by Keith Sutton
Hunters must observe several things when trying to identify ducks. Differences in size, shape, plumage patterns, colors, wingbeat, flocking behavior, voice and habitat all help separate one species from another.
Is the duck large or small? Is its body long and slender or short and plump? Does it have a crest? What color are its wingpatches, cap, head, breast, belly, back and tail? Or its eyes, bill and feet?
Does the duck dive when feeding, or does it just tip head-down? Does it patter across the water on takeoff or fly straight up? What type of habitat is it in?
By observing these and other characteristics, you’ll soon distinguish ducks you once thought impossible to identify.
Not all identification characteristics for North American ducks, like voice and habitat, are included here. Only the more common species are listed.
Dabbling ducks, or puddle ducks, frequent shallow waters such as flooded fields and marshes. They feed by tipping up rather than diving. When taking flight, they spring into the air instead of pattering across the water. Most swim with their tail held clear of the water and have a colorful, iridescent speculum (a rectangular patch at the hind edge of the wing).
(Photo: Ryan Askren)
Male mallards have a green head, white neck-ring, white tail, chestnut breast, grayish body and yellow bill. Females are mottled brown with a whitish tail and mottled orange bill. The speculum on both sexes is metallic violet-blue with conspicuous white borders in front and back.
Look for the dark head, white neck ring and contrasting dark chest and light belly on flying drakes. Both drake and hen exhibit the white-bordered speculum. The wingbeat is much slower than in most ducks. Flocks often are large.
Key field marks in flight: Large dabbling duck with silvery-white wing linings and a bluish speculum with a white bar along both leading and trailing edges
(Photo: Rob Whitney)
Wood ducks have a conspicuous crest. Males are boldly patterned with iridescent maroon, green and purple and have a distinctive white chin patch and a white-and-red bill. Females are grayish-brown with lighter flanks, a white belly and broad white eye-rings. The speculum is blue on both sexes.
On the wing, the wood duck’s white belly contrasts with the dark breast and wings. The head is held above the level of the body; the bill points down at an angle. The short neck and long square tail are conspicuous. The flight is swift and direct. Flocks are usually small.
Key field marks in flight: Medium-sized dabbling duck with a long crest on head; long-winged and long-tailed; blue-green speculum with white rear border
(Photo: Jeremiah Pennington)
Male greenwings have a maroon head, spotted tan breast and gray sides. The head turns chestnut-colored and has a green ear patch by early winter, when a white vertical crescent behind the breast becomes evident. Females are grayish-brown, speckled below. Both sexes sport a green speculum.
If a small duck without conspicuous wing colors flies by, it’s probably this species. From below, flying drakes show a light belly. The flight is fast, buzzy and erratic, usually low, with compact flocks wheeling in unison.
Key field marks in flight: Very small, short-necked and small-billed dabbling duck with a green speculum and lacking white wing patches
(Photo: Rob Whitney)
Bluewings are pint-sized ducks with chalky-blue shoulder patches on the front of the wing. The bill is relatively large. Males are grayish above, tan spotted with dark below. A white face crescent is present by early winter in adults. The female is brownish-gray above, pale gray marked with dark below.
Flight is erratic, and the bluewing’s small size and twisting turns give the illusion of great speed. The small, compact flocks usually fly low.
Key field marks in flight: Very small dabbling duck with large, chalky-blue patches on the forewing
(Photo: Rob Whitney)
Pintails are slim ducks with slender necks. Males have a brown head, white neck and a distinctive white line extending up the side of the head. The breast is white, the speculum is green, and the central tail feathers are black and needle-pointed. Females are similar to female mallards, but are more slender, with a more pointed tail and a brown speculum bordered with white at the rear edge only.
In flight, the white breast, thin neck and needle tail separate the male from other species. The slender, long-necked shape and light border on the rear of the wings help identify hens.
Key field marks in flight: Slender, slim-necked, medium-sized dabbling duck with long, needle-pointed tail
(Photo: Ron Charest)
Shovelers are slightly larger than teal and have a large spoon-shaped bill. Males are largely black and white with rufous-red belly and sides, white breast and green head. Females are mottled brown. Both sexes have chalky-blue shoulder patches and green speculums. On the water, shovelers sit low with the bill pointed downward, and show the most white of any dabbling duck.
