HUNTING

Types of Ducks: Read this to Get Your Ducks in A Row

How to Identify Ducks
Shawn Harrison
Written by Shawn Harrison

Knowing the main types of ducks isn’t only of interest for hunters, but for bird watchers or nature lovers of any sort as well.

Familiarizing yourself with their habitat means you can observe them at the proper moments and identify them easier once you know their behaviors and plumages. Still, waterfowl hunting is a great experience.

Types of ducks

You need a lot of skill and dexterity, but you also need some information regarding your game so you can optimize your techniques. Better check out our piece on how to select the best waterfowl hunting gear for reference. We’re here to help you with all that, so go on reading.

How to Identify Ducks

Seeing as some people want to be very specific when identifying ducks, you should take into account the following things:

Getting the right equipment

  • Binoculars for observing all the necessary details regarding plumage and shape.
  • Field guide with a lot of photos and useful information.
  • Clothes that are loose, with neutral colors and long sleeves. Wading boots are a must if you’re to spend a lot of time in/ around water.

Knowing what to look at

You can get what type of duck you’re looking at if you can tell how they look, sound and act. That means you’ll have to know:

  • Its
  • The size of the head and neck.
  • Its gait and posture at rest.
  • If it has visible markings or patches.
  • The shape of its head.
  • The presence or absence of a crest, eye line or blemishes.
  • The size, shape, and color of the beak.
  • The size and color of the nail.
  • The neck length and the presence of unique patterns on the neck.
  • The colors, patterns and patches on its plumage.
  • The color, length and position of the legs.
  • How the duck walks on the ground.
  • The length, position and width of the tail.
  • Details about its habitat.
  • What, where and how it likes to eat.
  • Whether or not it makes distinct vocalizations.
  • If they exhibit a social behavior, like flying or feeding in flocks.

These are the main details you can find in this article regarding various sorts of ducks.

All About Ducks

That being said, ducks are members of the Anatidae family, along with geese and swans. The most common subfamilies of ducks are:

Dabbling Ducks

The dabbling ducks are pretty cool, considering the technique they use for getting food just from the water surface.

The way they tip their heads to do that is pretty funny, yet requires a lot of balance. They can dive too, but that’s not a typical behavior and they much prefer the vegetation that grows on the water surface.

Dabbling Ducks

Other common characteristics are:

  • Light plumage.
  • They fly vertically.
  • Small feet.
  • Forward-placed legs.

The four most common species of dabbling ducks are:

Mallard

  • It gives actual advice.
  • Very frequent in North America.
  • Largest dabbler of them all: 24 inches long and 3 pounds heavy at maturity.
  • A huge wingspan of about 3 feet.
  • Heavy gait.
  • Round head.
  • Large bill.
  • Posterior wings in flight.
  • The male has more colors on its plumage: while the female has a brown plumage, the male has a distinctive green head and neck, with a white neck ring.
  • Their beaks are bright: yellow for the male and orange for the female.
  • Easily recognizable by the blue wing patches for both genders.
  • The female emits a specific quacking vocalization during the hunting season.
  • They like staying in groups.
  • They hate diving.
  • They avoid people.
  • Habitats: ponds, lakes, marshes, parks.
  • They eat anything from worms and larvae, to small crustaceans and seeds.

Teal

  • Can be found with both green and blue wing blemishes.
  • Are the smallest of all dabblers, though the blue-blemished ones are a bit larger.
  • Distinctly colored head for the green-blemished males: brown + dark green stripes.
  • Males have a gray body, while the females are motley
  • The blue-blemished patched males have a white facial crest.
  • The blue-blemished female’s eyes are easily recognizable by a dark line.

Northern Pintail

  • Slim.
  • Have a long neck.
  • Their tail is long and black.
  • The head is brown.
  • They have white stripes on the neck.
  • The plumage is gray.
  • Smaller than the mallard.
  • The females are motley
  • The males have green patches on the wings, white chest and neck strip, auburn heads.
  • They live in the west of the US, adoring wetlands and areas with short grass.
  • Their winters are spent inland.
  • They eat anything from seeds to aquatic vegetation, insects and small invertebrates and crustaceans.
  • Their renowned way of flying down is by doing zig-zags towards the ground.

Gadwall

  • Darker plumage for both genders, with brown, black and gray hues.
  • About the same size as Mallards, though a bit smaller.
  • Their bills are narrow.
  • They have a slender gait with less large necks.
  • They like to steal food from their peers.
  • Adore flying with other ducks and keeping a straight line.
  • They flop their wings really fast when flying.
  • Their preferred mating spot is on the prairie. Or in wider plains.
  • Their migration begins pretty early.
  • They spend their winters near ponds, parks, and marshes.

If you want to bird watch or shoot such ducks, you should use their behaviors to your advantage and:

  • Follow them around shallow waters with no currents, where patches of land may appear.
  • Do your scouting diligently and go in the places where you’ve seen them before.
  • Learn to call the dabblers with feed calls.
  • Since the hens quack distinctively, use this vocalization to draw them in more effectively.
  • They’re predictable, so follow their routine.

