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Know Your Birds with These Waterfowl Identification Tips [PICS]

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Duck and goose seasons are on the horizon. It’s time for you to brush up on your waterfowl identification skills.

Let’s imagine a typical waterfowl hunting scenario. It’s a cool and crisp autumn morning in the pre-dawn light. The water is like glass, reflecting beautiful fall colors and marsh grasses back at you from your boat.

You hear some incoming ducks before you see them. As they fly overhead and approach your blind, are you 100 percent positive of your waterfowl identification skills? Enough so that you can confidently take the split-second shot offered to you?

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Most hunters would agree that they could always improve a little when it comes to their waterfowl identification skills. Even if you’ve been hunting for years, there are likely some ducks you’re not always sure about.

That means you may not reach your limit, or worse, go over it. If you fall in this boat (forgive the pun), here are some tips to get you ready for the upcoming duck and goose season.

Waterfowl Identification Guide

As you probably know, there are several characteristics you can use in the field to accurately identify ducks and geese from great distances. Habitat, size, speed, flying action, sounds, body shape, and colors can all be used to identify waterfowl species. Let’s start with indicators useful from far away and work our way to closer up.


Typically, dabbling ducks prefer shallow swamps, flooded agricultural fields, and small waterways. They feed by tipping over to eat aquatic vegetation or invertebrates. If you primarily hunt smaller waterbodies, you can probably narrow your identification down to dabblers.

Common dabbling duck species include mallard, teal (blue-winged, green-winged, and cinnamon), wood duck, widgeon, black ducks, pintail, gadwall, and shovelers.

waterfowl identification
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Diving ducks, on the other hand, prefer larger and deeper waters such as open lakes. They feed by diving underwater (as the name suggests) to feed on fish, crustaceans, shellfish, and aquatic plants.

Common puddle ducks include canvasbacks, redheads, common/hooded/red-breasted mergansers, ring-necks, scaups, and ruddy ducks.

Body Size and Flying Action

The size and flying pattern are things that you’ll be able to identify from furthest away. As far as typical flying patterns, mallards, wigeons, and pintails all typically form somewhat loose groups in flight. However, teal species and shovelers tend to speed past in smaller, tight groups.

Geese often form large flocks (especially snow geese), and assume the typical V-shaped formation.

waterfowl identification
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Ducks and geese make many vocalizations when feeding – obviously, since we use calls to entice them to land. However, several species also make other noises while flying.

For example, flying wood ducks often move with a swishing noise and make vocalizations like “cr-e-ek” when surprised. Flying goldeneyes make a whistling sound, while canvasbacks make a more steady rushing sound.

In the case of geese and swans, you’ll probably hear them before you see them, and there’s not much chance of confusing that sound with something else.

waterfowl identification
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Body Shapes

As waterfowl get closer to you, you’ll be able to notice the silhouettes of the bodies. Hopefully you can pick out how long their necks are compared to their bodies, how long their tails are, and any other noticeable features (e.g., hoods, large feet, etc.).

Male wood ducks and mergansers have prominent hoods over their heads. Diving ducks often have short tails and large feet farther back on their bodies to help them swim better underwater, but they also use them to steer in mid-air, which can be a telltale sign to narrow your species down.

waterfowl identification
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When ducks or geese get within shotgun range, you should be able to see some of their prominent colors, unless it’s still early dawn. Don’t only look at the body or head colors, but also see if the bills, feet, wings, and the speculum (the wing patch) stand out to you.

Small details make a big difference in identifying to species.

waterfowl identification
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Here’s to a great duck season!

You won’t remember everything listed here on your first trip out this duck hunting season. Waterfowl identification is a skill that takes years of practice to master.

Try to notice one new observation each time you hunt, and you’ll be a professional in no time. Also make sure you take advantage of the many online resources, which include quizzes to test your knowledge.

NEXT: Ducks Unlimited is Built on Traditions [VIDEO]

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Know Your Birds with These Waterfowl Identification Tips [PICS]