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Species–area relationships are the product of many ecological processes and their interactions. Explanations for the species–area relationship (SAR) have focused on separating putative niche-based mechanisms that correlate with area from sampling effects caused by patches with more individuals containing more species than patches with fewer individuals. We tested the hypothesis that SARs in breeding waterfowl communities are caused by sampling effects (i.e. random placement from the regional species pool). First, we described observed SARs and patterns of species associations for fourteen species of ducks on ponds in prairie Canada. Second, we used null models, which randomly allocated ducks to ponds, to test if observed SARs and patterns of species associations differed from those expected by chance. Consistent with the sampling effects hypothesis, observed SARs were accurately predicted by null models in three different years and for diving and dabbling duck guilds. This is the first demonstration that null models can predict SARs in waterbirds or any other aquatic organisms. Observed patterns of species association, however, were not well predicted by null models as in all years there was less observed segregation among species (i.e. more aggregation) than under the random expectation, suggesting that intraspecific competition could play a role in structuring duck communities. Taken together, our results indicate that when emergent properties of ecological communities such as the SAR appear to be caused by random processes, analyses of species associations can be critical in revealing the importance of niche-based processes (e.g. competition) in structuring ecological communities.