Diving Ducks

The main characteristics of diving ducks are:

  • They feed by diving head down beneath the water surface and sticking their bottoms up.
  • They can feed on the surface too, but that’s not the typical way they get food in their stomachs.
  • Their bodies are compact and hydrodynamic in shape.
  • Their feet are large and posteriorly placed.
  • The most common species include redheads, ringnecks, and scaups.

You can observe and hunt diving ducks by keeping tracks of their habitats, like:

Marshes

  • They feed along with other types of ducks in marshes, either by diving, either by eating from the water surface.
  • Diver decoys work well here to attract divers.
  • You should also look for puddles in public areas like parks too.
  • The areas preferred by divers in marshes are the ones with open waters.
  • They like looking for food at the merging between shallow and deep waters in marshes.
  • If there’s a lot of underwater vegetation in a marsh or with subaquatic invertebrates, you’re in the right spot.

Lakes

  • Big areas of water like lakes are the preferred spot for many divers.
  • The routines they generally engage in here regard feeding or just hanging out with their homies.
  • If you’re out hunting, you’ll definitely need a boat and decoys.
  • If you’re just stalking or bird watching, you’ll have to find a covered bank to hide.
  • You can even stalk from the open waters, by camouflaging your boat.
  • Use a great pair of duck binoculars and observe the ducks from the lake banks.
  • In extremely windy weather, look for them in shelters along the shore.

Rivers

  • Divers love rivers, especially downstream of dams. These are the preferred spots for shelters.
  • They’re constantly on the move on rivers because of currents and debris.
  • Avoid times with high waters, because that will make your birdwatching or hunting trip more dangerous.
  • You can either remain on shore or go out in a boat for scouting or hunting.
  • You should look for ducks in swamps, closer to vegetation, in emerging land patches or where smaller rivers disgorge.
  • If you’re stalking or hunting from within a boat, you should camouflage it with blinds.
  • You can even use blinds or another sort of camouflage like driftwood and rocks even from the shoreline.

Estuaries and bays

  • Most divers love hanging around the coast during wintertime especially.
  • Estuaries are some of their preferred grounds for both shelter and food.
  • The food they eat here consists mainly of invertebrates for protein.
  • Research the tidal movement and weather patterns so you’ll know how the divers move.
  • High tide means good waves for your boat, but also a lot of water for the ducks to dive in and seek food.
  • You can also hide on the shoreline, or on land stripes that protrude out of the water nearer the divers favored
  • Even if you’re just bird-watching, you’re likely to need a boat for reaching these areas where you’re more likely to encounter divers.

Sea Ducks

As you can easily gather from their name, sea ducks are your fine feathered friends who live near the sea, where they feed on fish, mollusks or crustaceans. Except for their mating season, when they prefer a less marine environment to find that perfect partner.

They probably don’t find the sea all that romantic, since they’ve developed special glands to withstand high salt levels.

They live in the northern hemisphere predominantly, and even if they’re sea ducks, they can be found around rivers, estuaries and bays too. There are 17 species of sea ducks, and each one looks different since most of them have an impressive plumage with diverse patterns that really stand out of the crowd.

Scoters

  • The most common type of sea ducks in the US.
  • You’ll see surf, black and white scoters.

The black scoter:

  • It’s a large duck: 19 inches in length, 2 pounds weight and 28 inches wingspan.
  • The male has a black plumage and a yellow beak, while the female is motley
  • When the male stretches its wings, it moves its head down.
  • Its beak is wide and it has a compact gait.
  • They emit distinct quacks.
  • They like living together, but they tend to be more solitary during the mating season.
  • You can find them in hidden recesses along the coastline that form a bay.

The white-winged scoter:

  • It’s the largest of all the scoters.
  • It’s bulky.
  • Its bill is wide, and it has a huge, black knob.
  • The average weight is 2.75 pounds and the average length is 21 inches.
  • The female has a brown plumage and pale blemishes on the head.
  • The male has a black plumage, but is white around the eyes and has white blemishes on its wings.

The surf scoter:

  • Migrates south for the winter, and you can find it on the northern US coasts.
  • Hangs out with others in huge flocks.
  • It’s a very sociable bird.
  • It builds nests on the shoreline either near the sea or rivers. It can even build nests inland.
  • It reaches an average length of 18 inches and weight of 2.2 pounds.
  • It’s the smallest of all scoters.
  • The male has black featherings, with white blemishes on the head and nape.
  • The male’s bill has an interesting pattern with white, red and yellow.
  • The female has brown featherings, with pale blemishes on the head.

