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Title: Ducks at a Distance - A Waterfowl Identification Guide
Author: Hines, Robert W.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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      file which includes the numerous original illustrations.

A Waterfowl Identification Guide


Bob Hines
Department of the Interior
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Washington, D.C. 1978

Table of Contents

   Identification is Important
   What to Look For
   Eclipse Plumage
   Species Identification:
      Puddle Ducks
      Blue-Winged Teal
      Cinnamon Teal
      Green-Winged Teal
      Wood Duck
      Black Duck
      Diving Ducks
      Red-Breasted Merganser
      Common Merganser
      Hooded Merganser
      Whistling Ducks
      White-Winged Scoter
      Surf Scoter
      Black Scoter
      Common Eider
      Canada Geese
      White-Fronted Geese
   At a Glance Guide
   Comparative Sizes Of Waterfowl
   Wetlands Attract Wildlife
   Administrative Waterfowl Flyways

Identification is Important

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 from another.

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 temporary

Closer up, individual silhouettes are important. Variations of head
shapes and sizes, lengths of wings and tails, and fat bodies or slim can
be seen.

Within shotgun range, color areas can be important. Light conditions
might make them look different, but their size and location are positive
keys. 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 waters.

Eclipse Plumage

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

Puddle Ducks

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 iridescent 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 food.


Weight--2¾ lbs.

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.

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_.


Weight--1¾ lbs.

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_.


Weight--2 lbs.

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.


Weight--1¾ lbs.

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, wigeons 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_.


Weight--1½ lbs.

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 feeble.

Blue-Winged Teal

Weight--15 oz.

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 surprise.

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

These teal are among the first ducks to migrate each fall, and one of
the last in the spring.

Cinnamon Teal

In the Pacific Flyway, cinnamon teal are far more common than
blue-wings. The hens look alike and the habits of both species are

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_.

Green-Winged Teal

Length--15 in.
Weight--14 oz.

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_.

Wood Duck

Length--18½ in.
Weight--1½ lbs.

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

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 frightened.

Black Duck

Length--24 in.
Weight--2¾ lbs.

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

Diving Ducks

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.


Length--22 in.
Weight--3 lbs.

Normally late to start south, canvasbacks migrate in lines and irregular

In feeding areas, compact flocks fly in indefinite formations. Their
wingbeat is rapid and noisy; their speed is the swiftest of all our

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

Drakes _croak_, _peep_, and _growl_; hens have a mallard-like _quack_.


Length--20 in.
Weight--2½ lbs.

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 hen


Length--17 in.
Weight--2½ lbs.

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 usually silent.


Greater--Length--18½ in.
         Weight--2 lbs.

Lesser--Length--17 in.
        Weight--1-7/8 lbs.

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, scaup_.


Common--Length--19 in.
        Weight--2¼ lbs.

Barrow's--Length--19 in.
          Weight--2¾ lbs.

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

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 quiet.


Length--14½ in.
Weight--1 lb.

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_


Length--15½ in.
Weight--1-1/3 lbs.

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.

Red-Breasted Merganser

Length--23 in.
Weight--2½ lbs.

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.

Common Merganser

Length--25½ in.
Weight--2½ lbs.

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_.

Hooded Merganser

Length--18 in.
Weight--1½ lbs.

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

Voice: Seldom heard in fall.

Whistling Ducks

Length--18-19 in.
Weight--1¾ lbs.

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 whistling calls.

White-Winged Scoter

Length--21½ in.
Weight--3½ lbs.

The three scoters on these two pages are sea ducks, wintering on open
coastal waters. White-wings are among the heaviest and largest of all

Surf Scoter

Length--19½ in.
Weight--2 lbs.

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 the bright color of
the bill.

Flight is strong, direct, usually close to the waves.

Black Scoter

Length--19½ in.
Weight--2½ lbs.

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

Scoters feed on mollusks, crabs, and some fish and very little
vegetation. They are locally known as "coots."

Common Eider

Length--23½ in.
Weight--5 lbs.

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

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 waters.


Length--20½ in.
Weight--2 lbs.

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_, constantly heard.


Length--17 in.
Weight--1½ lbs.

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.


Trumpeter--Length--59 in.
           Weight--28 lbs.

Whistling--Length--52 in.
           Weight--16 lbs.

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.

Canada Geese

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


Length--24-25 in.
Weight--3¼ - 3¾ lbs.

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.

Snow Geese

Length--29-31 in.
Weight--6½-7½ lbs.

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.

White-Fronted Geese

Length--29 in.
Weight--6¼ lbs.

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_.


All birds on these pages are drawn to the same scale.

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

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 State lines. However, the
boundary between the Pacific and the Central flyway general follows the
Continental Divide.

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 resource.

Flyway Councils

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


For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing
Office Washington, D.C. 20402

Stock No. 024-010-00442-8

Created in 1849, the Department of the Interior--America's Department of
Natural Resources--is concerned with the management, conservation, and
development of the Nation's water, fish, wildlife, mineral, forest, and
park and recreational resources. It also has major responsibilities for
Indian and Territorial affairs.

As the Nation's principal conservation agency, the Department works to
assure that nonrenewable resources are developed and used wisely, that
park and recreational resources are conserved for the future, and that
renewable resources make their full contribution to the progress,
prosperity, and security of the United States--now and in the future.

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