The Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula) is a common diving duck from the Anatidae family. These birds can be seen on gravel pits, reservoirs, and other suitable waterbodies in the UK throughout the year, although the population swells annually when birds from colder climes arrive to seek respite from the northern winter.
The species gets its name from the drakes’ long, floppy crests, although females are not quite as ornate. So what do female Tufted Ducks look like, and how do they differ from males?
Female Tufted Ducks are chocolate brown above, with a very short tuft on the crown and light brown underparts. They are easily told from the males who appear black (green and purple in good light) above, with white flanks and a long tuft.
Tufted Ducks are widespread in the lower-lying areas of the UK. However, they avoid much of Wales, the Scottish highlands, and the south or the Republic of Ireland. Elsewhere, their global distribution stretches from Iceland in the West to Japan in the East and Kenya in the south.
They are a common breeding waterfowl in the UK, usually nesting in vegetation near the water’s edge. Birdwatchers can look out for females leading their ducklings around from about mid-June, and this is a lovely time to watch some of their unique behaviours.
This article covers everything you need to know about the female Tufted Duck. Read along to learn more about their habits and how to identify them in the field.
Close up of a female Tufted Duck rising out of the water
Tufted Ducks are sexually dimorphic, which means there are visible differences between males and females. The most obvious difference lies in the flank colour. Males have bright white sides, while females are all brown.
There are also distinct differences in their calls and nesting behaviour, which we’ll cover later in the article.
Female Tufted Duck
Male Tufted Duck
Tufted Ducks are medium-sized diving Ducks, noticeably smaller than the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). These stocky waterfowl have large heads and feet, although their underparts usually remain hidden under the water.
Female Tufted Ducks are rather variable in colour, but they are generally dark chocolate brown on the head and back with a lighter brown shade on the chest and flanks. Ironically, female Tufted Ducks have only short tufts, unlike the drakes’ distinctive ponytail ‘hairdos’.
They have piercing yellow/orange eyes and a grey bill, and some specimens have white plumage on the chin or around the base of the bill. Out of the water, birdwatchers may notice their pale belly and black legs, and prominent white wing bars are visible in flight.
Female Tufted Duck swimming on the lake
Adult females may be easy to tell from males, but telling the sex of young birds can be more challenging.
Juvenile male Tufted Ducks resemble adult females until about midwinter. However, they can be identified by their slightly patterned and generally darker upper parts. Juveniles also have dark irises and do not have tufts.
Female Tufted Ducks are more easily confused with other species than their male counterparts. Read on to learn how to distinguish them from some similar waterfowl species.
In the UK, female Tufted Ducks are most likely to be confused with the female Scaup (Aythya marila), a closely related species. However, Scaup hens are larger, do not have tufts on their heads, and usually have prominent white plumage around the base of their bill.
The female Pochard (A. ferina) is another similar species from the Aythya genus. These birds appear grey-brown overall, with pale cheeks and dark brown eyes. They are also far less common than the Tufted Duck in the summer and have a red conservation status in the UK.
Female Tufted Ducks could also be confused with female Wigeons (Anas penelope), although that species has a lighter ground colour, a darker eye, and white wing feathers.
Front view of a adult Female Tufted Duck
Female Tufted Ducks are known as hens, while males are known as drakes.
Tufted Ducks of each sex have similar weights, although females are generally smaller than males. The mass of hens varies between 560g and 930g, while the largest drakes can weigh slightly over one kilogram. Both sexes have a body length of 40 - 47 cm and a wingspan of 67 - 73 cm.
Female (left) and male (right) breeding pair of Tufted Ducks
Both male and female Tufted Ducks swim and dive strongly, feeding on aquatic plants and molluscs at the bottom of still waters and slow-flowing rivers. They are gregarious birds, and males and females are often seen together in large flocks.
Tufted Ducks are resident in the UK throughout the year, although many birds visit from further north in the winter. Migrating females tend to begin their migration slightly later than males.
Female Tufted Ducks are more vocal than males. The species is relatively quiet outside the spring breeding season, although females produce a few distinct vocalizations.
Females quack during courtship and produce flight calls. They also sound alarm calls to lead the ducklings from danger.
There are many differences between the roles of male and female Tufted Ducks during the nesting season. Continue reading to learn how their behaviours differ.
Mated pair of Tufted Ducks - female in the foreground
Female Tufted Ducks build a nest, often near other Tufted Duck nests and sometimes in mixed colonies with gulls or terns.
The nest is usually located near water, although it can be further back on the relative safety of islands. The nest is made on the ground from sedges and grasses and lined with a thick bed of down feathers and soft plant material.
After building the nest on her own, the Tufted Duck hen lays and incubates eight to eleven eggs alone and cares for the ducklings for up to about 42 days, after which she will desert them to fend for themselves.
Tufted Ducks are monogamous during the breeding season, but females will mate with a new partner each year. They usually return to nest in the same area each year, although one female was tracked to nest an incredible 2500 km away from her previous year's site!
Female Tufted Duck swimming with her ducklings
Female Tufted Ducks raise their young without any assistance from their partner. Interestingly, this behaviour is typical of ducks that breed in the Northern Hemisphere, while many species from the south share the parental duties.
Female Tufted Ducks are brown waterfowl with grey and black bills and legs, respectively. They are darker on their head and back, with lighter plumage below. However, their eyes stand out against their dark, subdued plumage with bright yellow/orange irises.
Close up of an adult female Tufted Duck
Female Tufted Ducks produce a variety of calls, including a typical duck-like ‘quack’. They call during courtship, while in flight at night, and to communicate danger to their ducklings.
Female Tufted Ducks do not have long, prominent crests like their male counterparts. However, a short tuft is often visible.
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