When most non-birders think of ducks, they picture the common mallard or various hybrid ducks on local ponds. Birders know, however, that there are many different types of ducks – few of which actually have the word “duck” in their name. While all these ducks belong to the bird family, the scientific family of ducks is so diverse that it is possible to group certain duck species together by their common characteristics. By understanding the different types of duck groups and related species,... identifying waterfowl can become much easier and birders will learn to better appreciate all ducks.
Click on any category for a more detailed discussion, species examples and identification tips for the different types of ducks.
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“Dabblers” are ducks that tip up in order to feed, rooting 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, but 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, and they have to build up speed to take off from the water's surface. Diving duck species include the scaups, goldeneyes, canvasback and redhead.
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These types of sea-ducks are found in very northern, Arctic habitats. Eiders are well known for their lush down and its spectacular insulating properties that protect them from the harsh cold, and in the past they have been hunted extensively for those feathers. Fortunately, they are now strongly protected by conservation laws. Eider species include the common, spectacled, Steller’s and king eider.
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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 goldeneyes, though buffleheads are sometimes categorized as a type of goldeneye as well.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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The most prominent features of these small, slim, streamlined ducks are their narrow, serrated, hooked bills. Mergansers are the only types of ducks 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 may 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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Scoters are bulky sea-ducks with dark plumage and swollen, brightly colored and patterned bills, though their body coloration is relatively plain. These birds can be found in northern regions and along marine habitats, particularly in rocky areas that may seem inhospitable to many birds. The most familiar species include the black, surf, common, white-winged and velvet scoters.
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Sea-ducks are marine birds found in coastal habitats. They can range further inland during the nesting season and migration, however, and vagrant sightings are regularly recorded as well. These bulky birds have special glands to help them tolerate salt water 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 may be mistaken for small geese. These birds 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.