Red-crested Pochard / Netta rufina (With Pictures)

Red-crested Pochard / Netta rufina (With Pictures)

Netta rufina is a large diving duck named for the lush, rufous crest of the drake. The species impressive fossil record spans Europe and Asia, tracing back to the Lower Pleistocene. More recent fossils were associated with early human settlements up to 9000 years ago.  Let’s take a closer look at the striking Eurasian waterfowl we know today as the red-crested pochard.

Field Identification

In addition to the signature crest, the adult male sports piercing red irises and a rose-red bill. Its black breast and tail contrast against white flanks and a brown back. It has a plump body and rounded head. Its long brown wings are marked with conspicuous white wing stripes that are visible in flight. Typical of female ducks, the hen wears a modest plumage of buff brown with pale cheeks, a dark brown cap, and a black bill.

Males of this species may be confused with the common pochard owing to its rusty-red head, but the latter has grey body plumage and lacks the red bill. 

Interestingly, some reports of the mysterious, and possibly extinct pink-headed duck were also believed to be cases of mistaken identity, confusing the critically endangered South Asian species with the related red-crested pochard, despite the key differences in their plumage colour for which both species have been respectively named. The morphological similarities are there, however. So much so that some believe these two species may be close relatives. 

Red-crested pochard

Other similar birds include the male ruddy duck, the white-headed duck, and the ferruginous duck. Possibly the trickiest to tell apart from the red-crested pochard is the female smew, only distinguishable by its smaller size and the grey upperparts of the smew.

Sounds and Communication

While silent most of the year, a mix of vocal and non-vocal sounds can be heard during the breeding season. The male gives a harsh, sonorous croak in addition to other multi-note phrases.

The female produces a number of curt single-note phrases and a descending call similar to that of the Anas dabbling ducks. Females are also known to give a tri-note barking call.

Range and Migration

A Palearctic species, the red-crested pochard breeds in parts of Europe and Asia with an overall breeding range that extends from the British Isles in Western Europe to China in the Far East. Wintering grounds are spread throughout Europe and Asia with sizable populations taking to France, Switzerland, Germany, Central Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent.

Wintering birds have also been recorded in the Levant and North Africa. Feral populations of the species have established in the United Kingdom since the mid-1900s and have since expanded.

Red-crested Pochard on Snow

Habitat & Ecology

The red-crested pochard nests in well-vegetated wetlands, eutrophic lakes and ponds, slow rivers, stagnant watercourses, lagoons, and freshwater islands surrounded by shrubs and reeds. 

Red-crested pochards historically preferred brackish water for their nesting sites. But the species switched to freshwater habitats in response to booming populations of yellow-legged gulls and the predators they attract.


The breeding season begins in March and ends around August. Red-crested pochards are seasonally monogamous, forming pairs during winter, and strengthening their bonds as they migrate to the summer breeding grounds. 

They construct well-concealed nests amid the vegetation, but may also use the discarded nests of other waterbirds. Nests are typically made of sedges, rushes, reeds, and other wetland plants. Some populations nest in colonies. The female lays a clutch of 6 to 12 eggs and incubates them for up to 28 days.

The precocial nestlings are covered in down when they hatch but are cared for by the female until they fledge. The ducklings may take their first flight anywhere from 45 to 80 days old. Once they reach a year old, they are ready to breed, although many only begin at two years. Red-crested pochard may be victims of brood parasitism by the common pochard and other species.

Red-crested Pochard in Water

Did you know? Sometimes, red-crested pochard ducklings leave their broods to join those of other species, such as the mallard duck.

Following the breeding season, the red-crested pochard molts into its eclipse plumage. Females typically molt at their breeding sites, while males take to algae-rich open waters to shed their summer attire. In drier regions, both males and females leave their breeding sites for larger water bodies that provide cover with vegetated shorelines and ample food resources during this time.

Diet & Feeding

Red-crested pochards are herbivorous. In the summer, they mainly feed on algae and submerged aquatic plants. During winter they supplement their diets with sedges, grasses, and seeds. In addition to diving, and unlike other diving ducks, pochards also implore various dabbling duck feeding methods, such as foraging at the surface, upending, or submerging their heads to scour for food. 

Red-crested pochards occasionally steal food from other waterfowl. Other times, they are the victims of kleptoparasitic behavior. On the other hand, mated pairs have been observed sharing food, with the male often bringing food to the surface to be shared with the female. 

Red-crested Pochard in Flight

Status & Conservation

Red-crested pochards are commonly hunted. Among the threats to the species is lead poisoning, especially during hunting season. Other threats include habitat loss and destruction by means of wetland draining and pollution. 

While global population numbers are currently unknown, it is believed that populations in some regions are in decline. The species, however, has a vast range and is currently classified as “least concern” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Final Thoughts

The handsome red-crested pochard is a welcome sighting around lakes, marshes, and ponds across Europe and Asia. The species plays a role in seed dispersal for various aquatic plant species. 

There are still many gaps in information as to the behaviour and ecology of this species, including its migratory routes, population dynamics, and factors that influence breeding success.

As with many species dependent on wetlands, they are vulnerable to the destruction of these fragile ecosystems. Conservation efforts focused on the rehabilitation of wetlands and freshwater systems will ultimately ensure the continued survival of the species.

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