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Ring-necked Duck

Aythya collaris
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding resident and migrant; occasionally observed during the winter months in southeastern Minnesota and in other, scattered open-water areas. The Ring-necked Duck was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

The Ring-necked Duck is a species of the northern boreal forests; its breeding distribution stretches from Alaska, south and east across Canada, south to the northern Rockies and North Dakota, and across the Great Lakes states and northern New England. Breeding densities are highest in the taiga plains of north-central Canada and in the boreal hardwood forests of southeastern Canada. Its distribution and relative abundance in southern Canada and the United States, as depicted by the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), are shown in Figure 1.

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 8

A game species, the Ring-necked Duck has been assigned a Moderate Continental Priority by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, and a Continental Concern Score of 8/20 by Partners in Flight.

Life History

A short- to medium-distance migrant that winters in the United States, the Caribbean islands, and Mexico.


A diving duck that feeds primarily on aquatic plants and aquatic invertebrates.


A shallow bowl of aquatic vegetation placed on a wetland hummock or mat of floating vegetation.

Ring-necked Duck Ring-necked Duck. Aythya collaris
© David Brislance
See caption below Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Ring-necked Duck in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey from 2011 to 2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

When Roberts (1932) wrote his treatise on Minnesota birds, the Ring-necked Duck had largely disappeared as a breeding species from the state. During his own lifetime, however, he remembered when it was common not only as a breeding species but as a spring and fall migrant, particularly during fall migration, when it was so abundant “it fairly swarmed at times about its favored lakes.”

As for all waterfowl, unregulated hunting in the late 1800s and early 1900s contributed to the species’ demise. Roberts wrote at great length about the large number of Ring-necked Ducks that stopped each fall at the Long Meadow Gun Club on the Minnesota River bottoms and the large bags that were collected even by novice hunters: “Even the veriest tyro could not fail to get a good bag, shooting into big, compact, steady-flying flocks.”

Roberts described the species prior to its demise as a common summer resident throughout the state but found it to be most abundant in the eastern region. Confirmed nesting records (nests with eggs) were few and limited to counties in east-central Minnesota: Carver (1898), Hennepin (1876), Isanti (1914), and Sherburne (1917). Records appeared to be scarce in the following years, but Roberts made special note of June and July records of birds observed in the following counties from 1922 to 1929 as an indication that “it still breeds sparingly in the state”: Cook (1922), Hennepin (1927), Kittson (1928, 1929), McLeod (1929), Otter Tail (1928), and Pennington (1928).

Once the Migratory Bird Treaty was passed in 1918 and hunting regulations were enacted, the Ring-necked Duck made a steady comeback. By 1964, when Forrest Lee and other waterfowl research staff with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wrote an account of the status of waterfowl populations in the state, the Ring-necked Duck was considered the third most common nesting species in the state; the most abundant species were the Mallard followed by the Blue-winged Teal (Lee et al. 1964).

Both Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987) described the bird as widely distributed across the forested and forest-prairie transition regions of the state south to Douglas and Stearns Counties in the west, and Anoka and northern Washington Counties in the east. Occasionally it also nested in counties farther south, particularly along the lower Minnesota River valley. Janssen (1987) significantly expanded the primary breeding distribution of the species by including all counties north of the Minnesota River and most counties immediately south of the river. He also identified 27 counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970; all but 1 (Cottonwood County) were located north of the Minnesota River. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) later reported confirmed nesting in 31 counties since 1970, all within the primary range identified by Janssen (1987).

To date, the Minnesota Biological Survey has reported 290 Ring-necked Duck breeding season locations; more observations were reported for only three other duck species (Mallard, Wood Duck, and Blue-winged Teal). The vast majority of observations were in the northern forested counties, stretching from Cook County in the northeast, west to Itasca, Beltrami, Clearwater, and Becker Counties. Scattered records were found in central and southern Minnesota, including several records in southwestern and south-central Minnesota. The birds were largely absent from the Twin Cities metropolitan region and southeastern Minnesota (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).

During the MNBBA, participants reported 820 Ring-necked Duck records from 12.5% (601/4,797) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 11.9% (277/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding was confirmed in 126 (2.6%) of the surveyed blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 56 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed breeding in 29 counties; only 1 county where breeding was confirmed, Lac qui Parle, was south of the Minnesota River valley. The landcover suitability model for the species emphasizes the species’ strong affiliation with the Laurentian Mixed Forest Province (Figure 4). Suitable habitat can also be found in the Hardwood Hills Subsection, the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province, and in scattered areas throughout central and southern Minnesota.

