Aythya americana

Status:  Common, locally abundant, regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Common regular breeder northcentral, rare Rainwater Basin, rare casual elsewhere. Uncommon casual summer visitor away from breeding range. Uncommon regular winter visitor west, south, east.


Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM7678, 27 Mar 1932 McCook, Red Willow Co.

Taxonomy: No subspecies are recognized.

Spring:  winter <<<>>> Jun 4, 4, 5

Spring migration begins as water opens, when the low numbers of wintering birds are enhanced as migrants arrive, generally in mid-Jan. The 130 on 15 Jan 2003 at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co and 209 there 29 Jan 2000 were good early counts. Peak numbers occur in late Mar and migration is usually over by early May, although stragglers occur into early Jun.

Late dates above are from locations where breeding was not known to have occurred, and there are later dates away from the expected breeding range: 7 Jun 2014 Lancaster Co, 7-14 2008 Phelps Co, 8-10 Jun 2001 Chase Co, 9 Jun 1990 Knox Co, 9 Jun 2007 Phelps Co, 11 Jun 2015 four Harlan Co, 12 Jun 2015 (14) Hitchcock Co, 12 Jun 2018 Howard Co, 13 Jun 1984 Douglas-Sarpy Cos, and 14 Jun 2015 six Lancaster Co.

Rosche (1982) considered the species to be a “very abundant” spring migrant (more than 1000 per day) in the Panhandle, noting large concentrations on Box Butte Reservoir, Dawes Co, and Smith Lake, Sheridan Co. Rosche (1994) noted high concentrations on Lake McConaughy, Keith Co (see High Counts). An impressive estimate of 40,500 was made in the eastern Rainwater Basin 31 Mar-1 Apr 2001.

  • High counts: 40,500 in the eastern Rainwater Basin (34,000 of these at Harvard WPA, Phelps Co) 31 Mar-1 Apr 2001 (Jorgensen 2012), 15,000-20,000 at Lake McConaughy 21 Mar 1993 (Rosche 1994) and 14,000 there 24 Mar 1989 (Rosche 1994).

Summer: There are few reports of breeding away from the Sandhills range; confirmed reports have occurred only in the Rainwater Basin and in Dawson and Keith Cos.

Breeding records in the Rainwater Basin are as follows. A hen and brood were in York Co 30 Jun-1 Jul 2001 (Jorgensen 2012), a nest with 12 eggs apparently of this species (12 adults were present) was at Harvard WPA, Clay Co 2 Jun 2007, a brood including five young was at North Lake Basin WMA, Seward Co 16 Aug 2015, two hens each with broods were observed at Marsh Duck WMA, York Co 9 and 16 August 2015 (Jorgensen 2016), and a hen and brood in Fillmore Co 17 August 2019 (Jorgensen and Brenner 2019). The only other indications of breeding in the Rainwater Basin are an old record of eggs found in 1916 in Clay Co (Ducey 1988) and “confirmed” nesting in York Co but without details (Mollhoff 2001).

Apparently a first breeding record for Keith Co was the presence of “broods” below Keystone Dam 19 Jul 2003; a single was there 10 Jul 2012.  In Dawson Co, a hen with a brood was photographed at Bittern’s Call WMA 2 Aug 2019.

There are multiple breeding season (Jun through early Sep) reports without confirmed breeding in the Rainwater Basin; since most molt migration is northward from breeding areas to large lakes (Baldassarre 2014) and both males and females occur in approximately equal numbers, these birds are probably one-year-old non-breeders (see Fall).  Unusually large numbers of several hundred congregated in the Rainwater Basin throughout the summer of 2019 when wetlands possessed extensive water (Jorgensen 2019), including a breeding record (above); numbers peaked in late Jul (see Fall).

Reports are fewest away from the breeding range mid-Jun through mid-Sep; there are 51 in all, but amazingly 18 of these occurred statewide in 2019 during a large influx that was most noticeable in the Rainwater Basin (Jorgensen and Brenner 2019; see Fall).

  • Breeding phenology:
    Eggs/Incubation: 2 Jun-14 Jul.
    Nestlings: 17 Jul.
    Dependent Fledglings: 4 Jun-19 Jul.

Fall:  Sep 12, 13, 14 <<<>>> winter

There are earlier reports of small groups beginning in late Jun in the Rainwater Basin (see Summer). Nine were in Adams Co 26 Jun 2018, Funk WPA, Phelps Co, hosted 22-36 late Jun through mid-Jul in the years 1996-2000, as many as 126 were in the eastern Rainwater Basin 28 Jun 2003, and there was an influx into the Rainwater Basin beginning 27 Jun 2015, when 100 were estimated, peaking at 345 on 26 Jul; 242 of the latter were at Harvard WPA, but no evidence for breeding was noted. An even larger influx occurred in 2019 (Jorgensen 2019), when a total of about 725 were reported, also without evidence of breeding; peak count was 475 on 24 Jul and most had departed by mid-Aug (Jorgensen and Brenner 2019).  There are numerous additional reports statewide Jul-early Sep of small groups, most likely one-year-old non-breeders (see Summer).

Timing of peak numbers of true migrants varies, but largest numbers mostly occur in Oct and most leave the state by the end of Nov; some remain into Dec and early Jan. The 360 at Lake Ogallala 31 Dec 2016 and 322 there 30-31 Dec 2011 were large numbers for that late date.

Banding data show that birds from Saskatchewan and the Dakotas were recovered in Nebraska, presumably en route to Gulf of Mexico wintering areas (Baldassarre 2014).

  • High counts: 3292 at North Platte NWR, Scotts Bluff Co on 10 Nov 1994, 2104 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 27 Sep 1995, and 1950 at Lake Ogallala 1 Nov 2000.

WinterRedheads occur regularly in midwinter (mid-Jan) at scattered locations in the North Platte and Platte River Valleys and southward, with irregular reports elsewhere in those river valleys.  Largest counts at regular locations are 130 at Lake McConaughy 15 Jan 2003, 28 at Carter Lake, Omaha 2014-2015, 24 at Scottsbluff SL 23 Jan 2015, and 15 at Harlan Co Reservoir 1999-2000.


NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SL: Sewage Lagoons
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Waterfowl Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)

Literature Cited

Baldassarre, G. 2014. Ducks, geese, and swans of North America. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2012.  Birds of the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska.  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2016.  A summary of 2015 breeding bird surveys of selected Rainwater Basin wetlands.  Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Jorgensen, J.G. 2019.  The Summer Of Redheads.  Blog post, Birds of Nebraska – Online, 8 Aug 2019.

Jorgensen, J.G., and S.J. Brenner. 2019. Notable avian nesting records from the Rainwater Basin, Nebraska — 2019. Nongame Bird Program of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2001. The Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas 1984-1989. Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers No. 7. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2020.  Redhead (Aythya americana). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 8 Dec 2020