Why Is It Called A Ring-necked Duck?

The Ring-necked Duck gets its name from the narrow collar of chestnut-brown feathers at the  base of the neck of basic-plumaged adult males. This collar does not connect across the hindneck (Hohman and Eberhardt 1998). Many have suggested that Ring-necked Duck should have been named "Ring-billed Duck" for the prominent sub-terminal white band near the tip of its bill. It is rare indeed to catch sight of the ring on this bird’s neck and many birders have never seen this obscure marking. In order to spot the chestnut collar on a male Ring-necked Duck, one must be fairly close to the bird on a bright sunny day and, the bird needs to have it head raised and neck extended in an “alert” position.


The male Ring-necked Duck (second from left) in this image, taken at Estero San Jose, Baja California Sur, Mexico in January 2006, presents the typical view one gets of this species and other diving ducks. Its head and neck are in a relaxed position hiding the lower neck. Apparently it is the job of females and immatures to keep and eye out for the local Peregrine Falcon. Notice the tilted heads of three of the four brown-plumaged birds. (Photo taken Steven Mlodinow)

Across much of North America, Ring-necked Ducks are only present during the winter months when lighting conditions are sub-optimal and hunting pressures make waterfowl less approachable. Ring-neckeds undergo a pre-basic molt during late fall and early winter, at which time the adult males acquire their chestnut collar. Hence, the collar is at its brightest during the winter months when lighting conditions and distance make it tough to see. In recent years it has been revealed that most duck species, including Ring-neckeds, undergo a pre-alternate--formerly called pre-basic--molt during the breeding season. This molt leaves the males with a muted (“eclipse”) plumage during the late summer and early fall (Pyle 2005). They subsequently molt again during the fall and early winter when they acquire their basic plumage, which, opposite of most species, is their brightest set of feathers (Pyle 2005). 


This cooperative male Ring-necked Duck, photographed at Eugene, Oregon on 4 April 2009, offers rare views of the chestnut-brown neck collar for which this species is named. The far more obvious white band behind the black bill tip has led many birders to think that Ring-billed Duck might better describe this bird. The profile below offers a better view of the partial chestnut-brown collar. It is broadest on the foreneck, narrows on the sides of the neck, and does not connect across the hindneck. (Both photos taken were by David Irons using a Canon EOS XSI 450D camera and an EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens)


When viewing conditions are ideal, the chestnut “ring” on the neck of an adult male Ring-necked Duck can be surprisingly conspicuous, as it is in the photos included in this essay. However, most observations  leave us wondering, “who named this duck?” The species discussed in this three-part series are but a few of many birds named for cryptic field marks best seen on specimens lying in a museum tray. Feel free to share those mis-named species that baffle you by sending us a comment. We’ll endeavor to offer future photo essays like these in an effort to satisfy your curiosity.

Literature Cited:

Hohman, William L. and Robert T. Eberhardt. 1998. Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/329.

Pyle, Peter, 2005. Molts and Plumages of Ducks (Anatinae). Waterbirds 28(2) pp. 208-219.


Always did liked the Rin-gnecked Ducks. Hunters sometimes call them Black Jacks. Nice to see .


For a longer series, don’t forget “red-cockaded” woodpecker and “orange-crowned” warbler. And of course the all time fouled-up common name champions, any sapsucker with a color in the name.


I really appreciate your posts. I feel like I am getting a first class education in birding, all from the comfort of my office. As a fairly novice birder I need all the help I can get: guide books, field trips with people who know, and now BirdFellow! How good can it get? (Finally saw the crests on Double-crested Cormorants this morning, thanks to your photos, and Ring-necked Ducks were high on my list of puzzles).


BlackJack… That is why I tend to see them in groups of 21!


Thanks for this. I’ve always wondered how they got their Ring-necked name. It’s a gorgeous bird and the chestnut ring enhances that beauty.


I always wondered where the ring was. I would suggest the name of this handsome bird to be changed to Spat-billed Duck.


last week our group held a similar discussion on this topic and you show something we haven’t covered yet, appreciate that.

- Lora


Negative news – Syria’s ‘mutilation mystery’ deepens…


I love ducks and have had them for years, they really are maefgnicint pets. I guess most people don’t realize that ducks can be pets.The best thing to do is try to keep him comfortable. Look at his back and see if he has dry skin, may be the reason he scratches himself by rolling onto his back. If he doesn’t then it could be a different problem. I know ducks need lots of exercise or they become weak in the legs. You might want to get him a little pond or kiddie pool to help him strengthen his legs. It sounds to me that your pet duck just needs a little exercise.


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