Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
Female Red-Crested Pochard
Juvenile Red-Crested Pochard
Red-crested Pochard female with ducklings
Red-crested Pochard swimming in the lake
Red-crested Pochard in-flight
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
53cm to 57cm
85cm to 90cm
900g to 1.4kg
Male red-crested pochards have a striking appearance, which enables a relatively straightforward and confident identification. They have a rounded chestnut head, with a bright red bill with a sharp orange nail at the end. Their eyes are red, and their legs are either orange or bright scarlet, with some darker markings on the webbing.
Red-crested pochards have black breasts, necks and undertail. Their flanks are white and they have a bold white shoulder bar. The wings and upper tail are dark brown, tipped with a paler grey.
After breeding, male red-crested pochards undergo an extensive moult into what is known as an eclipse plumage. Their vibrant colours are replaced with a drabber brownish-grey which resembles the year-round plumage of females. They do, however, retain their red bill, which is a useful way of telling the sexes apart at this time of year.
Female red-crested pochards’ plumage is in stark contrast to the bright colours seen on the male. Females are various shades of brown, with a mid-brown body, wings, breast and neck, a darker brown cap and pale brown cheeks. Their bill is grey, with a patch of pink near the base.
Young red-crested pochards are similar to males in eclipse plumage, not having developed the striking colouration of adult breeding males. Rather than the scarlet colouring of the adult male’s bill, the juvenile red-crested pochard has a pink bill instead.
Red-Crested Pochard male (left) and female (right)
Red-crested pochards are larger than the closely related common pochard and are considered one of the larger species of dabbling duck. Females are smaller and lighter than males.
Red-Crested Pochard in the reservoir flapping his wings
Male red-crested pochards use a throaty ‘veht’ contact call, while females are heard making hoarse ‘vrah-vrah-vrah’ calls to their mates and young.
Red-crested Pochard calling
Dabbling just below the water’s surface and diving deeper toward the bottom of a lake or reservoir are two common ways for red-crested pochards to find food.
Their diet is mainly plant-based, with underwater vegetation and seeds of aquatic plants being of the greatest importance. Occasionally fish will be eaten, particularly when stolen from other nearby birds.
Tadpoles, dragonfly larvae, crabs, and molluscs are also sometimes eaten but are not a major element of their diet.
Small invertebrates such as mayflies are particularly important in the diet of red-crested pochard ducklings. Duckweed is one of the main sources of food from the first few days onwards.
Red-crested Pochard feeding on underwater vegetation
Wetlands surrounded with rich vegetation, particularly reeds and rushes, offer suitable breeding grounds for red-crested pochards. Shallow lakes, stagnant pools, reservoirs, and floodplains lined with reedbed cover are all popular nest sites, with large open bodies of water nearby that are used for resting and roosting.
Brackish and freshwater reservoirs, marshlands, and aquaculture lakes with pondweed are among the most popular overwintering destinations for red-crested pochards.
Red-crested pochards breed in parts of western Europe, including Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, as well as parts of Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, Czechia and Slovakia.
Further east, breeding grounds of red-crested pochards form a solid band across central Asia from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to north-west China and western Mongolia.
As a mostly migrational species, distinct wintering grounds are visited by red-crested pochards each autumn, although these are not always a long distance from their breeding grounds. Red-crested pochards that migrate from central Asia disperse to India, Pakistan, and Myanmar.
In parts of Spain and the UK, red-crested pochards are year-round residents, while migration may also occur to these areas, as well as to the north-west coast of Africa and along the Nile Delta.
Female Red-crested Pochard in natural habitat
Within Europe, the largest number of red-crested pochards live in Spain. France, Germany, and the Netherlands also have sizeable populations.
Between 50,000 and 60,000 individuals live in southern, central, and western Europe, while between 25,000 and 50,000 red-crested pochards nest near the Black Sea and in the eastern Mediterranean.
The global population of red-crested pochards is estimated to be up to 600,000 individuals, and in its native range, it is a fairly common bird to see, with its distinctive appearance making it easy to confidently identify.