Ring-necked Ducks were the fifth most common nesting duck reported during the atlas, preceded by the Mallard, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal, and Hooded Merganser. Their distribution was similar to that described by early survey efforts; the greatest number of records was in the forested and forest-prairie transition regions of the state. The species has made an impressive comeback from its near disappearance from the state nearly 100 years ago.

Beyond Minnesota, the Ring-necked Duck began to expand its breeding range east of the Great Lakes region in the 1920s and more recently across portions of the western United States and Canada (Roy et al. 2012). Its breeding history in Ontario exemplifies the changes in eastern Canada. Although historical records are unclear, the Ring-necked Duck may have always been a breeding resident in the far northwestern region of the province, but the first documented nesting in south-central Ontario was not reported until the 1940s. By the time the province’s second atlas was conducted in 2001–2005, the species was well distributed throughout the forested regions. Factors responsible for the expansion are not entirely understood but have been attributed to (1) natural pioneering eastward of western populations, and (2) an increase in beaver populations, which create suitable wetlands for the species in extensively forested landscapes (Cadman et al. 2007).

*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.

See caption below Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Ring-necked Duck in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Pie chart showing summary statistics of records by breeding status category Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Ring-necked Duck in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed126 (2.6%)64 (2.7%)
Probable154 (3.2%)79 (3.4%)
Possible310 (6.5%)127 (5.4%)
Observed11 (0.2%)7 (0.3%)
Total601 (12.5%)277 (11.9%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Ring-necked Duck observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

See caption below Figure 4.

Landcover suitability of the Ring-necked Duck in Minnesota based on habitat, landscape context, and climate data gathered during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) using the MaxEnt modeling approach. 

Breeding Habitat

Generally dependent on permanent wetlands in forested habitats, the Ring-necked Duck favors wetlands that are less than 1.5 m in depth, that maintain stable water levels throughout the breeding season, and that have abundant stands of emergent, submerged, and floating vegetation along the shoreline and within open-water areas. Although prairie wetlands and impoundments are used, the birds prefer beaver ponds, bogs, fens, and marshes that occur in forest openings (Figure 5; Baldassarre 2014; Roy et al. 2012).

The wetlands selected by Ring-necked Ducks are generally fishless and a bit more acidic in water quality (pH 5.0–8.8) and of lower overall productivity than most wetland basins (Roy et al. 2012). They are seldom used by other waterfowl species. Baldassarre (2014) believes such selectivity has enabled the species to expand its range because there is little competition for such sites from other waterfowl species.

A study in western Mahnomen County, in the forest-prairie transition zone of northwestern Minnesota, demonstrated that the nesting marshes used by Ring-necked Ducks in this region of the state were shallow wetlands with little open water and dominated by bulrushes and cattails. They ranged from 3 to 40 acres in size and were located up to 0.4 km from more permanent wetlands, which were used by the adults for feeding and loafing and for young broods (Goodwin 1957).

See caption below Figure 5.

Typical breeding habitat of the Ring-necked Duck in Minnesota (© Deborah Petersen).

Population Abundance

The Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat Survey is the standard for monitoring waterfowl populations in the United States and Canada. It focuses on two large areas: the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada (known as the Traditional Survey Area), and the eastern Canadian provinces and the state of Maine (known as the Eastern Survey Area). Minnesota and other Great Lakes states that are part of the Ring-necked Duck’s breeding range are not included in either area; neither are northwestern states and portions of western Canada where Ring-necks also occur. Nevertheless, when considered together, both the Traditional and Eastern Survey Areas include a significant portion of the species’ total range.

In the Traditional Survey Area, the Ring-necked Duck has increased from an average of approximately 460,000 birds per year in the 1960s and 1970s to an average of approximately 1.1 million birds per year between 1997 and 2010. Most of the increase occurred in central and western Canada (Baldassarre 2014). In 2015, total numbers continued to increase to just over 1.5 million birds (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2016).

Populations in the Eastern Survey Area have also grown but at a considerably slower rate, increasing from an average of approximately 460,000 birds per year in the 1990s to over 500,000 birds per year from 2000 to 2011 (Baldassarre 2014). In 2015, 505,200 birds were counted (Zimpfer et al. 2015), resulting in a total continental population estimate of 2.06 million birds in 2015.

Although it is only a proximate assessment of population trends, the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) also demonstrated a slow but steady population increase since 1966 across North America (Sauer et al. 2017).

