- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant; late-fall migrants frequently linger into the winter months and occasionally overwinter in open-water areas, especially in southeastern Minnesota along the Mississippi River. The Redhead was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Relative to many waterfowl, the Redhead has a fairly limited distribution, restricted primarily to south-central Canada and the northern Great Plains and northern Rockies. Scattered, small populations also occur west and south of its primary breeding range and farther north in Alaska. Although western Minnesota forms the periphery of the core of the species’ breeding range, smaller numbers occur east through the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence River. Highest breeding densities are found in the prairie potholes, especially in central North Dakota (Figure 1).
A game species, the Redhead has been assigned a Moderately High Continental Priority by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. It has been assigned a Continental Concern Score of 8/20 by Partners in Flight.
A short- to medium-distance migrant that winters in the central and southern United States and Mexico.
A diving duck that feeds primarily on aquatic plants and aquatic invertebrates.
A platform constructed in emergent vegetation in semipermanent or permanent wetlands; occasionally nests on muskrat houses. Redheads are often nest parasites and lay eggs in other redheads’ or other species’ nests.
When Roberts (1932) wrote his account of the Redhead’s status in Minnesota in the early 1900s, he had already witnessed its near demise, as had been the case for so many other waterfowl species. Once an abundant breeding resident throughout the state’s western prairie region, by the 1920s the Redhead was largely known only as a spring and fall migrant. A few scattered reports of nesting pairs were still reported but they represented mere fragments of a once abundant population.
Roberts wrote that in its heyday Heron Lake was the center of abundance of both Redheads and Canvasbacks in the mid-1800s. Thomas Miller, a long-time hunting guide on Heron Lake, wrote to Roberts remarking, “This fine bird at one time was the most plentiful Duck on Heron Lake. From 1883 to 1893 several thousand were killed every year.” As for the Canvasback, large numbers also were reported nesting near Thief and Mud Lakes in eastern Marshall County until the area was drained. Although there were occasional reports farther to the east, “in the heavy timber of the northeastern part of Minnesota,” the Redhead was most abundant in the western grasslands.
Despite the decimation witnessed in the late 1800s, by the late 1920s there were hopeful signs that numbers were beginning to rebound with the recent passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. When Breckenridge undertook a field survey of western counties in May and June 1929, he observed an “unexpectedly large” number of Redheads from Lincoln County in the southwest, north to Kittson County on the Canadian border (Roberts 1932).
Thirty years later, in 1964, Lee and his colleagues (1964) noted that Redheads had rebounded to the point that they comprised 6% of the breeding ducks surveyed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources each spring. A decade later, Green and Janssen (1975) reported the species was well established as a summer resident throughout western and central Minnesota, with records extending as far east as the Twin Cities metropolitan region. They delineated the species’ primary breeding range as occurring throughout northwestern and southern Minnesota, east as far as Hennepin County in the north, and Freeborn County in the south. Janssen’s updated account in 1987 expanded the species’ primary breeding range to the east so that it encompassed the western two-thirds of the state. He identified 20 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970. The records were widely distributed across the state with the exception of the north-central, northeastern, and southeastern regions. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later added 6 counties to the number where nesting had been confirmed, all within the species’ primary breeding range.
Field work conducted by the Minnesota Biological Survey has documented 112 breeding season locations. The records are largely restricted to the species’ known range in the Prairie Parkland and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Provinces of western Minnesota. There also were scattered reports from more eastern localities, including the Twin Cities and the Mississippi River floodplain in Goodhue County, and 1 record in eastern Lake County (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
MNBBA participants reported 274 Redhead records from 4.3% (206/4,740) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 4.3% (100/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 26 of the surveyed blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 45 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, and breeding evidence was confirmed in 14 counties. Clearly the west-central region of the state is a strong center of distribution. Important breeding habitat is also provided by the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge and the Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area in Marshall County in northwestern Minnesota. Although it has never regained its former level of abundance observed in the mid-1800s, the Redhead is well established as a breeding resident in the state.
Elsewhere within its breeding range, the Redhead extended its range into Alaska in the mid-1900s and established small, localized populations farther east along the Great Lakes and in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Some of these far eastern populations may have resulted from the release of captive-reared birds, although some natural pioneering eastward also occurred (Woodin and Michot 2002). The species is an uncommon and sparsely distributed species in Wisconsin (Cutright et al. 2006), Michigan (Chartier et al. 2013), and Iowa (Iowa Ornithologists’ Union 2017). It is common east of the Missouri River in South Dakota (Drilling et al. 2016) and in eastern and northern North Dakota (Woodin and Michot 2002).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.