My life is about living with nature – here you can live it with me!



The canvasback is a local migrant who breed mainly in western North American. They can be quite numerous in there wintering waters but inland where I am located . . . . they are not as common. As a result you can understand how pleased I was to see these guys on Lake Erie last Wednesday. They are typically very skittish but there were a few who let me get close before swimming away.

Canvasback swimming away.

Whenever I see a Canvasback . . . I am always aware of its unique long angled black bill and redish/brown head! They also have a bright red eye, white body and flat forehead. They have black on the breast and undertail coverts. Using the bill and head shape . . . you can easily distinguish the differences between the Canvasback and Redhead ducks.

female canvasback
Female Canvasback swimming away.

I always love telling the story on how the Canvasback got its name . . . . ! In the 1800’s when hunting was the main source of food, those ducks shot would be shipped to the big cities via the train system. They were transported in canvas bags with writing on them saying “Canvas Back”, meaning they wanted the canvas bags back. So, the train mail staff would always joke around saying “there are those canvasback’s again” and of course talking about the ducks! And so that’s how they got there name “Canvasback”.

Canvasback pair
Canvasback pair.

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36 responses

  1. Ahh, the Canvas back legend, I can remember you telling me that! Those shot is beautiful and nice and up close!

    23 February 2008 at 5:58 pm

  2. NatureShutterbug

    Great story – never knew that. They are not very common here in the winter.

    23 February 2008 at 7:01 pm

  3. Does that story have a source? I find it kind of suspicious.

    23 February 2008 at 7:16 pm

  4. … adding – I briefly thought I saw some Canvasbacks yesterday, but they turned out to be Canada Geese with snow covering their backs.

    23 February 2008 at 7:19 pm

  5. I was just getting ready to write and ask why they were called Canvasbacks when I read further and got my answer! I love origin stories, whether for names or other things. Beautiful shots. Interesting information. Thanks!

    23 February 2008 at 7:24 pm

  6. @ YN J – thanks and I do love telling that story!
    @ NatureShutterbug – thanks and larger bodies of water they are more common! No so for us inlanders!
    @ John – thanks and my professor use to always tell that story! I don’t know of any source except it being passed down. Have you heard anything different?
    @ Rondi – as John noted, it is more a story on how they got there name. I do have many other legends with how other birds got there name that I should post here sometime!

    23 February 2008 at 7:29 pm

  7. I saw a Canvasback for the first time a few weeks ago and I remember you telling me the story of its name. I couldn’t get close to them, either. Very shy. Your photos rock.

    23 February 2008 at 8:07 pm

  8. I never knew that before….I think I’m going to make my kids read your blog every day to count as part of their science. I always learn something when I pop over here!

    23 February 2008 at 8:09 pm

  9. Michael Head

    The big pond (Lake Erie) doe sdraw more species and except for a very short time this year there has been plenty of open water close to shore. Nice pictures Tom.

    23 February 2008 at 8:58 pm

  10. I always assumed that the name came about because the birds’ white backs resembled canvas. The color of canvas would have been familiar to watermen of the sailing era and to wildlife painters. I also suspect that the common name “canvasback” predates the railroad-aided boom in market hunting.

    23 February 2008 at 9:12 pm

  11. @ Mary – congrats on seeing one of these guys! They are so great!
    @ Mike – thanks and was up in your neck of the woods to take this shot!
    @ John – aaaaa, probably so but my story is much more interesting than it’s back looking like a canvas! LOL! Isn’t that was legends are for?

    23 February 2008 at 9:27 pm

  12. I love Canvasbacks, but share John’s skepticism about the story! (Sounds good though LOL.)

    23 February 2008 at 11:27 pm

  13. My first time seeing a canvasback! I see only Mallards here in my Canadian ponds.

    23 February 2008 at 11:32 pm

  14. I’m going to have to keep my eyes open. If they are at that part of Lake Erie, perhaps they are also in our neck of Lake Erie. Lake Erie just completely froze over last Tuesday/Wednesday says the media sources. Where would they go without open water?

    24 February 2008 at 1:02 am

  15. Great ducks, great story. Thanks, Mon@arch!

    24 February 2008 at 1:50 am

  16. That’s a cool story on how they got their name, Tom (well, not that they killed them, but the rest)! And it is really great you got to see them in western NY!!