The Minnesota Waterfowl Survey does not survey the entire state. In particular it excludes the northeastern counties, where Ring-necked Ducks are relatively common, but includes a major portion of the species’ range farther to the west in north-central Minnesota. Population numbers have fluctuated widely in this area since 1987 but demonstrate a slight increase (Figure 6; Cordts 2015). Although there are some limitations to the federal BBS data in Minnesota for Ring-necked Ducks, these data also corroborate an upward trend (Sauer et al. 2017).

Because the Ring-necked Duck is an important waterfowl species in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) conducted a population survey of the species from 2004 to 2013 (Zicus et al. 2008; Lawrence and Giudice 2013). An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Ring-necked Ducks were present in key breeding areas in northwest, north-central, and northeast Minnesota (Lawrence and Giudice 2013). The Northern Minnesota Drift and Lake Plains Section of north-central Minnesota supported the highest number of breeding Ring-necked Ducks in Minnesota (Figure 7). Interestingly, the MNBBA data suggests that northeastern Minnesota may support a larger breeding population than surveys by the MNDNR suggested (Lawrence and Giudice 2013).

The Ring-necked Duck also has been the focus of several in-depth studies by the MNDNR Wetland Wildlife Populations and Research Group. Their studies included an investigation of the species’ nesting ecology in an area of northwestern Minnesota where recent surveys suggested the population was declining, despite the increases observed elsewhere. Over a five-year period, from 2008 to 2012, researchers located and followed the outcomes of 115 nests (Roy 2012). During the study, overall nest success ranged from 0.12 to 0.46, which was comparable to earlier studies conducted in the 1960s. Some other factor or factors than nest success appear to be responsible for the species’ decline in this region.

Although most surveys across the species’ range point to a steady population increase, Roy et al. (2012) cautioned that the estimates are imprecise due to the large variability in these data. Certainly in the Traditional Survey Area monitored by the continental Waterfowl Breeding and Habitat Survey, the increase has been significant since the survey began.

See caption below. Figure 6.

Ring-necked Duck numbers reported during the Minnesota Waterfowl Survey, 1987–2015 (data not corrected for visibility; taken from data presented in Cordts 2015).

See caption below. Figure 7.

Sample plot locations and number of indicated breeding pairs (IBP) observed/plot on the Minnesota Ring-necked Duck breeding pair survey, June 2006-2013. Value is average number of IBP per year for plots surveyed >1 year. White circles indicate plots where no indicated pairs were seen (Lawrence and Giudice 2013).


The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (2004) considers the Ring-necked Duck to be a species of Moderate Continental Priority. Partners in Flight (2017) assigned it a moderate Continental Concern Score of 9/20. Being an inhabitant of forested wetlands with steady to increasing population numbers, the Ring-necked Duck has been the focus of considerably less conservation attention than those species dependent on grasslands and wetlands in Minnesota’s agricultural region. Because the species uses some wetlands in western and southern Minnesota, conservation efforts such as the Minnesota Duck Recovery Plan (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2006) and the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan (Minnesota Prairie Plan Working Group 2011) will provide some benefits to this species. As a forest-dependent species, however, management guidelines focused on protecting and restoring riparian habitats in Minnesota’s northern forests are especially critical (Minnesota Forest Resources Council 2013).

A harvested species that is generally prized by waterfowl hunters, Ring-necked Ducks comprised approximately 3.7% of the total duck harvest in the United States in 2015 (a total of 413,730 birds harvested). In Minnesota, the 2015 harvest (64,546 birds) comprised 15.6% of the U.S. harvest of Ring-necked Ducks and approximately 11% of the total number of ducks harvested in Minnesota (Raftovich et al. 2016). A little over 44% of the U.S. harvest occurred within the Mississippi Flyway.

Although the use of lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in the United States in 1991 and in Canada in 1997, the ingestion of lead shot remains a concern. A shallow diver, the Ring-necked Duck is particularly prone to consuming spent shot that remains in the substrates of many wetlands (Roy et al. 2012).

The future of the Ring-necked Duck is invariably tied to the future of North America’s boreal forest region, where nearly 70% of the species’ range resides. Climate change and industrialization are considered two primary threats (Boreal Songbird Initiative 2016). A recent analysis of the potential impacts of climate change to many North American birds predicted that 92% of the Ring-necked Duck’s summer breeding range would shift northward into the Arctic by 2080 (Langham et al. 2015; National Audubon Society 2016). As a result of this analysis, the species was classified as “climate endangered.” To deal with this threat and that from the growth in oil and gas development in Canada in recent years, focused conservation efforts are needed.

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