Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE VELVET DUCK.
FULIGULA FUSCA, Linn.
PLATE CCCCI.--MALE AND FEMALE.
The Velvet Duck arrives from the north along the shores of the Middle
States about the first of September, and extends to a greater or less distance
southward, according to the state of the weather, often proceeding as far as
Georgia. The Bay of Chesapeake and all the estuaries to the eastward are amply
furnished with it, and there it is usually seen in company with the American
Scoter, the Golden-eyed Duck, and some other species. It very rarely enters
fresh waters during its stay on our coast, and is with great propriety called a
Sea Duck. My friend THOMAS NUTTALL mentions that some, which probably were
young birds, had been seen in Fresh Pond near Cambridge in Massachusetts. This
is the only case of the kind that I have heard of, although these birds breed in
fresh water lakes and in rivers, in which they remain at the season of
reproduction about two months.
In the beginning of April, the Velvet Ducks, which are gregarious, collect
in large flocks, for the purpose of removing to their northern breeding places,
and as they fly steadily onwards, you may see thousands passing at short
distances from the shores, and forming an almost continuous line, each flock
composed of twenty or thirty individuals, which fly low and irregularly, ranged
in an angular form. While on the Bay of Fundy, I went with my party to a
projecting cape, round which these birds passed during our stay, from daylight
until evening. When it blows hard from the sea, the Ducks come near to the
shore, and afford abundant opportunities to such sportsmen as are fond of
As we approached the shores of Labrador, we found the waters covered with
dense flocks of these birds, and yet they continued to arrive there from the St.
Lawrence for several days in succession. We were all astonished at their
numbers, which were such that we could not help imagining that all the Velvet
Ducks in the world were passing before us. This was about the middle of June,
which I thought late for them, but the season had been tardy, and the fishermen
informed us, that when the weather is warmer, these birds pass a fortnight
earlier. The greater number merely appear for a few days on their way farther
north, but some remain to breed on the southern coast of Labrador. Thousands of
sterile individuals, however, spend the summer on the Bay of Fundy.
During the breeding season, the Velvet Duck resembles the Eider in its
habits, only that it prefers fresh water, which is rarely the case with the
other species. The males leave the females after incubation has commenced.
Those which breed at Labrador begin to form their nests from the 1st to the 10th
of June, and on the 28th of July I caught some young ones several days old. The
nests are placed within a few feet of the borders of small lakes, a mile or two
distant from the sea, and usually under the low boughs of the bushes, of the
twigs of which, with mosses and various plants matted together, they are formed.
They are large and almost flat, several inches thick, with some feathers of the
female, but no down, under the eggs, which are usually six in number,
intermediate in size between those of the Eider and King Ducks, measuring an
inch and three quarters in length, one and seven-eighths in breadth, of a
uniform pale cream-colour, tinged with green, not pure white as stated by some
authors. On the 8th of July I procured five young ones out of a brood of six,
among which, although to appearance scarcely a week old, I could readily
distinguish the males from the females as they swam on the little pond around
their mother, the former having already a white spot under the eye. The down
with which they were covered was rather stiff and hair-like, of a black colour,
excepting under the chin, where there was a small patch of white. They swam
with great ease, and when we drove them into a narrow place for the purpose of
catching them, they several times turned upon us and dived with the view of
getting back to the middle of the pond, so that at last we found it necessary to
shoot them. Only one escaped ashore, which my young friend THOMAS LINCOLN
caught, but afterwards restored to its mother, which continued on the pond,
manifesting the greatest anxiety, and calling to her brood all the while with
short squeaking notes, by no means unpleasant to the ear. On being shot at, she
flew off to another pond, but soon returned. Her plumage was rusty and ragged,
but the wings seemed to be complete, as she flew with great ease, springing at
once from the water.
Mr. JONES of Bras d'Or assured me, that either that individual or another
of the same species, had bred on the same pond for six or seven years in
succession, and that he had looked at the nest and observed her manners when
leading about the young, which he said did not leave the pond until they were
able to fly. That year, 1833, she and her mate had arrived nearly a month later
than usual. This accounted for the small size of the young, which he was sorry
to see dead; and here let me say that Mr. JONES, who is not only a good-hearted
and benevolent man, but also fond of observing nature, was the first person I
met with who could give me any rational account of the Ducks which bred in his
A few of the Velvet Ducks breed on the Island of Grand Manan, and in other
places about the Bay of Fundy, but rarely farther south, and the number that
remain in Labrador is comparatively small, as we did not observe there more than
six or seven broods. They generally leave that part of the coast about the
middle of August; but that season they were still seen after the Eider Ducks had
departed, which makes me think that they require more warmth than these birds
before they begin to lay their eggs. Captain JAMES CLARK ROSS, of the British
Royal Navy, a gentleman, besides his professional merits, distinguished for his
love of science, informed me that none of these birds were observed on either of
his Arctic voyages. The extreme limits of their migrations remain unknown.
The flight of the Velvet Duck is strong and sustained, although it usually
flies low; yet when pursued, or at the sight of gunners in a boat, it often
rises to the height of forty or fifty yards, describes elegant curved lines as
it passes and repasses, and thus continues to fly until dancer is no longer
apprehended. Its movements in the air are performed by continued flappings, and
when on wing the white of the wings is beautifully contrasted with the dark hue
of the rest of its plumage. It dives with as much agility as the Eider or the
American Scoter, and, when wounded, is equally difficult to be caught, nor can
it be killed with certainty without a heavy shot.
