Dabbling Ducks: All About Dabblers

Mallard Pair Dabbling

Darron Birgenheier / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0

A dabbling duck is a type of shallow water duck that feeds primarily along the surface of the water or by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic plants, vegetation, larvae, and insects. Also known as a dabbler or puddle duck, these ducks are infrequent divers and are usually found in small ponds, rivers, and other shallow waterways, or else they may stay near the shallow, slower edges of larger waterways and swamps.


DAB-bling duck (rhymes with babbling cluck, scrabbling muck, and grabbling truck)

How Dabblers Eat

Dabbling ducks are so named because they "dabble" as they eat. This can describe two feeding styles, and a dabbling duck may use one or both styles as they forage.

  • Surface Feeding: This involves skimming along the surface of the water with the neck stretched out and the bill parallel to the water. The bill is quickly "chewing" or "nibbling" at the water with little bites, and the duck may sweep its head from side to side at the same time to cover more surface area. This is an efficient way to feed on small aquatic insects that stay on the water's surface or to forage through floating algae and plants. While dabbling ducks do use this technique, many other types of ducks and other waterfowl also use surface feeding.
  • Tipping Up: This type of feeding is true dabbling, tipping up with the duck's butt out of the water and pointing the tail straight up as the head and neck are below the water to nibble through mud or algae. When tipped up, the duck may wag or spread its feet and legs to keep balanced, or the tail may slowly wave or wag to counterbalance the underwater head movements. Underwater, the duck is stretching to reach either the bottom or may be feeding along submerged plants. This type of feeding is very characteristic and common among all dabblers.

Dabbling ducks also forage on land for seeds, grain, nuts, and insects, grazing with similar nibbling bill motions as surface feeding. These are often omnivorous birds, and will sample a wide range of foods through their different feeding styles.

Dabbling Duck Species

There are many ducks that can be classified as dabblers, and depending on how each species is split or lumped, 50-60 different ducks could be considered dabbling species, including the teal duck. Physically, they typically have flat, broad bills that allow them to feed more quickly, instead of narrow bills that would not catch as much food with dabbling motions. When swimming, these ducks float high on the water which makes it easier for them to tip up as they dabble, but they cannot dive completely under the water easily. When they take flight from the water's surface, they can spring directly into the air rather than gaining speed by running along the surface first.

Dabbling ducks tend to be very vocal birds and different dabblers can make a variety of different sounds. Both males and females are vocal, though females are more likely to give the typical hoarse quacking calls while males' calls can be more unique, including whistles, squeaks, and honks. Their legs are placed close to the center of their body length, and they walk well on land. Their feet are generally smaller and more compact than the feet of diving ducks or other strong underwater swimmers.

Familiar species of dabbling ducks include mallards, northern shovelers, American wigeons, American black ducks, gadwalls, blue-winged teals, northern pintails, and silver teals.

In addition to a wide variety of ducks that dabble, some geese, swans, and other waterfowl will also use both types of dabbling feeding styles as they forage. Unless the birds are duck species, however, they are not considered dabbling ducks and would not be called dabblers.

Identifying Dabbling Ducks

Dabbling ducks can usually be easily identified. Many are dimorphic, with males showing bolder colors and markings than the more mottled, camouflaged females. Some males may also have unique feather shapes, such as the upward curly tail of the mallard. When the birds are actually dabbling and tipping up, their leg colors are easy to see and can be a good identification clue, as many of these ducks have bright orange, yellow, or reddish legs. Bill shape and slope can be useful for identification, as well as the bill color and the size and color of the nail at the tip of the bill. As with any birds, range, habitat, and voice can also be good identification clues.

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  1. Birds of Seabrook Island: Dark Dabblers. Clemson University.