through conservation efforts and federal laws, limits were set, and all duck species were afforded the protections we see today. I have to agree, they are good on the table.

Hunting canvasbacks can be done either by decoying them or pass shooting, where a hunter would position themselves between two water bodies and try to intercept them as they pass through. I prefer to decoy them, and it usually doesn’t take but a few big white drake decoys added to the mallards to pull them in for a look.

Another way is to have one or two large white swan or snow goose decoys in the spread as canvasbacks will key in on swans and try to steal the vegetation they pull up. I have had multiple opportunities at “cans” with a couple of swan decoys out. They seem to react positively to a spinning wing decoy and a little grunting in the duck call as well.

The population of canvasbacks varies over time and doesn’t get as high as teal or mallards do but usually stays pretty consistent. With this lower population, hunters usually can have one or two in the bag. This year, we can have two a day under the traditional bag limit. Right now is a good time to get out and pursue the “King” as they are migrating through our area.

Mark Grovijahn is a Wildlife Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.