Identifying waterfowl gives many hours of
enjoyment to millions of people. This guide will
help you recognize birds on the wing - it
emphasizes their fall and winter plumage patterns
as well as size, shape, and flight
characteristics. It does not include local names.
Recognizing the species of ducks and geese can be
rewarding to birdwatchers and hunters - and the
ducks. 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. Knowing a mallard from a
merganser has another side: gourmets prefer a
corn-fed mallard to the fish duck.
What to Look For
Differences in size, shape, plumage patterns and
colors, wing beat, flocking behavior, voice, and
habitat - all help to distinguish one species
Flock maneuvers in the air are clues. 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
Closer up, individual silhouettes are important.
Variations of head shapes and sizes, lengths of
wings and tails, and fat bodies or slim can be
Within shotgun range, color areas can be
important. Light conditions might make them look
different, but their size and location are
The sound of their wings can help as much as
their calls. Flying goldeneyes make a whistling
sound; wood ducks move with a swish; canvasbacks
make a steady rushing sound. Not all ducks quack;
many whistle, squeal, or grunt.
Although not a hard and fast rule, different
species tend to use different types of habitat.
Puddle ducks like shallow marshes and creeks
while divers prefer larger, deeper, and more open
Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each
year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage
after mating, and for a few weeks resemble
females. This hen-like appearance is called the
eclipse plumage. The return to breeding
coloration varies in species and individuals of
each species. Blue-winged teal and shovelers may
retain the eclipse plumage until well into the
winter. Wing feathers are shed only once a year;
wing colors are always the same.
Puddle ducks are typically birds of fresh,
shallow marshes and rivers rather than of large
lakes and bays. They are good divers, but usually
feed by dabbling or tipping rather than
submerging. The speculum, or colored wing patch,
is generally irridescent and bright, and often a
telltale field mark. Any duck feeding in
croplands will likely be a puddle duck, for most
of this group are sure-footed and can walk and
run well on land. Their diet is mostly vegetable,
and grain-fed mallards or pintails or
acorn-fattened wood ducks are highly regarded as
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
water permits. Flocks often feed in early morning
and late afternoon in nearby harvested fields,
returning to marshes and creeks to spend the
night. The flight is not particularly rapid. Hens
have a loud quack; the drake's voice is
a low-pitched kwek-kwek.
These ducks use all four flyways, but are most
plentiful in the west. They are extremely
graceful and fast fliers, fond of zig-zagging
from great heights before leveling off to land.
The long neck and tail make them appear longer
than mallards, but in body size and weight they
are smaller. They are agile on land and often
feed in grain fields. The drakes whistle; the
hens have a coarse quack.
Gadwalls are most numerous in the Central Flyway,
but not too common anywhere. They are often
called "gray mallards" or "gray
ducks." They are one of the earliest
migrants, seldom facing cold weather. They are
the only puddle ducks with a white speculum.
Small, compact flocks fly swiftly, usually in a
direct line. Wingbeats are rapid. Drakes whistle
and kack-kack; hens quack like
a mallard, but softer.
These are nervous birds, quick to take alarm.
Their flight is fast, irregular, with many twists
and turns. In a bunched flock, their movements
have been compared to those of pigeons. When open
water is handy, wigeon often raft up offshore
until late afternoon when they move to marshes
and ponds to feed. The white belly and forewing
are very showy in the air. Drakes whistle; hens
have a loud kaow and a lower qua-awk.
Shovelers, 'spoonbills' to many, are early
migrants, moving out at the first frost. The
largest numbers are in the Central and Pacific
flyways. The usual flight is steady and direct.
When startled, the small flocks twist and turn in
the air like teal. They are not highly regarded
as table birds, because one third of the usual
diet is animal matter. Drakes call woh-woh
and took-took; the hen's quack is
Their small size and twisting turning flight
gives the illusion of great speed. The small,
compact flocks commonly fly low over the marshes,
and often take the hunter by suprise. They are
more vocal than most ducks - their high-pitched peeping
and nasal quacking is commonly heard in
spring and to a lesser extent in fall. These teal
are among the first ducks to migrate each fall,
and one of the last in the spring.
In the Pacific Flyway, cinnamon teal are far more
common than blue-wings. The hens look alike and
the habits of both species are similar. The pale
blue forewing patch is the best field mark, as
drakes are usually in eclipse until January or
longer. Drakes have a whistling peep;
hens utter a low quack.
Quite hardy - some birds stay as far north as
open water is found. The smallest and one of the
most common of our ducks. Their tiny size gives
the impression of great speed, but mallards can
fly faster. Their flight is often low, erratic,
with the entire flock twisting and turning as one
unit. They nest as far north as Alaska, and
migrate in all four flyways. Early fall drakes
are usually still in full eclipse plumage. Drakes
whistle and twitter; hens have a slight quack.
