Ducks generally have heavy bodies, short legs, short neck and a flat bill.
Almost everyone knows what a duck looks like, although not every bird that looks like a duck, is a duck. Mergansers are duck-like but have a narrow bill adapted for catching fish. Geese generally have longer necks and are larger than most ducks. The American Coot looks like a small black duck, but is more closely related to rails.
The males of most duck species are fairly easy to identify. The females can be confusing. Ducks molt their flight feathers in the summer, leaving males looking like females. The ducks are flightless during this period, and the birds are referred to as being in their 'eclipse' plumage.
Males are shown below.
Dabbling or puddle ducks
This group of ducks feeds by tippings its head underwater and its tail straight up as it feeds.
The Mottled Duck is primarily a duck of the Gulf coast and Florida. Males and females are similar and resemble female Mallard. Bill is uniform yellow, lacking the dark areas of the female Mallard.
American Black Duck
A duck of the eastern United States and Canada. Similar to female Mallard, but darker. Female's bill is green.
Widespread, especially in winter, Male is grayish with black tail. Females resembles female Mallard but has white speculum and white belly. White speculum in flight is easy to see and diagnostic.
A small duck, with chestnut head and green ear patch. Green speculum and vertical white bar on side. Female non-descript, small with green speculum.
Larger than Green-winged. Wide spread in the summer, coastal in the winter. Male has white crescent on face. Female similar to female Mallard but with blue speculum easily seen in flight.
A duck of the western U.S. Male is an easy-to-identify rich cinnamon brown. Female very similar to female Blue-winged Teal. Larger bill than other teal, starting to approach the side and shape of Northern Shoveler.
Wide-spread. Male has light head with green bar behind the eye, rusty chest and sides. Female has brownish back and sides with contrasting lighter head.
Wide-spread. Male a cinch to identify with its long tail, stately brown head with white throat. Longer neck than most ducks, female is brownish gray, dark bill. Easy to identify by profile with a little experience.
Wide-spread. Large flat bill is distinctive. Male has green head, white throat and rusty sides. Female mottled brown with green speculum.
These ducks feed by diving. If you see a duck feeding by placing his head underwater and tail up, you automatically know it is not one of these species. Sometimes the best approach to identifying a species is to start by deciding what it can not be.
Distinctive profile with its large slopping bill and head. Male has dark brown head, black chest and light sides and back. Female grayish white with darker head and neck.
Looks somewhat like a small Canvasback. Head more rounded with shorter bill, two-toned in male.
One of three very similar species, the Ring-necked, and the Greater and Lesser Scaup. A brown ring on the neck of the bird is present, but usually hard to see. Look for the white ring on the bill. Male has dark head, neck and back, with white sides. Female has narrow line behind the eye.
Male has dark head, neck and back, with white sides. Rounded head. Not as often seen as the similar Lesser Scaup. Female is browner with white at the base of the bill. Very difficult to separate from Lesser Scaup.
Male has dark head, neck and back, with white sides. Rounded head. More common than Greater Scaup. Female is browner with white at the base of the bill. Very difficult to separate from Greater Scaup.
Other duck species
There are several other duck species normally classified in the following categories:
- Whistling Ducks
- Wood or perching ducks
- Sea Ducks
- Stiff-tailed Ducks
We will be adding new information on these groups in the near future.