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Waterfowl Identification

Waterfowl Identification

The Ability to Identify Ducks in Flight Will Make You A Better Waterfowl Hunter

  • Waterfowl Habitat Knowledge
  • Duck Body Size
  • Waterfowl Flight Patterns
  • How different ducks sound
  • Plumage Colors

One of the most significant times of the year is duck season. The sport of waterfowl hunting has grown exponentially over the last decade. This year there will be more duck hunters trying their luck than ever before. One thing that every duck hunter needs to be better at is waterfowl identification.

Waterfowl identification is a critical aspect of duck hunting. Knowing the type of birds flying over or landing in a duck spread could be the difference to shooting a limit or not. The small amount of time needed to identify a duck could save you the hassle of going over a limit on a certain species. Even the best waterfowl hunters have said there are times it’s hard to determine the species around you. We want to help you get better with your waterfowl identification and ultimately make you a better duck hunter.

Duck Identification: Knowing Habitat, Body Size, Flying Habits, Sound, and Colors Will Help You More Accurately Identify Ducks While Duck Hunting

All ducks have unique characteristics that make them easy for identifying. By studying and knowing these characteristics will make for field recognizing of ducks that much easier. Because you will have already set up a spread somewhere, identifying the habitat around you is a great place to start.

Duck Identification Tip #1: Duck Hunting Habitat

Duck Identification

Diver Ducks Vs. Dabbling Duck (Photo Credit:

There are two different types of ducks that waterfowl hunters target. These consist of dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Knowing the different habitat that each kind prefer is the first step to properly identifying the duck species correctly.

Dabbling duck, often called puddle ducks, are species of ducks that usually live in low land areas. They prefer shallow water of marshes and flooded fields for food. They get their name the dabbler ducks because of how they feed. They are known to tip up to eat rather than diving under the water. They target aquatic vegetation, insects, and small invertebrates. Another characteristic about dabbling ducks is how they take flight. They will jump off the water rather than glide over the water. Some of the most common species of dabbling duck include mallard, teal (blue-winged, green-winged, and cinnamon), wood duck, widgeon, black ducks, pintail, gadwall, and shovelers.

Diver Ducks are the type of ducks that you find on the open water. They prefer the deeper water of lakes. They are known for diving for their food. Most of the time you can find diver ducks on large open lakes because they prefer larger, deeper bodies of water. These ducks have a diet that consists of fish, small mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic plants. Some of the most common species of diving ducks are redheads, canvasbacks, ring-necks, mergansers, and scaups.

Duck Identification Tip #2: Duck Body Size

Waterfowl Identification

A General size chart of waterfowl species. (Photo Credit:

Once you know, the habitat that ducks are found in the next common thing to look for when trying to identify waterfowl accurately is body size. Telling the difference between a goose and a duck can be very easy. Ducks are a lot smaller than geese. When it comes to understanding the difference between different species of ducks it can be more of a challenge. Knowing that a pintail and mallard are the largest of the duck species will allow you to determine the larger ducks more accurately. As a waterfowl hunter, it will be in your best interest to look for other deciding factors that can better help you correctly identify the duck. Things you should look for are colors of the feathers, length of wingspan, neck size, and length of feathers.

Duck Identification Tip #3: Duck Flying Habits

Waterfowl Hunting

Mallards in Flight (Photo

Duck flying habits is an essential part of duck identification. No matter how close you are to the ducks, you should be able to identify them correctly based on their flight patterns. One of the first things you should look for is the flight pattern of the flock of ducks. Is the flock in a loose group or are they in a tight flying group? The larger species of birds like mallards, pintails, and wigeons usually form loose groups in flight patterns. Smaller species like shovelers and teal form tight groups in their flight pattern. Geese typically form V-shaped formations in flight and can be found in a lot more prominent flocks. Species like snow geese can be found in flocks of thousands of birds. By knowing these essential flight, patterns will make identification of in-flight birds that much easier until you can get close enough to confirm unique colors or duck sounds.

Duck Identification Tip #4: Duck Sounds

identify duck

Mallard Creating Duck Sounds (Photo Credit: The Spruce)

One thing that all waterfowl hunters know is to listen to the birds. The sounds that come from the ducks and geese will tell you a lot about what species are flying over. When you find a roost or staging pond many times, you will identify the waterfowl on it by the duck sounds you hear before you ever see one. Duck and geese are very vocal animals. They tend to produce many duck sounds while feeding because during this time they are more active. It's these sounds that often lead to more ducks or geese to land and start feeding. Another time that many species are vocal is during flight. A few examples to come mind when hearing flying duck noises. Geese and swans are the most significant talkers while in flight. You will often hear them before you ever see the flying V. Their duck sound is unmistakable and sounds almost like a honking noise. This is usually a dead giveaway that you are looking at geese flying over. Some of the smaller species of ducks like the wood duck make a Screech noise that almost sounds like "Creeeeek" when swishing around in wooded areas. Golden eyes when in flight often make a whistling sound that is a give away for when you see a flock of them. Mallards on open water other sounds like a low-level chuckle quack. It sounds like these that many waterfowl hunters become accustomed to and help identify the species of ducks correctly.

Duck Identification Tip #5: Duck Colors 

waterfowl Identification

Duck Colors Are Important For Identification (Photo Credit: Flickr)

When a ducks or geese come into range of shooting, often you can tell the colors of the feathers on the duck. It's these specific head or wing colors that lead to proper waterfowl identification when hunting. Many hunters only look at the head or wings for identification, but this should not be the only areas of interest. An experienced waterfowl hunter should look at the whole duck or goose. This includes the head, wings, bills, speculum, and feet. Maybe you are asking yourself what the speculum is? The speculum is the area of feathers on the wings that often possess brighter more iridescent colors. Usually, these patches are on the backside of the wings. You have to look at the whole color pattern of the duck or goose to help identify the waterfowl species accurately.

We know how difficult this can be for inexperienced waterfowl hunters. This is an area that all waterfowl hunters should practice more. It will help ensure you are getting your exact numbers of a specific species and not killing a waterfowl for additional means. This will make the world of waterfowl hunting a safe place and ensure that fines and tickets will not be issued for shooting too many ducks. If you have any questions or comment, we would love to hear them. Maybe you have a different strategy for helping you correctly identify waterfowl; we want to know it. Please shoot us an email at or leave a comment below. Send us pictures of your waterfowl kills to be featured on all of our social media pages. Waterfowl hunting is something that many hunters love to do, and proper waterfowl identification is paramount for preserving the sport for future generations.

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