Oxyura leucocephalawhite-headed duck

Geographic Range

White-headed ducks (Oxyura leucocephala) are the only stifftail Oxyurinii native to the Palearctic. White-headed ducks can also be found in parts of the Oriental region and the Ethiopian region. The largest populations of white-headed ducks are found in Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Mongolia. Central and east-Asian populations tend to be migratory while populations in Spain and North Africa are non-migratory. There are four main populations of white-headed ducks worldwide: two are decreasing, one is stable, and one is increasing. Of the two populations of wintering birds that are decreasing, one is located in central Asia and has a population of 5,000 to 10,000, and one is located in Pakistan and on the verge of extinction. There is a stable population in North Africa of about 500 birds in the winter and an increasing population in Spain that has increased from 22 birds in 1977 to about 2,500 birds as of 2006. ("Oxyura leucocephala", 2008; "White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Green and Hughes, 1996; Hughes, et al., 2006)


White-headed ducks inhabit freshwater lakes as well as alkaline, saline, and eutrophic lakes connected with larger wetland complexes (Birdlife International, 2009). The alkaline lakes inhabited have a pH range of 7.8 to 10, which prevents the lakes from freezing. Breeding sites of white-headed ducks contain dense vegetation and are small and shallow, with depths between 0.5 and 3 m. Wintering sites are usually larger, deeper, and contain less emergent vegetation. There are conflicting views about winter habitat selection of white-headed ducks. Some research suggests that freshwater habitats are chosen more in the winter than in the breeding season. Other research suggests that white-headed ducks prefer deep, alkaline or saline waters in winter. However, there is a general consensus that the availability of insect larvae (Chironomidae) is a key component of habitat selection. Benthic chironomids are reasonably tolerant of eutrophication, so white-headed ducks are more tolerant of eutrophication than many other water birds (Green et al. 1996). ("White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2004; "White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Green and Hughes, 1996; Green, et al., 1996)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • Range depth
    0.5 to 3 m
    1.64 to 9.84 ft

Physical Description

White-headed ducks exhibit some sexual dimorphism. Males have white heads with black caps and blue bills, which are enlarged at the base. Females have white faces with dark caps, cheek-stripes and less swollen bills. Both males and females range between 43 and 48 cm in length and both have chestnut-brown bodies. ("White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Range length
    43 to 48 cm
    16.93 to 18.90 in


White-headed ducks are seasonally monogamous. To attract females, male ducks make a low rattling noise. ("White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Hughes, et al., 2006)

White-headed ducks breed from April to June in southern Europe and up to a month later in northern Europe. The timing of the breeding period is thought to be because stable water-levels are necessary during incubation of eggs. Because of this requirement, white-headed ducks breed on small, enclosed, freshwater or eutrophic lakes and tend to choose lakes with shallow water, ranging between 0.5 and 3 m in depth. Nests are located over water in emergent vegetation and consist of cupped stands of stems and leaves. Females become sexually mature at one year of age and lay between 4 and 9 eggs at 1.5 day intervals during the breeding period. The incubation period for eggs is between 22 and 24 days. Relative to their body mass, female white-headed ducks lay the largest egg of any waterfowl. After breeding, white-headed ducks undergo a flightless molting period that lasts 2 to 3 weeks before migration to their wintering grounds. They undergo another flightless molt in late winter as well. ("White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Green and Hughes, 1996; Hughes, et al., 2006)

  • Breeding interval
    White-headed ducks breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    White-headed ducks breed from April to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 9
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    22 to 24 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 10 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 (low) years

Although little is known about parental investment in white-headed ducks, it can be inferred that females invest heavily in their young due to the length of the incubation period. (Green and Hughes, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • female


Due to a lack of banding information, there are no known data on adult or juvenile survival rates. (Hughes, et al., 2006)


White-headed ducks are diving ducks and are reluctant to fly in general. They prefer shallow margins of lakes in which they can dive repeatedly. They remain submerged for 5 to 7 seconds and dive again within seconds of surfacing. They show very little reaction when shot at, either remaining in a sleeping posture or swimming away slowly and returning a few minutes later, rather than flying away. This behavior is in contrast to their usual response to predators, which involves a head-up-tail-up alert posture. White-headed ducks are very social outside of breeding season. They tend to congregate during winter, with up to 10,000 individual ducks appearing at a particular wintering site, although individual flocks tend to contain about 500 birds. ("White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2004; "White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Green, et al., 1996)

Home Range

There are no data indicating that white-headed ducks actively defend a territory. Because they are migratory ducks, they do not restrict themselves to a given home range for any part of the year. The most important wintering site in the world for white-headed ducks is the Burdur Lake in Turkey, which has consistently held more than half of all white-headed ducks counted across the duck’s range, with up to 11,000 ducks being counted on the lake at a given time. (Green, et al., 1996)

