Holly A. Heyser
"Here they come again!" Two ducks were already down in the water, and the 25-or-so remaining members of the flock had circled back and were zooming toward our blind again. I was in no position to shoot, but Holly was. BOOM! One shot, and one more ruddy duck fell from the flock.
Our eighth of the hunt. We ended the day at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area with nearly a full strap of diver ducks: Two spoonies, two canvasbacks, and the eight ruddy ducks. Duck hunters reading this are probably harrumphing right now: Good on ya for the cans, but spoonies? Ruddies? What a bunch of garbage ducks!
How did the ruddy duck, considered third only behind the mighty canvasback and the regal redhead, get tossed into the trash duck heap?
I have to admit that even I wasn't overly thrilled about shooting so many ruddy ducks. Spoonies to me are a known quantity. They have a deservedly bad reputation as table fare in every region of California except for ours. In rice country, spoonies eat more rice and fewer shrimpy things or algae, making them taste far better here than anywhere else. Ruddies, on the other hand, are true diver ducks and are known eaters of clams, fish, and other animal bits—all of which make them taste like low tide on a hot day.
Or so I'd thought. I don't shoot the little ruddy ducks very often because I've lumped them in mentally with our other little diver duck, the bufflehead. And I distinctly remember my last roasted bufflehead: Fishy, bloody, and dark—assertive, in a three-day-old mackerel sort of way. Ew.
Yet here we were with a bunch of ruddies. They're too small to use for sausage—a large drake weighs only 1.4 pounds—so they're best roasted whole, like teal. But if they tasted anything like that bufflehead, I was not looking forward to this. Then I remembered that my friend Matt had basically shot nothing but ruddies when he taught himself to hunt ducks at Yolo several years ago. He seemed to think they were fine.
So I consulted the Duck Bible, Frank Bellrose's Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America. Every serious aficionado of waterfowl needs this book, as it covers the biology of every duck, goose, swan, or whatnot that inhabits our marshes. What makes it especially important for my purposes is that it includes an entry on the food habits of each species. Remember, you are what you eat. Also remember that in general, humans consider the meat of birds who eat mostly plants to be tastier than that of birds who eat mostly animals. Fish-eaters are at the bottom of the list. What, then, do ruddies eat?
Plants, I was shocked to learn. "Ruddy ducks are primarily vegetarians," Bellrose writes. Only about a quarter of their food comes from animals, mostly midge larvae and not clams or snails (it's the bufflehead who's inordinately fond of snails). Sago pondweed, bulrush seeds, and wigeon grass are their primary diet. When we cleaned our ruddies, their crops were full of bulrush seeds, not clams.
That made me feel a lot better, especially after going through the trouble to pluck these birds: Diver ducks are far harder to get out of the feathers than are puddle ducks like mallards; the feathers are denser and are more tightly attached to the skin. As I was working my fingers raw plucking these little ducks, I'd also recalled that ruddies showed up on market lists from a century ago. Were ruddies a market duck?
A little more research found that the answer was not "yes," but "hell, yes!"
Check this out: These are retail market prices for ducks taken from the Currituck Sound in North Carolina in 1884:
• Pair of Canvasbacks: $1.00-2.75 ($64.83)
• Pair of Redheads: $0.50-1.60 ($37.72)
• Pair of Ruddy ducks: $0.25-0.90 ($21.22)
• Canada Goose: $0.50 ($11.79)
The price in parentheses is the modern price, adjusted for inflation. Astounding, isn't it? Also, no other species of waterfowl are listed. Then I found a 1901 restaurant menu cited in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York from a place called Rector's that listed restaurant prices for a single cooked wild duck: