Ruddy Ducks, The Original Butterball


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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.

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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.

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  1. Todd: Good to know! I just shot some divers from that same area. Guess I will need to skin them and remove the fat — a clamtastic suprise awaits me otherwise…

    Mike: I LOVE the skin on my ducks! But, wild duck skin is trickier to crisp up than domestics. You need to let fat under the skin render out by poking little holes in the skin with a needle, then, once most of the fat has rendered, get the heat up really high to crisp. A gril works well if you can guard against flare-ups.

  2. Hello from Louisiana,
    I’ve roasted a few species of ducks here and never
    Found the skin to be enjoyable enough to eat except maybe on a leg that has been cooked ‘confit’. What’s your opinion?

  3. No need to “test” around the Bay. They are still fishy. I’ve shot and prepared Ruddies the last few weeks taken from marshes, every way you can, and low-tide is on the menu in every attempt. The only way I have gotten passable results was to marinate the breasts in a balsamic, oil, rosemary and garlic marinade overnight. Then I seared each side for 2-3 minutes, cut it into slices, and laid it atop a nice garden salad.

  4. Tyler: I’ve only seen rice breast in my ducks once in six years of hunting. Basically I assume it’s not there, and, well, if it shows up, I’ll roast another one. It’s just so rare I don’t worry about it. That said, I also wind up freezing lots of my ducks before I eat them.

    Cork: Ruddies living on salt water are more likely to include “inverts” in their diet, such as clams and shrimpy things. I’d give them a go in the Bay, but I would not shoot too many before I ate one. Better to shoot a “test duck” first….

  5. This totally blows my away, Hank! I cut my duck hunting teeth shooting ruddy upon ruddy in the flats of San Francisco Bay as after school runs during high school in the late 70s and early 80s, in what was empty marshland and the original site of Marine World, but is now Oracle HQ in Redwood Shores…and those ducks were fishy, fishy, fishy! Will have to see if my buddy with a scullboat would like take run into the bay….

  6. Howdy Hank,

    Just a quick thanks for your post on ruddies and for your articulate, attractive and interesting site! I am more of a bird watcher than a bird hunter, but I like your idea of publishing a book that would teach folks like me to hunt and forage for food. Your mention of Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America is interesting to me as well because I enjoy learning new tidbits about birds and was unaware of this book! Ruddies were one of the first ducks I learned to identify when I worked at Mono Lake many years back.
    Thanks again!

  7. Quick query on your roasting method. I’m assuming that you’re going for medium/medium rare with the “quick oven.” Also, since the bird is plucked and largely intact, you do not see the meat until disassembling the cooked bird. What, then, do you do about parasites? For instance, if I shoot a duck with rice breast, I’ll know it because I almost always breast my birds. My course of action will be as follosw, either: a) freeze the breasts for a lengthy time to kill the little buggers, or b) cook to well done (which I never do, thus normally opting for option “a”). I’d wager you’re not overly concerned about parasites since your cooking description is your “go-to method” (unless you DID freeze the birds before cooking and just failed to mention it) but figured I’d throw it out there to see what you thought.

  8. Hank,
    I have been calling Ruddies little Butterballs for years and have been taking them off of my friends who are sure they don’t taste good. You may have ruined this for me! Another great post. Thanks!

  9. Hank-

    I definitely lump Ruddies into the “diver” category. Sorry for breakin’ yer bits there. again, great article.

  10. A wonderfully informative post. Our neighbor growing, while I was growing up in Sacramento, would often go hunting and sometimes share. I remember it was one very exciting year when he brought home goose. Here in Florida I only see annoying Muscovy Duck, I wonder if they are good eating? Of course, my neighbors may have a problem with my harvesting them.

  11. I just learned more about ducks than ever. I’ve cooked duck a couple times – quite a few years ago. But it came from the supermarket – not from the field or a pond. Thanks for educating those of us who are a little hesitant and a little inexperienced when it comes to cooking duck.

  12. I thoroughly enjoyed this post both laughing out loud in places and having to wipe my chin from drooling in others. The photos are great. I appreciate seeing the result cooked. Now next time let us see the sliced meat! Or, no, maybe that would be too much to bear…

    You put a lot of research into this post too, and there is that sense of time and toil as well, which makes any meal taste that much sweeter.

    5 out of 5 stars for this one.


  13. I love this post.

    I will enjoy eating any future Yolo ruddies with renewed vigor … My biggest disappointment with ruddy ducks is not on the table — but in the field. The males are so drab when you hunt them in the fall and winter without the pretty ruddy plumage and the bright blue bill pictured at the top of your post … That’s gotta be another unique aspect to the duck? … A game warden friend once told me that if you ever see a ruddy duck mount with the male in full plumage, the bird was probably taken (illegally) out of season …

  14. I have never seen a shoveller whilst hunting, but if I did, I’d shoot at it. This in spite of the fact that I once observed dozens of shovellers dabbling in a vernal pool of cow piss in the middle of a Nebraska stockyard. The ruddy duck, I have never shot at either, but it’s one of my favorite ducks, especially when you catch a late spring drake with his breeding plumage coming in.

  15. Jesse and Josh: Yes, yes, yes, I know full well that shovellers (spoonies) are not divers, which is why I said “nearly a full strap” of divers, meaning they were all divers except for the spoonies, which, incidentally, are as diver-y as a puddle duck gets. And yeah, I know technically ruddies are stiff-tails, but they really don’t act much different from divers, though.

    Shotgunner: I will definitely do another post on canvasbacks, but I did write one a while back:

  16. Cool post. I’ll defend the spoonies and ruddy ducks and point out that neither are “divers” in the commonly held definition. Spoonies are dabblers, or puddle ducks (genus Anas), and ruddies are stiff-tailed ducks (as you pointed out, genus Oxyura), and don’t have the same habits of the divers we normally consider – scaups, mergansers, goldeneyes, etc.

    I had no idea about their culinary history, and that is simply amazing.

  17. Fantastic post. For some reason I’ve always been intimidated by buying duck more than actually cooking it. I think I would like the Ruddy very much. It looks freakin’ delicious…

  18. I love spoonies. It’s our most commonly shot duck here in SoCal. I just brine them until no more blood in the solution. Cook to medium rare and serve like filet mignon. I have to admit I breast then and miss out on the other bits.

    Can’t wait to see a ruddy. Stiff tailed ducks are the oddest things anywhere! Congrats on a good shoot. We need to hear about those fat Canvasbacks!

  19. What’s a spoonie? A shoveler? (The naturalist/scientists in me hopes you’ll be a little more explicit for those of us who don’t know all the lingo of the hunt [which I thought I did…]) And if so, then … that’s not a diver. Shovelers are closely related to blue-winged teal.

    But this about ruddies? I had no idea. I just put in to my father to ask whether he or my uncle have ever eaten them – I don’t recall us shooting any, ever, but I don’t know if that was by chance or by design.

    If I get a shot, I’ll take it.

    And thanks for the research on market hunting, too. Fascinating.