Flying shovelers show an alternating pattern of dark-light-dark-light-dark from head to tail. They have a hump-backed appearance unlike other dabblers. Look for the large spoon-shaped bill and large, pale-blue shoulder patches. The usual flight is steady and direct, but the small flocks twist and turn like teal when startled.
Key field marks in flight: Medium-sized dabbling duck with long, spoon-shaped bill, green speculum
(Photo: Tom Reichner)
Male wigeons have a distinctive white crown. They are pinkish with a gray head, a green ear patch and bold white shoulder patches. Females are mottled brown with a gray head and neck and whitish shoulder patches. Both sexes have pale blue feet, a bright blue, black-tipped bill and a green speculum.
Flying wigeons are easily recognized by the large white patch covering the front of the wing. In other ducks with white patches, the patches are on the hind edge, although the similarly placed blue wingpatches of the blue-winged teal and shoveler often appear white at a distance. From beneath, the sharply outlined, white belly and dark, pointed tail are good field marks. The flight is fast and irregular with many twists and turns.
Key field marks in flight: Medium-sized dabbling duck with white crown (males); large white patch on forewing (both sexes)
(Photo: Rob Whitney)
Gadwall drakes are slender gray ducks with a black rump, light brown head and neck, reddish brown shoulders and gray bill. Females are mottled brown with a yellow-brown bill. Both sexes have a white belly, yellow feet and white speculum.
In flight, look for male’s black rump and the white speculum on both sexes. Gadwalls have a slimmer appearance in the air than mallards, but less so than pintails.
Key field marks in flight: Large grayish-brown dabbling duck with a steep forehead and white speculum
Diving ducks, also called sea ducks, are typically birds of large, deep lakes and rivers, coastal bays and inlets. Their speculums lack the brilliance of those on most dabblers. Most patter along the water in taking wing. They all dive for food, whereas dabblers rarely dive. They also have a more rapid wingbeat than most dabblers.
(Photo: Mark Askek)
Male ring-necks have a black breast and back. The glossy purple head appears black. The sides are gray (sometimes appearing white), and the chestnut neck-ring for which ringnecks are named is only visible in hand. On the water, drakes show a vertical white crescent in front of the wing. Hens are brown with a white eye-ring and an indistinct white area near the bill. The most notable characteristics on both sexes are the dark, white-ringed bill and peaked triangular head-shape. The speculum is bluish-gray, and the belly is white.
Flying ringnecks can be distinguished from scaups by the black back and gray wing-stripe. They fly swiftly in compact wedges and often land without circling.
Key field marks in flight: Small diving duck with a broad gray (not white) wing stripe and a dark bill crossed by a white ring;
(Photo: Tasha Dimarzio)
Ruddy ducks are very small, chunky birds, unpatterned except for conspicuous white cheeks. Winter males are grayish-brown with white cheeks, a dark cap and a large, gray-blue bill. Females are similar but with light cheeks crossed by a dark line. Both sexes have a long tail that is often cocked straight up.
Ruddies prefer to escape danger by diving or hiding in vegetation. But once airborne, they are fast fliers with a quick wingbeat. On the wing, they are unpatterned except for the distinctive white cheeks of males.
Key field marks in flight: Small chubby diving duck with a white cheek patch and dark cap
(Photo: Kim Taylor)
Male scaups have light gray, almost white bodies, blackish chests and a very dark head. Females are dark brown with a distinct white patch at the base of the bill.
In flight, look for the white stripe on the trailing edge of the wing in both sexes. The bill is blue, hence the gunner’s nickname “bluebill.”
Key field marks in flight: Small duck with a broad white stripe on the trailing edge of the wing (scaups are the only ducks with this marking)
(Photo: Douglas Norton)
Buffleheads are small ducks with puffy heads on a chunky, short-necked body. The white wing patches are conspicuous. Males have a large white head patch extending from the eye over the back of the head. The female is dusky and has a slanting white cheek patch.
Buffleheads are among the fastest flying ducks with one of the most rapid wingbeats. In flight, the single broad white bands on the wings of males and the white speculum of the females contrast sharply with the dark outer parts of the wings. Most flocks consist of pairs and trios. Unlike most divers, buffleheads can fly straight up when taking off from the water.
Key field marks in flight: Very small diving duck with a large white patch on the head behind the eye (male) or a small oval white patch on the head behind the eye (female)
For more details, photos and sound clips on the species above and more, be sure to check out our waterfowl identification gallery.