In the world of waterfowling, different species are iconic of different regions. The mere mention of North Carolina’s Outer Banks conjures images of divers – cans, redheads and bluebills – rocketing past an open-water stilt blind. East Texas rice fields are synonymous with blizzards of snow geese and specklebellies.

The Chesapeake and Maryland’s Eastern Shore are renowned for Canada geese. Central Valley in California hosts many species, but most waterfowlers identify it with the pintail. And greenheads – mallard drakes – are nearly ubiquitous but most often associated with the flooded timber of Arkansas. Wood ducks are also common east of the Mississippi, but are symbolic of the flooded bottomlands, bogues and bayous of the deep south.

Maine hosts its share of web-footed and winged gamebirds, but none more exemplifies the state than the understated black duck, or to be more precise, American black duck. Its scientific name is Anas rubripes. Anas is quite simply Latin for “duck,” and an acknowledgment that it belongs to a particular tribe known as dabblers. The species name, rubripes, refers to about the only bright, flashy part of this species, its red feet.

Among New England waterfowling lore you’ll often find references to late-season influxes of big-bodied black ducks with bright, red-orange legs the old time gunners referred to as Canadian red-legs. Biologists have refuted this as myth for decades. But I observed it almost annually in my early waterfowling days on the Essex and Plum Island salt mashes, and as one of my wildlife professors sagely advised, when what you see in nature differs from the textbooks, nature is always right.

But with legs concealed below the water and when observed from a distance it looks quite drab, a duck in a plain brown wrapper. So drab that if it were to remain motionless with its head underwater searching, it could easily be mistaken for a clump of mud. To truly appreciate it, you have to hold one.

The first thing you might notice is its bill, a color that’s elusively difficult to describe. It lies somewhere between yellow and green, depending on the lighting, and is almost reminiscent of those fancy mustards. Yet it has a matte sheen rather than the gloss or semi-gloss of more gaudy species. Subtle yet handsome.

Then there’s the head, which looks plainly buff from afar. Closer inspection reveals it to be a buff matrix mottled with dark brown vermiculations, thicker and more densely packed on top and thin on the sides, giving it the high and tight look of a military haircut. This lighter head and neck pattern contrasts sharply with the chestnut-brown contour or body feathers; every one is subtly yet handsomely trimmed with a thin edge of beige.

Every waterfowler that’s ever been born, upon holding their first of any species, does the same thing. They spread at least one wing to admire it. And there’s much to admire about the humble black duck’s wing, not the least of which is its white underside.

Open the wing of any duck and on the rearward inner half you’ll find a row of iridescent feathers ornithologists refer to simply as the secondaries, but is also known as the speculum. Like its bill, the color of the black duck’s speculum is difficult to describe, lying somewhere on the visual spectrum between blue and purple, depending on which way sunlight strikes it. That only makes it more remarkable when you consider the color blue doesn’t exist in nature. It is merely a human perception of wavelengths of light and how they reflect off the physical structure of the feathers.

If all that isn’t enough to sway you into the black duck’s camp, consider its personality. Unlike busy city folk and most other puddle ducks, who prefer the company of others, the black duck is a loner, self-reliant and independent. Rather than the flooded prairie potholes and park ponds occupied by countless others, a mated pair of black ducks seeks the seclusion of flooded hardwood swamps and remote beaver ponds to raise a brood, and will aggressively defend territory.

Even in fall, when other species are massed up you’ll rarely see more than a handful of blacks together, at least not until all the inland ponds are frozen and the only place left to find food is along the coast. Then, when all the other dabbler species – teal, wigeon, pintails and mallards – have flown south, the black ducks will congregate, albeit begrudgingly, along the rocky coast. There they’ll endure conditions that can be tolerated by no other wildfowl except eiders and oldsquaw, eking out their existence until spring thaws allow them to seek the solitude of their inland sanctuaries.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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