In the UK, only a small number of breeding pairs are present, believed to have originally descended from birds that escaped from wildfowl collections. In winter, sightings become more common with the arrival of migrant visitors from Europe.
Southern and eastern England offer the best chances of seeing red-crested pochards, with the Cotswold Water Park and Abberton Reservoir in Essex two sites with regular sightings.
Red-crested Pochard standing in grassland habitat
Red-crested pochards breed for the first time from one year of age and on average live until they are five years of age. Older birds are occasionally recorded, including an individual identified as 11 years and 10 months.
Ravens, crows, gulls, magpies and black kites are known predators of eggs and ducklings of red-crested pochards. Records also show nests being destroyed by wild boar, brown rats, water voles, and feral cats and dogs.
Red-crested pochards are protected by the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA), as well as by the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. This legislation protects wild birds against being killed, injured, or taken into captivity.
Globally, red-crested pochards are recognised as a species of least concern, and their numbers are on the increase. Habitat loss and the impact of climate change are both a concern, although do not pose any immediate challenge to the future survival of the species.
Female Red-crested Pochard resting on the water
It’s common practice for red-crested pochards to reuse nests that have been built and abandoned by other waterfowl. Nests may also be built from scratch by the female, either on the ground within dense waterside vegetation or built up within flooded landscapes, using twigs and rushes lined with downy feathers.
The arrival of red-crested pochards at breeding grounds begins from March onwards, and the earliest clutches may be laid as early as late March. Laying continues until July, depending on location, with sites in Central Asia typically later than those in Spain and France, where April and May are the peak laying times.
Incubation lasts between 26 and 28 days, and only by the female, who covers the nest with feathers when she takes a brief break to feed.
The clutch size varies greatly and can contain up to 12 eggs or as few as 4. Larger broods do occur but these are frequently due to egg dumping, with more than one female laying their eggs in the same nest. Eggs are pale green to stone in colour, and measure 58 mm by 42 mm (2.3 in by 1.7 in).
Red-crested pochards are seasonally monogamous, pairing up with a mate on arrival at breeding grounds each spring. Once incubation begins, males have no further active role in looking after eggs or raising young but may continue to bring food to their mate on the nest.
Pair of Red-Crested Pochards
With a reputation as an aggressive and messy duck species, red-crested pochards are often observed to flap and bite at each other to assert their claim to a territory or mate.
Red-Crested Pochard in-flight
Red-crested pochards are mostly migratory, leaving their breeding grounds in western and central Europe and central Asia for wintering sites in southern and south-western Europe, around the Black and Caspian seas, and in south Asia, in particular India, Pakistan and Myanmar.
Not all migrations are long-distance and a trend is emerging for birds that breed in central Europe to relocate to nearby wetlands, and in Spain and Portugal, most populations are resident all year round, leaving only temporarily while they are moulting after breeding.
Small numbers of red-crested pochards do breed in the UK, and many more arrive in winter months. However, they are classed as an introduced species, rather than a native one, with most of the wild population today having originated from birds that escaped from private wildfowl collections.
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Larger than the Common Scoter this elegant European diving duck spends much of its time at sea and is often seen in company with mixed flocks resting on the water’s surface far out from land.
Tundra Bean Goose
The tundra bean goose is the most common species of bean goose, and breeds on Russian tundra landscapes. Winters are spent grazing on open fields, marshes and agricultural land in western and central Europe and East Asia.
The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
Fast and erratic in flight, the Teal is the United Kingdom’s smallest wildfowl species. Despite occurring year-round in low numbers, birdwatchers are most likely to spot these tiny ducks in the winter when large numbers arrive from abroad.
Taiga Bean Goose
Taiga bean geese are a common sight on northern taiga marshes of Siberia and northern Scandinavia in spring and summer, before heading south into Europe each winter. Several hundred individuals spend winters in the UK, with rare vagrant visitors occasionally reported in North America.
One of seven American goose species, the Snow Goose is a noisy migrant that visits the Lower 48 states each winter. These beautiful birds have increased dramatically since the second half of the 20th century.
Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.
Once decimated through overhunting and habitat destruction, the Canada Goose has rebounded to become one of North America’s most abundant and familiar wildfowl.
A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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