Welcome back to the Entryway to Birding blog! Last week, I shared an overview of the incredibly diverse selection of waterfowl that will be visiting us over the next few months. And in the span of a week, things are already ramping up! Out at Goose Pond Sanctuary, tundra swans have arrived, greater white-fronted geese have joined the Canada geese, and a dozen species of ducks are mixed in among them all. Waterfowl migration season is truly here.
I had a lot of fun watching this female American wigeon up close at my recent trip to Horicon Marsh. Photos: mallard by Tristan Ferne / northern shoveler by Jen Goellnitz / gadwall by John Church / American wigeon by Henry Cheng / northern pintail by Ethan Gosnell / American black duck by Hal Trachtenberg / green-winged teal by Doug Greenberg / blue-winged teal by Dennis Church
The Cornell Lab store even sells quick-reference guides that identify these white patches on different species, if thats something youre interested in studying up on. You can also look through your field guide and start paying attention to that white placementif all else fails on a day with poor viewing conditions, it may be the one thing you can see on a bird. I like to use this Wheres the white? tip to confirm my ID on female gadwalls, which to me can look a lot like mallard hens from a distance.
The white patch on the females secondaries is very visible in this image, but may appear like a small sliver depending on the wing position. Maybe the lighting conditions are poor, resulting in backlit birds or a strong glare that washes out plumage details. Photos: northern shoveler by Thomas Landgren / canvasback by Eric Ellingson / common merganser by Doug Greenberg
Their overall plumage pattern can seem similar to a redhead (especially from a distance) because they too have a reddish head and gray back, but a profile view of a canvasback can easily give them away. Photos: ruddy ducks by Jen Goellnitz / northern pintal by Amit Patel / mallard by Laura Ferriera Ruddy ducks have a stiff tail that they tend to keep cocked upright, making it look like theyve got a popsicle stick attached to their rear.
I would encourage you to not rely too heavily on size as a field mark, but there are a few birds whose small stature will immediately set them apart in a crowd. Most ducks will seem of similar size on the water and will likely be far enough away that any small differences will be negligible, so if you do see anything that looks tiny in comparison, you can dramatically narrow your search. This Ducks at a Distance pamphlet produced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service is incredibly helpful for learning field marks for birds in flight.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a Bird Academy course on ducks and waterfowl as part of their Be a Better Birder series. Waterfowl hunters have to learn their ducks well and theres a number of resources designed to help them do sono reason a birder cant take advantage of that!
How many type of ducks are there?
Identifying the 12 Types of Ducks.
What is the most common duck?
The mallard is our most common duck, found in all flyways. The males are often called “greenheads.” The main wintering area Is the lower Mississippi basin, and along the gulf coast, but many stay as far north as open waters permits.
How do you identify different ducks?
Size: How large is the duck?.Head: What markings are visible on the head?.Bill: What is the size and color of the bill?.Neck: What is the neck length?.Plumage: What are the most prominent colors on the back, rump, neck, breast, and flanks?.Speculum: Is the duck’s speculum a unique color?
What are the types of wild ducks?
Mallard / Lower classifications
For people who are only ever used to seeing the common Mallard, this list should be incredibly eye-opening! The ducks featured below are most common and most likely to be observed. In reality, the complete list of ducks that may be seen in the United States is even larger!
As winter ends and the snows start to melt, they will eat seeds and the leftover waste grain found in farm fields. Diving ducks completely submerge themselves underwater to grab aquatic vegetation from the bottom or chase food, such as fish or invertebrates .
The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World , published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Males have a bright green head, thin white collar, dark reddish-brown chest, yellow bill, and a black butt with a white-tipped tail. We even find Mallards in our swimming pool every summer and have to chase them away, so they dont make a mess on our deck!
If you have a nice pond or a marsh, feel free to put up a homemade nesting area to enjoy some adorable ducklings walking around your property! Their diet consists of a higher proportion of plant matter than other ducks and will even go to farm fields to feed, similar to geese. Their short bill provides a lot of power to help pluck vegetation with ease!
Since they can scare easily when approached, one of the best ways to see these ducks in the United States is to listen for them! Males give a 3-part nasal whistle ( whew-whew-whew ) at any time of the year, which sort of sounds like a kazoo (heard below)! Unlike most other species, males dont sport any patches of blue, green, or white plumage.
