Canvasbacks are diver ducks well equipped with their own form of flippers—large webbed feet that make them smooth and graceful swimmers.
- 20 in (50 cm)
- 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg)
- Group name
- Protection status
- Did you know?
- Canvasbacks might have been named for the rough texture of their pale backs—or for the canvas bags in which Chesapeake Bay duck carcasses were once shipped en masse to restaurants.
Canvasbacks are diver ducks well equipped with their own form of flippers—large webbed feet that make them smooth and graceful swimmers. They spend much of their time in the water and use their long bills to feed by digging through bottom sediments in search of aquatic plant stems and roots, or submerged insects, crustaceans, and clams.
On land, canvasback movements are clumsy and the ducks seldom stray too far from the water’s edge. But when “cans” take to the air they can cover a lot of ground.
Each year when winter weather begins to chill northern lakes, ponds, and prairie wetlands, the canvasbacks’ food becomes scarce and the ducks take flight in enormous flocks. Thousands of birds migrate together each year to traditional wintering sites like the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, Gulf Coast, and Mexico. The majority of North American canvasbacks breed in the Prairie Pothole wetlands and migrate via the Mississippi Flyway to the Mid-Atlantic and Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, or along the Pacific Flyway to the California coast.
The Chesapeake Bay’s Susquehanna Flats area was once the winter home of perhaps half of the North American canvasback population. But the shoals’ lush beds of wild celery have declined with compromised water quality and increased sedimentation. Chesapeake canvasback numbers followed suit and have declined some 80 percent over the last 50 years.
Canvasbacks are traditionally popular with hunters. By the late 1980s and early 1990s their numbers had been dramatically decreased by hunting pressure, lead poisoning from ingestion of lead shot, and the gradual loss of both suitable breeding and wintering habitats. However, populations experienced a great rebound during the 1990s and the species status is considered of least concern.