Ruddy Ducks, The Original Butterball


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

ruddy duck drake
Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

“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!

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.

ruddy duck hen
Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

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, note that 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:

  • canvasback, $4 ( $101.79 )
  • redhead,  $3 ( $76.34 )
  • mallard,  $2.50 ( $63.62 )
  • ruddy duck, $2 ( $50.89 )
  • teal, $1.25 ( $31.81 )

Can you imagine plunking down a Benjamin for one duck? Even crazier, can you imagine paying more than $50 for a ruddy, which barely feeds one person? I was gobsmacked.

You’ll note that the vaunted pintail, universally considered the finest-tasting duck nowadays, doesn’t even make the cut. And when pintails do show up in market lists, they are always cheaper than ruddy ducks. What was going on here? Back to the literature, and what emerged was a picture of an age when diver ducks, not puddle ducks, were king at the table.

Adolphe Meyers, in his “Post Graduate Cookery Book” (1903), wrote that “many connoisseurs and epicureans prefer the ruddy duck to the redhead, claiming that it equals the canvasback in flavor. This bird has become scarce in late years, and its price went up in consequence.”

In the 1900 book “I go A-Marketing,” Henrietta Sowle writes: Another duck of delectable flavor is the ruddy duck or broadbill as it is known in some localities…”

Ruddy duck appears in all sorts of cookbooks from the mid-1800s to 1918, when market hunting was officially banned in the North America. This recipe is from my 1903 edition of Lily Haxworth Wallace’s “The Modern Cookbook and Household Recipes”:

roast ruddy duck recipe
Photo by Hank Shaw

So how did the ruddy duck fall from grace? How did this duck, considered third only behind the mighty canvasback and the regal redhead, get tossed into the trash duck heap with fish-eaters like mergansers or goldeneyes?

No one seems to know. But I can guess. There is another “Duck Bible” out there, J.C. Phillips’ A Natural History of the Ducks, written in 1926 — nearly a decade after market hunting ended. Phillips’ words echo everything I’ve heard said about the ruddy, both in modern literature and from pretty much every other hunter I’ve ever spoken with:

“Its intimate habits, its stupidity, its curious nesting customs and ludicrous courtship performance place it in a niche by itself… Everything about this bird is interesting to the naturalist, but almost nothing about it is interesting to the sportsman.”

Except flavor, it seems.

I decided to roast our ruddies as simply as I could, using my standard roast duck recipe, which is nothing more than salt, a little fat or oil, and a very hot oven. If a duck is going to taste “off,” we’ll know with this method, which hides nothing. So, after 15 minutes in a “quick” oven — 500 degrees, to be exact — this is what the little ruddy looked like:

A roast ruddy duck
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

Crazy, eh? It’s like an orb of duck. I can’t pin it down for certain, but it appears that the origin of the term “butterball” is neither a turkey nor a bufflehead, but a ruddy duck. Ruddy ducks are an odd species all by themselves, oxyura rubida, not that closely related to mallards or even canvasbacks. It shows in the bone structure, which is stocky to the extreme.

roast ruddy duck
Photo by Holly A. Heyser

So how did Mr. Ruddy taste? Wonderful, I am happy to report. Seven of our eight ducks were pretty fat, so I pricked the skin with a needle to help it render out. That melted duck fat mixed with the fleur de sel I sprinkled over the birds to make a perfect sauce — not fishy tasting in the slightest.

The meat is striking, a lurid scarlet, even when cooked to medium. It is a bluer shade of red than other divers, and is far darker than mallards, gadwall or pintails. The wings are inedible cooked this way, but the legs were chewy but tasty. How to describe the taste? Strong — this time in a good way — dense, extremely juicy and with an aroma that screams wild bird.

Bottom line? Ruddies are not for civilians accustomed to wan domestic ducks. It’s an eater’s duck, a duck with character and flair. It had every reason to stand with the canvasback and redhead as the royalty of the waterfowl world, and has every right to retake that position among modern hunters — if they’re willing to give this little butterball a chance.

You May Also Like

British Game Pie

How to make hand-raised pies with game. This one is a huntsman’s pie, an English classic hand pie made with a hot water crust.

Seared Canada Goose Breast

This is the best Canada goose breast recipe if you want to eat it like a steak or a London broil. Reverse seared goose breast sliced thin and served simply.

Duck Terrine

Making a duck terrine is not as hard as you might think, although you do need some equipment. Why bother…

Duck Noodle Soup

A Cantonese duck noodle soup recipe that works with wild or farmed duck. Roast duck with noodles, a duck broth, mustard greens and ginger. Simple and refined.

About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. I used some ruddy ducks to make your duck pho for a friend and his kids after a hunt. It turned out wonderful eaten off the tailgate after a long, cold morning. These ducks truly are delicious, definitely better that coots (which are totally fine to eat too). Thanks for the write up and the recipes!

  2. Have been duck hunting since the late 40s. I stopped shooting Ruddys after I learned that they are the hardest off all ducks to pick. Any attempt to pull more than a few feathers at a time gives you a chunk of skin, ruining what would have been good looking as well as great eating. It just takes too long to pick even a small duck when you pull 2 or 3 feathers a time. I note how perfect the breasts looked as pictured in the article. Possibly because these dumb little guys refused to fly, choosing instead to dive and then resurface with fatal results.

  3. great advice on ruddy cooking….they drained our local lake and canvasbacks are passing us by in northern coastal area, do you have any suggestions of where to find them either Oregon or Calif?” Just love those ducks whether watching dive or hunting and of course eating!!!!

  4. Having just shot our limit of ruddy ducks while out walleye fishing on a local south dakota lake I was more than pleased to find your article. I was going to eat them anyway. Now my son and I are looking forward to it.

  5. I really enjoyed the article.
    I limited on Ruddys yesterday at a refuge. My first limit ever. feel better now after reading your story.