Gadwalls have a funny habit of stealing food from diving ducks upon surfacing, with American Coots being their favorite victim! Northern Pintails have a long neck that exaggerates their extremely pointy tail (hence the name) when in flight. The best place to find these ducks in the United States is wetland habitat away from people.
Interestingly, they are also proficient at walking on land, so youll find them cleaning farm fields of barley, wheat, rice, and corn leftovers. During migration, they reach speeds up to 48 mph (77 kph), and the record for longest non-stop flight is 1,800 miles (2900 km). How to identify: Males have reddish-brown flanks, green heads, a white chest, black backs, and yellow eyes.
If you only glance at the green head, casual observers in the United States might accidentally think these ducks are Mallards. They use their large bill to shovel and sift through mud and sand to find tasty tidbits like crustaceans, mollusks, aquatic insects that are buried. Interestingly, their bill has over 100 tiny projections on the edges called lamellae that help filter out the food they want to eat.
An interesting behavior observed with Northern Shovelers is their ability to team up to find food. Blue-winged Teal are a popular species for hunters, although the number of ducks that can be taken per year is monitored closely to ensure the population stays strong. Green-winged Teal populations have increased in the United States through the years, even though they are the second most hunted duck in the country.
Males give a short, clear, repeated whistle, which is a unique sound for a duck if you ask me! Look for the green crested head, red eyes, and chestnut breast with white flecks. Walt Disney used to say that the world is a carousel of color, and few waterfowl have taken this more to heart than the male Wood Duck.
In fact, it looks like an artist used every color to paint a duck that has green, red, orange, lime, yellow, buff, rose, brown, tan, black, white, gray, purple, and blue coloring. When hatchlings leave the nest for the first time, they often have to make a giant leap of faith (up to 50 feet) to the ground below! These ducks are found in the United States in shallow wetlands, where they often forage with Mallards.
American Black Ducks and female Mallards look incredibly similar, so make sure to look closely at large flocks for them! Cinnamon Teals nest and are most abundant in large, permanent wetlands in the United States. How to identify: As the name suggests, a mottled warm brown body contrasted against a buff head.
Specifically, female Mallards and American Black Ducks can cause some identification challenges. Mottled Ducks and Mallards are so closely related that they breed together often in the United States. Using their long legs, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks spend a lot of time out of water walking or perching on fences or in trees.
In addition to aquatic vegetation, like geese, they also eat similar leftover crops such as corn, rice, and wheat. In the United States, they are most likely found very near rice fields, crayfish farms, or flooded pastures. In the past, the widespread use of agricultural pesticides on rice fields led to many poisoned birds.
They spend up to half their time foraging underwater, looking for aquatic invertebrates and crustaceans, which they eat while still submerged. How to identify: Breeding males are blue-billed, white-cheeked, with a black cap and back of the neck, leading down to its chestnut-colored body. They will beat their bill against their neck so hard that it forces air through the feathers, which creates a swirl of bubbles in the water, which I guess the girls find attractive?
Its common to see them gathered together in enormous flocks, sometimes thousands strong, in relatively large lakes. Because of their gregarious nature, they are easily drawn to decoys, making them a popular game species for hunters. Interestingly, female Redheads practice a bit of brood parasitism , which means they will lay some of their eggs in the nests of other duck species and let them raise those hatchlings!
Unlike most other diving ducks, these birds tend to inhabit and visit SHALLOW ponds and wetlands in the United States. During the breeding season, you will usually only find two of them together, but in winter, they gather in flocks that number into the thousands of birds! They are one of the most likely ducks to eat leftover shotgun pellets, making them susceptible to lead poisoning.
Lead shot was banned in 1991, which has helped their population numbers, but some old ammo still remains in wetlands across the United States. How to identify: Males have a dark green head, a bright yellow eye, and a distinctive white cheek patch. One of their biggest threats is that they are cavity nesters and rely upon forestry practices that dont cut down dead trees.
Many dedicated people have put up next boxes in their breeding range to help provide more adequate nesting spots. Females have dark eyes and are brown overall with a slightly lighter colored crest, which almost looks like a mohawk. Seeing a breeding male with its large black and white crest erected is a beautiful sight.
Look for these ducks in shallow ponds and rivers in summer, while in winter, they move to unfrozen lakes or bays. Their long, thin bill is serrated, which helps them catch small fish, crayfish, and aquatic insects. Red-breasted Mergansers breed in boreal forests across much of North America, where they can be found on many inland lakes.
