Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Aythya fuligula – tufted duck

Aythya fuligula

Aythya fuligula (L.), (L.)
Family: Anatidae

A distinctive black and white duck with a hanging tuft of feathers on the back of the head, the tufted duck is amongst our most familiar waterbirds. They can be found on most lakes including some town parks. While it breeds across Northern Ireland, large numbers arrive in winter from across northern Europe.

In brief

  • Tufted ducks breed across lowland Northern Ireland, especially in the southern half and there is a huge influx of birds from northern Europe in winter
  • Tufted ducks prefer larger lakes or rivers
  • Lough Neagh is the most important site for the species in both summer and winter
  • The tufted duck is Amber listed in Irish Birds of Conservation Concern because of the internationally important wintering population in Northern Ireland
  • Threats to the species include poor water quality and competition for food from other species.

Species description
Tufted ducks habitually dive for their food, mainly in pursuit of small molluscs and other invertebrates. Smaller than mallard, they are quite short-bodied, and have a very fast, direct flight, usually running over the water surface to take off. The males are black and white, with the white restricted to the flanks. Females are similar, but brown and with duller flanks. The males also sport a long hanging tuft of feathers from the back of the head, which is much shorter in females and absent in young birds. In flight, they show a strong white wing bar. Females often make a peculiar growling call in flight.

Life cycle
Tufted duck lay 8-11 eggs during late May in a nest amongst lakeside vegetation, and often on an island. Incubation lasts about 25 days, after which the ducklings hatch and are immediately able to swim and dive. After 50 days, they are able to fly and are fully grown. Most of the birds in winter come from Scandinavia across to Russia and beyond, arriving mainly in October. Some of our breeding birds move south for the winter, but most remain close to their breeding localities.

Similar species
Male tufted duck can only be confused with the rare ring-necked duck from America, which is distinguished by its greyer flanks, higher-crowned head without a tuft and its bill pattern. Females can be trickier to identify, as many female ducks are predominantly brown. As a diving duck, the main confusion species is the scaup, but these are larger, never show any feather tufts on the head and have a large white patch at the base of their beak. Some female tufted ducks do show some white there, but never as much as a scaup.

How to see this species
During the breeding season, tufted duck can be found on many of the larger lakes across the southern half of Northern Ireland, including Loughs Neagh and Erne. However, in winter they are more widely distributed, occurring on most lakes, canals, reservoirs and park lakes, although they avoid upland areas. Lough Neagh holds enormous numbers, with Lough Neagh Discovery Centre and Portmore Lough RSPB Reserve being good vantage points. Hillsborough Lake and the Quoile National Nature Reserve near Downpatrick are other good localities. Sites around Belfast include Belfast Waterworks and Victoria Park.

Current status
Lough Neagh is the best site for tufted duck in the UK or Ireland, with up to 10,000 birds over wintering. However, numbers used to be much higher than this and as recently as 2000/01 numbers were more than double the current level. Upper Lough Erne, where numbers have been increasing recently, is the next best site with over 1,000 birds in winter.

Breeding numbers are unknown, although the all-Ireland population was estimated at about 2,000 pairs in the early 1990s. There was also some evidence of a decline in Ireland at this time. The tufted duck is a quarry species but is protected during the shooting close season from to 1 February to 31 August under the Wildlife (NI) Order 1985.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?
The tufted duck is Amber listed on the Irish Birds of Conservation Concern list. It is included because Northern Ireland supports an internationally important wintering population.

Threats/Causes of decline
The decline in breeding numbers may be due to competition for food from introduced fish and a decline in water quality in some lakes. Reasons for the decline in wintering birds at Lough Neagh are still unclear, although there are suggestions that climate changes are enabling tufted duck and other waterfowl to remain closer to their breeding grounds in Europe with the result that fewer migrate to Ireland. Poor water quality affecting their food supplies is another possible reason for their decline on Lough Neagh.

Conservation of this species

Current action

  • Some of the most important wintering and breeding sites for tufted ducks are protected as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
  • Most key sites are surveyed each winter by a combination of conservation bodies and volunteer counters as part of the nationally co-ordinated Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS).
  • The Eutrophic standing waters Habitat Action Plan provides a range of actions relevant to the conservation of tufted duck habitat.


Proposed objectives/actions

  • Tufted duck numbers at the most important sites will continue to be monitored through WeBS surveys, and appropriate conservation action undertaken if required.

What you can do

  • Volunteer as a Wetland Bird Survey counter by contacting EHS or RSPB
  • Report incidents of illegal shooting to PSNI or EHS.

Further information

RSPB Fact Sheet

Wetland Bird Survey

EHS report on Lough Neagh diving ducks

Eutrophic standing waters Habitat Action Plan

Crowe, O. (2005). Ireland’s Wetlands and their Waterbirds: Status and Distribution. Birdwatch Ireland.

Kear, J. (2005). Ducks, geese and swans. Oxford University Press

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.

iNaturalist: Species account : iNaturalist World Species Observations database