Found in all flyways; most numerous in the
Atlantic and Mississippi flyways and fewest in
the Central. They are early migrants; most of
them have left the northern states by
mid-November. Frequents wooded streams and ponds;
perches in trees. Flies through thick timber with
speed and ease and often feeds on acorns,
berries, and grapes on the forest floors. Flight
is swift and direct; flocks are usually small. In
the air, their wings make a rustling, swishing
sound. Drakes call hoo-w-ett, often in
flight; hens have a cr-r-ek when
A bird of the eastern states, primarily the
Atlantic Flyway and, to a lesser extent, the
Mississippi. Shy and wary, regarded as the
wariest of all ducks. Often seen in company of
mallards, but along the Atlantic coast frequents
the salt marshes and ocean much more than
mallards. Flight is swift, usually in small
flocks. White wing lining in contrast to very
dark body plumage is a good identification clue.
The hen's quack and the drake's kwek-kwek
are duplicates of the mallards.
Diving ducks frequent the larger, deeper lakes
and rivers, and coastal bays and inlets. The
colored wing patches of these birds lack the
brilliance of the speculums of puddle ducks.
Since many of them have short tails, their huge,
paddle feet may be used as rudders in flight, and
are often visible on flying birds. When launching
into flight, most of this group patter along the
water before becoming airborne. They feed by
diving, often to considerable depths. To escape
danger, they can travel great distances
underwater, emerging only enough to show their
head before submerging again. Their diets of
fish, shellfish, mollusks, and aquatic plants
make them second choice, as a group, for
sportsmen. Canvasbacks and redheads fattened on
eel grass or wild celery are notable exceptions.
Since their wings are smaller in proportion to
the size and weight of their bodies, they have a
more rapid wingbeat than puddle ducks.
Normally late to start south, canvasbacks migrate
in lines and irregular V's. In feeding areas,
compact flocks fly in indefinite formations.
Their wingbeat is rapid and noisy; their speed is
the swiftest of all our ducks. Feeding behavior
is highly variable. In some areas they feed at
night and spend the day rafted up in open waters;
in other areas they feed inshore mornings and
evenings. On the water, body size and head shape
distinguish them from scaups and redheads. Drakes
croak, peep, and growl;
hens have a mallard-like quack.
Range coast to coast, with the largest numbers in
the Central Flyway. Migratory flocks travel in
V's; move in irregular formations over feeding
areas. Often found associating with canvasback.
In the air, they give the impression of always
being in a hurry. Usually spend the day in large
rafts in deep water; feed morning and evening in
shallower sections. Drakes purr and meow;
hens have a loud squak, higher than a
Similar in appearance to scaups, but more often
found in fresh marshes and wooded ponds. In
flight, the dark wings are different from the
white-edged wings of scaup. Faint brown ring on
drake's neck never shows in the field; light
bands at tip and base of bill are conspicuous.
Fly as small flocks in open formation; often land
without circling. Drakes purr; hens are
Except for the wing marks, greater and lesser
scaup appear nearly identical in the field. The
light band near the trailing edges of the wings
runs almost to the tip in the greater scaup, but
only about half way in the lesser. Greater scaup
prefer large open water areas; lesser scaup often
use marshes and ponds. Both species migrate late,
sometimes just before freezeup. Flock movements
are rapid, often erratic, usually in compact
groups. Hens are silent; drake lesser scaup purr;
drake greater scaup have a discordant scaup,
These are active, strong-winged fliers moving
singly or in small flocks, often high in the air.
Distinctive wing-whistling sound in flight has
earned the name of whistlers. Goldeneyes
generally move south late in the season; most of
them winter on coastal waters and the Great
Lakes. Inland, they like rapids and fast water.
Barrow's goldeneye, predominantly a westerner, is
less wary than the common goldeneye. Hens of both
species are look-alikes. Drakes have a piercing speer-speer
- hens a low quack. Both are usually
Stragglers migrate south in mid-fall, but the
largest numbers move just ahead of freezeup. Most
flocks in feeding areas are small - 5 or 6 birds,
with more hens and immatures than adult drakes.
Very small size, bold black and white color
pattern and low, swift flight are field marks.
Unlike most divers, they can fly straight up from
a watery takeoff. Largest concentrations are on
both seacoasts and along the Gulf of Mexico.
Inland, they will remain as far north as open
water permits. Usually silent. Drakes squeak
and have a guttural note; hens quack
The ruddy duck often dives or swims away from
danger rather than flying. When flying, their
small wings stroke so fast they resemble
bumblebees. They are early to mid-fall migrants.
Drakes often cock their tails upright at an
angle, the only species to habitually do so. Both
hens and drakes are silent in the fall.
These birds winter most abundantly in coastal
waters, including the Gulf of Mexico, and to a
lesser extent, the Great Lakes. Their flight,
strong and direct, is usually low over the water.
They are difficult to distinguish in flight from
the common merganser. Voice: Seldom heard.
This species is larger than the red-breasted
merganser, and is one of the largest of our
ducks. It is one of the last to migrate south,
and is more common than the red-breasted
merganser on inland waters. Flocks move in
"follow the leader" style, low over the
water. The only call seems to be a startled croak.