The Velvet Ducks enter the bays and estuaries to a greater distance than
the Eiders. On land they move with more difficulty than those birds, and keep
themselves in a more erect attitude, like that in which I have endeavoured to
represent the male in the plate. They swim with more buoyancy than the Eiders,
but at times seem to rise from the water with considerable difficulty. Their
food consists of shell-fish and crustacea, as well as seaweeds, small fish, and
spawn. Their flesh is extremely dark, tastes of fish, and is very unpalatable,
although I have seen persons of great judgment in matters of this kind not only
eat it with avidity, but praise it as highly as if it were equal to the most
tender and juicy venison. They are sold in abundance in our eastern markets and
those of the Middle States, at from fifty cents to a dollar the pair.
This species is, in my opinion, very closely allied to the Eider, insomuch
that I frequently call it the Black King-Duck. Along our coasts it commonly
receives the name of White-winged Coot. The female is smaller than the male.
The young much resemble the female during the first year. The white spots of
the head, however, are apparent, although mottled with dusky, and their feet now
shew some of the redness of those of the old males; but I am unable to say with
certainty at what age they attain their full summer plumage, and the rich
colouring of the bill. The gizzard, which is not so large as that of the Eider,
is of a yellow colour; the gut very large, tough, and strong, about eight feet
VELVET DUCK, Anas fusca, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. viii. p. 137.
FULIGULA FUSCA, Bonap. Syn., p. 390.
OIDEMIA FUSCA, Velvet Duck, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 449.
VELVET DUCK, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 419.
VELVET DUCK, Fuligula fusca, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 354.
Male, 22, 39. Female, 22, 38.
From the coast of Georgia eastward to Nova Scotia, during winter, when it
is extremely abundant in all the estuaries and bays. Breeds from Labrador
Bill about the length of the head, very broad, as deep as broad at the
base, depressed and flattened towards the end, which is rounded. Upper mandible
with a short abrupt prominence at the base, its dorsal line on the prominence
straight, at its fore edge abruptly sloping, then slightly concave, and at the
end curved, the ridge on the prominence very broad and nearly flat, towards the
end broadly convex, the sides convex, the edges obtuse, with about thirty
lamellae, the unguis very large, and elliptical. Nostrils sub-basal,
elliptical, very large, pervious, nearer the ridge than the edge, and placed on
the lower side of the basal prominence. Lower mandible flat, with the angle
long, rather narrow, rounded, the dorsal line slightly convex, the edges with
about twenty-five lamellae, the unguis nearly circular and very large.
Head large. Eyes rather small. Neck of moderate length, thick. Body
large, and much depressed. Wings rather small. Feet very short, placed rather
far behind; tarsus very short, compressed, having anteriorly in its whole length
a series of small scutella, and above the outer toe a partial series, the rest
covered with reticular angular scales. Hind toe small, with a free membrane
beneath; anterior toes double the length of the tarsus, united by reticulated
membranes having a sinus on their free margins, the inner with a lobed marginal
membrane, the outer with a thick edge, the third and fourth about equal and
longest. Claws small, that of first toe very small and curved, of middle toe
largest, with a dilated inner edge, of the rest slender, all obtuse.
Plumage dense, soft, blended. Feathers on the fore part of the head
extremely small, on the neck velvety. Wings rather short, narrow, pointed;
primary quills curved, strong, tapering and pointed, the first longest, the
second very little shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondary broad and
rounded, the inner elongated and tapering. Tail very short, narrow,
wedge-shaped, of fourteen stiff narrow feathers.
Basal prominence and sides of the bill black, the sides towards the end
bright red, the unguis flesh-colour, with a black line on each side. Iris
bright yellow. Feet carmine on the outer side, orange-red on the inner, the
webs greyish-black. The general colour of the plumage is brownish-black, on the
upper parts glossed with blue, lighter on the lower. The outer secondary quills
are white, and there is a spot of the same under the eye.
Length to end of tail 22 inches, to end of wings 19 1/4, to end of claws
24 1/2; extent of wings 39; wing from flexure 12; tail 3 1/2; bill 1 8/12 along
the edge of lower mandible 2 7/12; tarsus 1 11/12; middle toe 3, its claw 5/12.
Weight 3 lbs. 10 oz.
In the female the basal prominence of the bill is much less elevated, and
the colour of the whole bill is dusky. The iris and feet are as in the male,
but of duller tints. The general colour of the plumage is a sooty-brown, the
breast and abdomen lighter. There are two whitish spots on each side of the
head, one near the base of the upper mandible, the other behind the eye; the
outer secondary quills are white, as in the male.
Length to end of tail 22 inches, to end of wings 18, to end of claws
25 1/2, extent of wings 38; wing from flexure 11 1/4; tail 3 1/2; bill 1 7/12 of
lower mandible 2 7/12; tarsus 1 3/4; middle toe 2 10/12, its claw 5/12. Weight
3 lbs. 3 oz.
The down of this species is similar to that of the Eider Duck, and
apparently of equal quality.