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Mike Jacobs: By any name, scaup can be tricky to identify

The scaup that occur in North America can be told from most other ducks at a glance. They are two-toned ducks, dark front and rear, with mottled backs and white sides.

Lesser scaup.jpg
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The scaup, it could be said, are difficult ducks to deal with. Two species occur in North America, but you can’t tell by looking.

Well, you can, but you have to know what you’re looking for, and you have to look really hard.

The scaup that occur in North America can be told from most other ducks at a glance. They are two-toned ducks, dark front and rear, with mottled backs and white sides. The two species are “often difficult to distinguish,” and this truth is driven home by their common names, lesser and greater scaup. Greater scaup average “slightly larger,” the monograph on the species in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s “Birds of North America” series points out. “Head and bill shapes, along with the width of the nail at the tip of the bill are important differences.”

Marks such as these are tough to make out except under ideal conditions and with excellent equipment -- good light, good optics and a clear field of view.

In his “ID Guide” David Crossley offers some additional clues. In his characteristic crisp and insightful prose, he says of lesser scaup, “Different head shape critical: peaked crown (long crown feathers), giving a more balanced square-headed feel than greater scaup.” He concedes, though, that this is “very difficult to judge on diving birds.” The bill is shorter, he suggests, and “black only … at the end.”


Given these subtleties, it’s not surprising that birders and duck hunters alike have lumped these two species under a single common name, “bluebill.”

There is hope, however.

The scaup don’t overlap in breeding range and they don’t ordinarily share habitat.

The greater scaup is a bird of the far north. The core of its breeding range is in Alaska and northern Quebec and Labrador, although there are isolated records farther south, including the Hudson Bay coast in Manitoba. These birds migrate to salt water. Greater scaup is a characteristic – and often abundant – species in national wildlife refuges as far south as the Carolinas.

The lesser scaup prefers fresh water, and it is a common breeding bird in the Prairie Pothole Region, including North Dakota. Lesser scaup often winter inland, taking to salt water only in extreme cold, when salt water remains open but fresh water freezes.

This doesn’t rule out the appearance of greater scaup in our area, however, because the birds migrate diagonally across the continent, and greater scaup do drop into North Dakota wetlands in both spring and fall. A check of records on “ebird.com,” maintained by Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, suggests that the birds are more likely in spring than in fall, but they occur in both seasons.

The numbers may be skewed for another critical difference in the habits of these two species. Lesser scaup are late migrants, arriving in our area after other ducks have begun their nesting and greater scaup have moved on. Thus, it’s worth looking closely at mid-spring migrants. That’s when greater scaup would be more likely than lesser.

Greater scaup do occur in fall, records show, but by October, lesser scaup are far more common. The species' tendency to hang on even in foul fall weather has made it a favorite of diehard hunters. My friend Stella Fritzell, politician, businesswoman and artist – was especially keen on hunting “bluebills.” She’s the one who piqued my interest in this confusing pair of birds.


Her son, Erik, assured me that Sen. Fritzell likely didn’t distinguish between lesser and greater scaup, however. Either is fair game and neither is threatened.

The greater scaup’s range extends to northern Eurasia. There’s a third species, New Zealand scaup. My New Zealand field guide, never used, alas, shows a bird similar in size and shape but much darker than our scaup.

The ring-necked duck, closely related to scaup, occurs in our area. These can be told by sight, partly because the shape of the head is different – more peaked – but mostly because the bill is distinctive. As Crossley suggests, “ring-billed duck” would be a better name.

If the close similarity is not frustration enough, there’s also the matter of pronouncing the name. It’s derived from “scallop,” the experts in word origins suggest, because European scaup are fond of scallops. How the word was shortened to its present form is unclear. As to pronunciation, you can pick from several alternatives. I prefer “skop,” mostly because it’s easier to say and easier to remember. I’ve heard it pronounced “scahp,” with a lengthened vowel,” and “scowp,” as well.

All this is immaterial to the scaup, of course, and to the hunter, just as it should be to the birder. A big flock of scaup, called a raft, is an impressive sight, a wonder of nature, I’d say. No matter the species.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

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