Ring-necked Duck — The Reed College Quest
Bird names, ideally, should have a meaningful semantic relationship to the bird they describe. The black-capped chickadee gets its name from its black cap; the red-tailed hawk is named after its red tail, etc. When a scientist names a bird for a physical characteristic, it is often best to choose a feature that is both distinctive and unique, which sets the bird apart from its peers and allows birders to use the name as a tool for identification. But the Ring-necked Duck deceives us. This mysterious friend was not named for an obvious physical characteristic – like, for example, the distinctive white ring around its beak – but rather for something so subtle, so terrible, that in search of it, one would go crazy. In the right light, if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a dark brown ring around the neck of a male duck, obscured by the surrounding black feathers. Spotting this is a sisyphean task. It cannot be done by mortal eyes. According to All About Birds, the 19th century ornithologists who gave this friend its name did so because they worked primarily with the corpses of dead and lifeless birds, where up close it is easier to see the brown dark against black. But I’m afraid something far more sinister was a foot – perhaps they just wanted to watch birdwatchers for centuries struggle and suffer under the webbed foot of the deceitful Ringnecked Duck.
Aside from its gruesome name, there’s a lot to love about the Ringneck Duck. It is a cool and friendly diving duck that surprisingly likes to spend its time in shallow, grass-lined water as opposed to deep lakes with plenty of room to swim. There’s a lot to be said for its impressive and striking appearance – the obsidian feathers, the way its white belly wraps sharply around its wings, the glowing yellow eyes. Even so, his horrible name hangs over him forever, like a shadow on his back – or a necklace around his neck.
Ring-necked ducks can occasionally be found in the canyon during the winter months. Watch for ducks slightly smaller than mallards; males have black heads, breasts, and backs with white undersides, as well as bright yellow eyes, while females are an unremarkable dull brown. Both sexes of this deceptive duck have unique gray beaks that are black-tipped and rimmed in white, and both have uniquely shaped oblong heads. To differentiate the male Ring-Necked Duck from similar-looking Scaups, note how this week’s feathered friend’s white underside appears to melt against the wing and form a sharp curve. There are many ways to time one of these wonderful waterfowl – but for God’s sake, don’t try to use the Ring Neck to identify it.