Communication and Perception

White-headed ducks are usually silent except during sexual display, when they make a low rattling noise. ("White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009)

Food Habits

White-headed ducks are omnivorous. When studied, food items from at least 27 families of invertebrates and at least 10 families of aquatic plants were identified in the guts of white-headed ducks. The most important food items are chironomid larvae, the abundance of which affects habitat choice. Angiosperm seeds are an important part of their diet, whereas crustaceans and green plant material are of secondary importance. (Green and Hughes, 1996; Sanchez, et al., 2000)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


During the breeding season, white-headed ducks construct their nests in emergent vegetation, which helps hide nests from predators. A “roof” may also be formed over the nest by bending down overhead leaves, providing further disguise from predators. In addition, white-headed ducks dive repeatedly, only re-emerging for short periods of time, which aids in their ability to avoid predators. White-headed ducks are preyed on by gulls (Larus species) and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus). In the Tarelo Lagoon in Doñana, Spain, a large number of abandoned white-headed duck nests were observed after predation by brown rats. White-headed duck nests may also be trampled by cattle. Although it is currently illegal to hunt them, white-headed ducks are easy birds to shoot due to their lack of an escape response when facing hunters. In addition to hunting the ducks, their eggs have been collected for human consumption. ("White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2004; "White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2009; Green, et al., 1996; Hughes, et al., 2006)

Ecosystem Roles

White-headed ducks eat soft-bodied invertebrates, crustaceans, and aquatic plants. In the lagoons of Cordoba, Spain, the breeding success of white-headed ducks has been negatively affected by the introduction of carp (Cyprinus carpio) into lagoons, because carp directly compete with white-headed ducks for food. (Green and Hughes, 1996)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Before it was banned due to their vulnerable status, hunting of white-headed ducks for meat was commonplace. In addition, the eggs of white-headed ducks are used for human consumption. Subsistence hunting has been cited as an important problem for the conservation of white-headed ducks. (Hughes, et al., 2006)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of white-headed ducks on humans.

Conservation Status

White-headed ducks have been threatened by the introduction of ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) to the United Kingdom and their subsequent migration across the western Palearctic. Ruddy ducks and white-headed ducks can hybridize to produce fertile offspring. White-headed ducks are suffering from hybridization in the western end of their range. In addition, male ruddy ducks and male hybrids dominate male white-headed ducks during courtship. White-headed ducks have been listed as endangered on the IUCN Redlist since 2000. They are legally protected in many countries and a conservation program in Spain has led to a large population increase in recent years. Ruddy ducks are also being conserved in Spain, Portugal, and France. A program was launched in 2005 to eliminate the population of ruddy ducks in the United Kingdom with the goal of limiting the amount of hybridization between ruddy ducks and white-headed ducks. An extensive European action plan for the conservation of white-headed ducks was published in 2006 (Hughes et al., 2006). Conservation priorities in Europe include the development of policies to control ruddy ducks, promote protection for key wintering sites of white-headed ducks, and monitor the number of white-headed ducks kept in captivity. ("White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala", 2004; "Oxyura leucocephala", 2008; Green and Hughes, 1996; Hughes, et al., 2006)


Shari Degenshein (author), The College of New Jersey, Keith Pecor (editor), The College of New Jersey, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


uses sight to communicate

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born


BirdLife International. 2008. "Oxyura leucocephala" (On-line). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.1. Accessed February 16, 2010 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/141428/0.

BirdLife International. 2009. "White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala" (On-line). BirdLife International. Accessed February 16, 2010 at http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=359&m=0.

Bird Base. 2004. "White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala" (On-line). Accessed February 12, 2010 at http://birdbase.hokkaido-ies.go.jp/rdb/rdb_en/oxyuleuc.pdf.

Green, A., B. Hughes. 1996. "Action Plan for the White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) in Europe" (On-line). Accessed February 09, 2010 at http://www.centrostudinatura.it/public2/documenti/139-2152.pdf.

Green, A., A. Fox, G. Hilton, B. Hughes, M. Yarar, T. Salathe. 1996. Threats to Burdur Lake Ecosystem, Turkey and its waterbirds, particularly the white-headed duck. Biological Conservation, 76: 241-252.

Hughes, B., A. Green, D. Li, T. Mundkur. 2006. "International Single Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the White-headed Duck" (On-line). Accessed February 11, 2010 at http://www.cms.int/publications/TechSeries/ts13_ssap_white-headed-duck_complete.pdf.

Sanchez, M., A. Green, J. Dolz. 2000. The diets of the white-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala, ruddy duck O. jamaicensis and their hybrids from Spain. Bird Study, 47/3: 275-284. Accessed February 09, 2010 at http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a909088620&db=all.