    24 February 2008 at 8:19 am

  17. I heard that legend too. Last week a lone Canvasback was seen on the river near our home and local birders have been looking for it ever since. I have yet to identify one.

    24 February 2008 at 8:59 am

  18. Very nice. Maybe I’ll see what’s paddling in Lake Michigan today!

    24 February 2008 at 9:11 am

  19. Love the ducks and the story.

    24 February 2008 at 10:33 am

  20. What a great-looking bird, and an interesting story. You do get so see such a diversity of critters there, and the surprise visitors are always such a thrill.

    24 February 2008 at 11:11 am

  21. Interesting how they got their names! Congrats on the unusual sighting. 🙂

    24 February 2008 at 11:30 am

  22. @ Rurality – thanks
    @ naturegirl – mallards can be fun also! Thanks
    @ Linda – Just find some open water and you should be able to find them. When the lake is frozen they head to Chesapeake Bay or other great lakes that are open!
    @ Liz – thanks
    @ Pam – thanks and was very happy to see up close!
    @ Ruth- how great and very fun find for sure! Thanks
    @ Dave – hope you are able to find one . . they are very great birds!
    @ Barb – thanks
    @ Robin – thanks and always fun to see them up close!
    @ Lana – thanks

    24 February 2008 at 11:35 am

  23. Marg

    You’re right these shots are great-I didn’t know that story about how they got their name!

    24 February 2008 at 11:43 am

  24. Wow! Great pictures and neat story! Thanks for the history behind the name. Glad you had luck with this uncommon find! 🙂

    24 February 2008 at 1:39 pm

  25. Great pictures Mon@rch, I saw a scaup this week too!

    24 February 2008 at 3:52 pm

  26. I’ve only seen them from quite a distance. Very handsome pictures, Tom.

    AND I’d not heard that story of how they acquired their names! No way! I’ve always considered that it was just an over-imaginative way of describing their backs. I can hardly wait to pass this along to fellow birders this spring. Thanks!

    24 February 2008 at 5:36 pm

  27. @ Marg – thanks and knew you would like these!
    @ Chicago – thanks and I was very lucky!
    @ Barb – thanks and they are such great birds to find! Can’t wait to see the birds from your trip!
    @ Cathy – thanks and very handsome for sure! If you read in the comments . . . others believe your version is correct but I think my version is more fun!

    24 February 2008 at 6:44 pm

  28. I’m glad your sharing duck’s they are a real weakness for me. This will help me out on the boat this fishing season. Thanks again for sharing your information!

    25 February 2008 at 5:19 am

  29. Lisa at Greenbow

    Oh yes, and to get so close to them. Good photos.

    25 February 2008 at 7:03 am

  30. I actually saw one of these the other day at the sanctuary, and was totally geeked that I could recognize it!

    25 February 2008 at 9:07 am

  31. Cool post & nice photos. Unlike Redheads, Canvasbacks are pretty common winter ducks here. That’s funny how they got their name!

    25 February 2008 at 11:52 am

  32. Yikes, that’s sad how the canvasbacks got their name! They are so pretty . . . how awesome you got to see them! Are you really close to Lake Erie?

    25 February 2008 at 3:38 pm

  33. Great shots of the canvasbacks. Like you, I’ve found them to be really hard to get close to – never close enough for a decent shot. Well worth braving the cold temperatures to see up close!

    25 February 2008 at 4:54 pm

  34. @ aullori – thanks and I bet many of us could use work on many species! Hope you find many ducks while fishing! Can’t wait to see your post!
    @ Lisa – thanks and I was lucky to get as close as I did!
    @ BugGirl – they are great . . . right! We all here are geeks!
    @ Adam – thanks and I kind of assumed these guys were common in your area! Still surprised the Red-heads are not that common!
    @ Lisa – You probably would prefer the other version that everyone suggest is the right version on how it got its name!
    @ Marty – Thanks and they are VERY hard to get close for sure! I couldn’t have been happier and probably will never get a chance like this again!

    25 February 2008 at 6:40 pm

  35. Grace

    Wonderful pictures of the Canvasbacks. I especially like the third one. He looks very alive.

    27 February 2008 at 12:01 am

  36. Nice to see a close-up photo.-That story is interesting but I feel like your putting me on.-Is this for real? If it is-that’s a pretty cool story.

    27 February 2008 at 7:59 pm

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