Long-tail ducks

  • They love hanging around very deep water.
  • They hide among huge rocks.
  • Their former name was oldsquaw.
  • They have a medium size, measuring an average length of 20 inches, weighs about 1.6 pounds and its wingspan is 28 inches.
  • The male’s tail is long and pointy, their bill is gray with pink, and it grows a dark blemish on its cheek in winter. Its plumage is generally white, with some brown and black patches.
  • The female is motley brown, a bit lighter on the head during winter. Its tail is pointy too, but shorter.
  • The male emits a distinct yodeling
  • Apart from sea coasts, they can also be spotted around marshes.
  • They build their nests near the water.
  • They migrate during the winter when you can find them on the coasts of northern US.
  • They love hanging out with their peers, in big flocks.
  • They’re an AEWA protected species.

Harlequins

  • They can also be found hanging around more turbulent waters inland.
  • They spend their winters on the coast.
  • They reach a medium size of 1.3 pounds and 16 inches. Their wingspan is 26 inches.
  • Their eyes and ears have white patches around them.
  • The male has a white, gray and black plumage with auburn patches on its wings.
  • The female is motley brown, with a paler head and white belly.
  • They hide their nests pretty well, near streams.
  • They don’t migrate very far.
  • The Northern American harlequins are endangered.
  • Their dense, insulated feathers render them very buoyant.
  • They have a funny bouncing-like movement once they get back from a dive.

Eiders

  • Large ducks that reach an average of 24 inches in length, 4.5 pounds weight and 36 inches in wingspan.
  • They prefer the northern coastlines, but they migrate south for winter.
  • They live in huge flocks, as they’re very sociable.
  • Their flock size can even reach more than 10,000 individuals.
  • Their flight speed is huge.
  • Their nests are built near the sea, lined with the female feathers for insulation.
  • Their gait is bulky, and their bills look like wedges.
  • The male has white and black feathers, with a green nape.
  • The female is brown.
  • They emit distinct vocalizations, but the male’s is especially weird: it sounds like a person saying “oooh” after getting hurt.
  • They’re a species protected by the AEWA.

Whistling Ducks

You can find them around the Gulf Coast.

  • They’re long and slim.
  • They emit a distinct squeal.
  • The two species you can find in the US are the fulvous whistling ducks and the black bellies.
  • They have long necks and legs.
  • Their gait is pretty imposing and vertical, which makes them resemble geese.
  • Both genders have similar-looking featherings.
  • The ducklings are raised by both parents, who form a life-long pair.
  • They have a single molt.

Black-bellies

  • They don’t make in flight formations, and they don’t reach a big speed.
  • You can recognize them when they fly because they show a high contrast between their black bodies and their red bill and feet, as well as white lower wings.
  • They don’t usually migrate, they just move around to find more appropriate mating spots.
  • The nests of black-bellied ducks can be found in tree hollows, boxes and on the ground in the high
  • Unfortunately, some critters will destroy their nests. So if you want to find their location, a raccoon or woodpecker eating some eggs might be a good clue.
  • They search for food and shelter in swamps and lagoons.
  • They can also search food in pastures or in agricultural fields.

Fulvous ducks

  • Have a short tail.
  • Their wings are large.
  • They don’t waddle and move agilely.
  • They have a distinct reddish-brown head, chest, and abdomen.
  • Their wings are a darker shade of brown, with a white line around.
  • The US population migrates to Mexico during winter.
  • You can find their nests starting from May, in wetlands.
  • They leave their eggs uncovered.
  • In late summer and early autumn, you can find these ducks in large ponds, or even rice fields where they like to feed at nighttime in huge groups.
  • In middle autumn, they’ll be found more around coastal marshes.

Your Ducksperience

As you can see, most of these ducks look pretty cool, and they make interesting quacking sounds.

The only difficulty is distinguishing between the hens, seeing as drakes are the ones with the most interesting patterns and colors.

Your Ducksperience

But there are slim chances you’ll only spot single female ducks on the field.

So now tell us more about why you’re interested in these differences between ducks. Are you a bird watching aficionado, or do you want to know what you’re shooting at? Let us know in the comments below!

To make hunting easier, check out our guide on the top duck hunting tips for your reference. Definitely a must-read for every hunter!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Harrison
Shawn Harrison

Shawn Harrison is our expert in hunting. He was born in Alaska, so hunting was his hobby since high school. Later, Shawn took a Hunter Training at Alaska Department of Fish and Game to structure his knowledge and now he is open to share his knowledge with our readers. Shawn is taking ‘Safety First’ approach on all of his trips, especially is some people are going hunting for the first time.

  • Ray Orson

    Great article, thanks, Shawn. Personally, I think it is really important to know the differences between the types of ducks out there when hunting as it will more often than not determine the size of the shell you’re using in your gun. Personally, I use sizes 4-1 to for ducks, varying depending on the type of duck, for instance, if I’m planning on shooting teal or other small ducks I’ll use a 4, whereas I’ll typically use a 2 or1 for the bigger ducks like mallards and finally, I’ll use a 3 if I’m not sure what I’m shooting at.

    • Shawn Harrison

      Knowing the differences between ducks and how they behave gives you a competitive edge whenever you are in the field. There are a lot of ducks in the wild, and the technique to effectively capture them varies per duck (especially in sizing). But overall, a hunter who is up for the challenge will gain significantly more from the experience.

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