Often seen in pairs, or very small flocks. Short
rapid wingstrokes create an impression of great
speed. Winters in the inland waters of all
coastal States; seldom goes to salt water. Voice:
Seldom heard in fall.
The trailing legs and rounded wings of these slow
flying ducks makes them look bigger than they
are. Both species are primarily Mexican. In the
U. S., the black-bellied is found only in south
Texas and Louisiana. The fulvous also occurs
there and in Florida with occasional stragglers
further north along both coasts and the
Mississippi Valley. The fulvous is the more
common of the two species in the United States.
Sexes are alike. Both species have shrill
The three scoters in this section are sea ducks,
wintering on open coastal waters. White-wings are
among the heaviest and largest of all ducks.
Like all scoters, these birds move along our
coasts in loose flocks, stringing into irregular,
wavy lines. Drakes can be distinguished from
other scoters by two white patches on their head
and bright color of the bill. Flight is strong,
direct, usually close to the waves.
In flight, drakes appear all black except for the
flash of the slight gray underwing and the bright
yellow swelling at the base of the upper bill.
Scoters feed on mullusks, crabs, and some fish
and very little vegetation. They are locally
known as "coots".
Thick-necked stocky birds, alternately flapping
and sailing in flight; flocks string out in a
line, close to the water. Occurs in the United
States chiefly along New England coasts and
occasionally south to New Jersey. Other eiders -
king, spectacled and Stellar's - occur in Alaska
and are not pictured in this guide. King eiders
occasionally are found in north Atlantic coastal
A slim, brightly plumaged sea duck. Smaller than
the scoters or eiders. Flight is swift and low
with constantly changing flock formations. Ranges
along both coasts and the Great Lakes. One of the
most vocal of ducks; drakes have a loud pleasant caloo,caloo,
Glossy slate-blue plumage enlivened by white
stripes and spots give the adult male harlequin a
striking appearance. The female resembles a small
female scoter. At a distance, both sexes look
black. Flight is swift, with abrupt turns. Flocks
are small and compact. Ranges both coasts, north
from New Jersey and San Francisco. Uncommon.
Once thought to be rare, trumpeter swans are
slowly increasing in Alaska and on western
refuges and parks. Whistling swans are common and
increasing. They winter near Chesapeake Bay, San
Francisco Bay, Puget Sound and salton Sea.
Occasionally found in fields. Both species are
large with pure white plumage.
Numerous and popular, Canada geese are often
called "honkers". Includes several
races varying in weight from 3 to over 12 pounds.
All have black heads and necks, white cheeks,
similar habitats and voices. Sexes are identical.
These are sea geese, the blacks wintering south
to Baja California, in the Pacific. The Atlantic
race winters from Virginia northward. Flight is
swift, in irregular and changing flock patterns.
Two races of snow geese are recognized: greater
snows along the Atlantic Coast, and lesser snows
elsewhere on the continent. Blue geese are a
color phase of the lesser snow.
Migrates chiefly in the Central and Pacific
flyways but also present in the Mississippi. Rare
in the Atlantic Flyway. Appears brownish gray at
a distance. Often called
"specklebelly". Most distinctive
characteristic of the V-shaped flocks is the high
pitched call kow-kow-kow-kow.
Comparative Sizes of Some Water Birds
Wetlands Attract Wildlife
There's more than just ducks in our marshes.
Knowing and identifying other birds and animals
add to the enjoyment of being in a blind. The
same sources of food and shelter that draw
waterfowl to ponds and marshes also attract other
forms of wildlife. Protected species are
sometimes more numerous than ducks or geese.
Money from Duck stamp sales is used exclusively
to purchase wetlands, preserving areas for ducks,
geese, and all wildlife for the enjoyment and
pleasure of hunters and non-hunters alike.
Administrative Waterfowl Flyways
The term "flyway" has long been used to
designate the migration routes of birds. For
management purposes, four waterfowl flyways -
Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic -
were established in the United States in 1948. To
varying degrees the waterfowl populations using
each of these flyways differ in abundance,
species composition, migration pathways, and
breeding ground origin. There are differences,
also, in levels of shooting pressure and harvest.
For the most part flyway boundaries follow Sate
lines. However, the boundary between the Pacific
and the Central flyway generally follows the
There are some problems in matching waterfowl
migration corridors with flyway boundaries
because some species nest and winter in areas
that do not occur along a north-south axis. These
species cross flyway boundaries during migration.
On balance, the present arrangement is useful in
that it permits reasonable management of
waterfowl. At some future time, it is possible
that further rearrangement of boundaries may
permit better management of the waterfowl
In 1952, Flyway Councils were formed in each of
the four flyways. The Council in each flyway is
made up of representatives from the wildlife
agencies of the States in that flyway - one
representative from each State. The Councils
study flyway problems, develop waterfowl
management recommendations, and generally work
closely with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service
in implementing waterfowl management and research
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