Large diving ducks, 19” to 24” long with an average wingspan of 34”. Drakes (males) have a reddish-brown head, and an off-white body with a black breast and tail. Hens (females) are a more subdued gray-brown. Both sexes have a long, gracefully sloping bill.
Canvasbacks that winter in the Chesapeake region migrate to the Bay each autumn from breeding grounds in the “prairie pothole” country of Minnesota, the Dakotas and central Canada. After a late summer molt (when they’re flightless for about a month), they begin their southward migration, some stopping in October and early November along the upper Mississippi River where they feed heavily before heading to the Bay.
More canvasbacks visit the Chesapeake Bay than any other migratory waterfowl, and they have long been considered a culinary treat. In 1934, T. Gilbert Pearson, president of the National Audubon Society, estimated there were 250,000 canvasbacks—not to mention tens of thousands of other birds—just on the Susquehanna Flats. Three years later, Maryland officials estimated half a million of the birds off Poole’s Island in the upper Bay. By the 1950s, as many as 250,000 canvasbacks still wintered on the Bay, nearly half of the entire U.S. population of the birds. Today, about 50,000 come here, about a tenth of the U.S. population. Reasons for the decline include changes in their northern nesting sites, historic overhunting, and the more recent declines in Bay grasses.