During winter, these sea ducks migrate south and spend most of their time just off the coast, although its possible to find them in just about any large, unfrozen body of water. Fish are their primary food source, and they need to eat roughly 15-20 per day to supply their energy demands. Sometimes they will help each other out, and individuals will work together to herd minnows to shallower water, which makes the fish easier to catch.
How to identify: A fairly large duck that has a long, slender orange bill with a black tip and dark eyes. Breeding males have a largely white body, a black back, and a mallard-like green head. Due to their thin bill, Common Mergansers stand out fairly easily from most other ducks in the United States.
Their favorite food is fish, which they catch with the help of their serrated bill, but they also indulge in aquatic invertebrates such as crustaceans, mollusks, insects, and worms. In fact, its common to see flocks of seagulls following them, hoping to snatch an easy meal. Interestingly, newborn ducklings are only about a day old when they leap from the entrance to the ground, at which point the mother will lead them to water, and they catch all their own food immediately.
How to identify: Males have yellow eyes, a glossy black head, and a chest and rump that contrasts with the speckled gray back and white sides. In winter, they gather closely by the thousands, and from afar, it looks like a large mass of floating vegetation. How to identify: Males have yellow eyes, a green head, a dark chest, and a rump that contrasts with the speckled gray back and white sides.
If you get a chance to see a Greater Scaup in the United States, please know that you are watching a duck that spends its summers breeding extremely far north in the arctic. Greater Scaups are excellent diving ducks, and they regularly go down 20+ feet to find aquatic vegetation or invertebrates to eat. These ducks are mostly silent, except during breeding season, where you may hear males give a soft, nasally whistle.
First, the coloration on breeding males is spectacular, and it looks like they were painted with beautiful blues, chestnuts, and whites. In winter, they move to rocky ocean shores that receive lots of wind and large waves. X-rays of Harlequin Ducks show the punishment their bodies take as they get tossed around in these extreme locations.
But the funny thing is they make a very un-duck-like noise, which sounds more like a squeaking mouse than your typical quack. These individuals also commonly breed with other native species, specifically Mallards, which create hybrids that are impossible to identify.
View illustrations, full-color photos, and video footage of each species. Learn more about their behavior, migration patterns, and the sounds they make. Study flock patterns and wing characteristics. Our Waterfowl ID guide has everything you need to recognize ducks, swans and geese in the field or on the fly!
Hunters can contribute to their own sport by not firing at those species that are either protected or scarce, and needed as breeders to restore the flocks. It can add to their daily limit; when extra birds of certain species can be taken legally, hunters who know their ducks on the wing come out ahead.
Differences in size, shape, plumage patterns and colors, wing beat, flocking behavior, voice, and habitatall help to distinguish one species from another. Mallards, pintails, and wigeon form loose groups; teal and shovelers flash by in small, compact bunches; at a distance, canvasbacks shift from waving lines to temporary V’s.
For people who are only ever used to seeing the common Mallard, this list should be incredibly eye-opening!Dabblers are those ducks that feed by sticking their head underwater and leaving their tails pointing up as they graze on the various greens and invertebrates in the shallows. However, that is not the only way that they eat. As winter ends and the snows start to melt, they will eat seeds and the leftover waste grain found in farm fields.Diving ducks completely submerge themselves underwater to grab aquatic vegetation from the bottom or chase food, such as fish or invertebratesIf so, one of these field guides should be able to help you!
American Black Duck
When hatchlings leave the nest for the first time, they often have to make a giant leap of faith (up to 50 feet) to the ground below!Interestingly, Wood Ducks are perfectly evolved for their life spent in trees. Their claws are powerful, which allows them to perch and grasp onto branches!
While their population is still healthy, it has slowly been declining over the past 50+ years.Males give a low-pitched rattling “The Females are great moms and highly protective of their hatchlings. If threatened, she will pretend to have a broken wing to try and draw the predators away!Mottled Ducks can be hard to identify because they blend in so well with other ducks.Not surprisingly, they sound incredibly similar to Mallards. Males have a raspy, low “
Overall, Buffleheads are more silent than other ducks. In late winter to early spring,
First, the males that are in their breeding plumage are unmistakable and look like no other duck.Males also have a unique way of attracting females. They will beat their bill against their neck so hard that it forces air through the feathers, which creates a swirl of bubbles in the water, which I guess the girls find attractive?Ruddy Ducks are much better swimmers than flyers.Males make a cat-like “
Females have an interesting behavior where they may lay some of their eggs in the nests of other Hooded Mergansers.