Gray Backs in Piney Woods Lakes and Reservoirs

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Fall brings ducks to the Piney Woods. The Lesser Scaup is one duck that gathers in huge, conspicuous floating flocks, called rafts, in our larger lakes and reservoirs.

Incoming flocks of Lesser Scaup often announce their arrival when they set their wings at high altitude and sweep over the water's edge, obscured by trees, to land well away from shore. The best way I can explain the sound is to liken it to a low flying jet passing overhead. Unless you happen to see the ducks, the sudden noise can really raise the hair on the back of your neck!

The Lesser Scaup arrived here at Cotile Lake in central Louisiana around the 7th of November this year. They circled the southeast arm of the lake where we live several times before landing in mid-lake. The drakes were conspicuous floating high on the water with purplish-black heads, breasts and tails, light breasts, and grayish backs. In fact, the Cajun name for scaup is Dos Gris, literally gray back. Actually, the salt and pepper color of the back is the reason for the gray appearance.

Female scaup are a dull brown color overall with a white patch at the base of their bluish bills. The "blue" bill color is shared by males and accounts for their most popular common name of "blue bills".

There are two scaup species - Lesser and Greater scaup. Our common species is the Lesser Scaup. Greater Scaup have greenish-hued heads in males and rounded heads and an extension of the white wing stripe across the wing to near the tip in both sexes. There is a tuft of feathers on the backs of the purplish-hued heads of male Lesser Scaup. Females have a tuft as well.

Scaup aren't very vocal birds but do make a low grunting sound similar to a quack that sounds more like garf or garp. They also make a somewhat muted whistle of sorts.

Scaup are diving ducks like Redheads, Canvasbacks, and scoters. They can dive 50-60 feet to forage for food. Unlike their cousins the puddle ducks such as Mallards, Gadwalls, and teal, they have very strong legs for swimming underwater. However, it is not easy for them jump into the air like puddle ducks because as their breast muscles are weaker. So, scaup and other divers normally "run" across the surface to get airborne.

Frightened scaup can get into the air in a rather unique way. I once surprised a flock of scaup that dove and then burst out of the water in full flight. The ducks surely generated sufficient forward motion to provide the momentum for that launch.

Scaup feed mostly on animal matter including small crustaceans, clams, fish, and insects. This is why they can have an objectionable "fishy" taste. This compares to a more mellow flavor of ducks that eat vegetable matter.

Cooks at many hunting camps will use the scaup the hunters shoot for duck gumbo and send the "good" ducks home. It is hard to beat scaup gumbo but roasted scaup don't measure up to roasted puddle ducks.

While scaup favor deep, permanent water bodies, flocks sometimes show up in shallow, 6-14 inch deep crawfish ponds. I have watched Lesser Scaup "dive" without completing submerging. They swam along plowing into the soft bottom the way that large fish like carp feed in shallow water!

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, LA 71409