When most non-birders think of ducks, they probably picture some of the most common types of ducks found on local ponds, such as the mallard. However, birders know there are many different species of ducks that range in population around the world. For instance, one of the rarest types of ducks is the Madagascan pochard.
While all types of ducks belong to the Anatidae bird family, the family is so diverse that it is possible to group certain duck species into smaller divisions by how they look and other common characteristics. By understanding the different types of duck groups and related species, duck identification becomes much easier.
Here are the 12 types of ducks with pictures that every birder needs to know.
Identifying Different Ducks
Ducks differ widely in their appearance and their temperament. For instance, Pekins are known to be one of the friendliest breeds of duck. As for what is the prettiest duck, that’s in the eye of the beholder, though there are certainly some types of ducks—such as the mandarin duck—that are known for their exquisite appearance.
Certain traits are commonly used to identify ducks. They include:
- Head and neck: Note the markings on the duck’s head, including whether there are cheek patches, a brow line, or a head crest (a tuft of feathers rising up from the head). Also, note the head shape, the neck length, and how the duck carries its head. Plus, check for rings or other special markings on the neck.
- Bill: Examine the size, shape, thickness, and color of the bill (beak). On some ducks, the bill is multicolored. Also, note the proportion of the bill to the rest of the head.
- Feathers: Note the duck’s prominent colors, as well as any accent colors. Take in where those accent colors are. And see whether the feathers are iridescent or have any spotting, streaking, or other markings to them.
- Wings: Look at the wing size and markings. Check specifically for the speculum, an often iridescent patch of accent-colored feathers on the rear of each wing when the wing is stretched out. This is present on many types of ducks.
- Legs: Check the leg color and length.
- Tail: Note how long the duck’s tail is, as well as its shape.
- Overall size: Estimate the duck’s overall size, especially in relation to other types of ducks and geese. It can be helpful to estimate size against domestic duck species you're familiar with if you're seeing a type of duck that's new to you.
- Movement and behavior: Analyze the duck's posture and how it moves on water and land. For example, some types of ducks are divers, diving below the water surface to feed. Others are known as dabblers, and they feed near the water surface and on land. And some ducks are perchers, whose feet are structured to allow them to perch in trees.
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Dabblers are ducks that tip forward to feed with their tail up in the air and their face underwater. They root through shallow water and mud in search of plants and insects. These ducks will also nibble along the water's surface, and they feed readily on land as well. But they very rarely dive below the water. The most common dabbling duck species is the mallard. The northern pintail, American wigeon, and different teals are also dabblers.
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Diving ducks are agile swimmers that dive far beneath the surface of the water in search of food, including fish, insects, and aquatic plants. These ducks prefer to stay in the water and can be ungainly and awkward on land. Plus, they have to build up speed to take off from the water's surface. Diving duck species include the scaups, goldeneyes, canvasback, tufted, and redhead.
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Marine ducks encompass both eiders and scoters. These types of sea ducks are found in very northern Arctic habitats. Eiders (pictured here) are well known for their lush down, which has spectacular insulating properties that protect them from the harsh cold. And in the past, they have been hunted extensively for those feathers. Eider species include the common, spectacled, Steller’s, and king eider.
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Scoters are bulky sea ducks with dark plumage and swollen, brightly colored, patterned bills. Their body coloration is relatively plain in comparison to the bills. These birds can be found in northern regions and along marine habitats, particularly in rocky areas that might seem inhospitable to many birds. The most familiar species include the black, surf, common, white-winged, and velvet scoters.
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Aptly named for their brilliant yellow eyes, goldeneye duck species are diving ducks characterized by their big round heads with an iridescent sheen. They nest in tree holes and have sharp black-and-white plumage. There are only two goldeneye species, the common and Barrow’s goldeneye, though buffleheads are sometimes categorized as a type of goldeneye as well.
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The most prominent feature of these small, slim, streamlined ducks is their narrow, serrated, hooked bill. Mergansers are the only type of duck that regularly eat a large amount of fish and similar prey, and their bills are specialized to make them keen and ferocious hunters. Species of these ducks include the hooded, common, and red-breasted merganser.
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Perching ducks have prominent talons on their webbed feet to give them better grips to perch. They can regularly be found perching in trees along wooded waterways and other areas with appropriate trees for nesting, and they can nest dozens of feet above the ground. The Muscovy, pink-eared, wood, and mandarin ducks are familiar and popular examples of perching ducks.
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Sea ducks are marine birds found in coastal habitats. But they can range further inland during the nesting season and migration, and vagrant sightings are regularly recorded as well. These bulky birds have special glands to help them tolerate saltwater without dehydrating. Sea duck species include the long-tailed duck, eiders, scoters, goldeneyes, and mergansers.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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The stifftails are aptly named diving ducks with spiky stiff tails, which they use as agile rudders while swimming. The tail may also be held angled or vertically as a breeding or territorial display, especially between competing males. These ducks often have colorful bills and compact bodies. Stifftail species include the ruddy duck, masked duck, and blue-billed duck.
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Teals are dabbling ducks that often have brightly colored, distinctive plumage, including fantastic speculum coloration. These ducks prefer to feed along the surface of the water as opposed to tipping up, but they will tip up occasionally. Teals are popular with waterfowl hunters, and they are carefully managed as game birds. Species include the cinnamon, green-winged, blue-winged, and silver teal.
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These tropical ducks have long legs and necks, unlike typical compact duck proportions, and they can be mistaken for small geese. Whistling ducks are named for their shrill whistling calls, which can be heard for long distances and are often confused for other birds and animals. Whistling duck species include the black-bellied, fulvous, and white-faced whistling ducks.
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Not a wild species, domestic ducks are instead escapees from farms, gardens, and zoos, and they are often kept as pets. These ducks frequently congregate in mixed flocks on urban and suburban ponds. Their indistinct plumage, wide range of sizes, and mottled colors show a high degree of hybridization with other domestic and wild ducks. Unfortunately, overbreeding often leads to culling flocks in urban areas.