Diverse Divers

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 9, 2010

Blue-Winged Teal

creatures of large, open waters. Many sea duck species are rare visitors to Missouri. Weeks after puddle ducks have deserted Missouri, two species of sea ducks—the common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and the bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)—continue to ply Missouri’s large reservoirs. Drakes of both species have dark heads with white spots. However, the placement of the spots makes each species fairly easy to distinguish. On the goldeneye, the spots are on the cheeks, whereas the bufflehead has a large white spot on the back of its head. At 14 inches long, the bufflehead is the runt of the divers.

My nominee for cutest diving duck is the ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), a member of a group known as stiff-tailed ducks. Drakes engaged in their mating display are so perky even an avid hunter might be tempted to pinch their little white cheeks. Ruddy ducks are only slightly larger than buffleheads. They are uncommon in most of Missouri, but you are more likely to see them the closer you get to the Arkansas state line.

That leaves the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the common merganser (Mergus merganser), large fish-eating ducks with narrow, serrated bills ideally suited for holding slippery food. Mergansers superficially resemble pintails in flight, due to their sleek, graceful bodies and pointy tails. The shapes of their heads and bills are distinctive, however. Mergansers also tend to arrive and stay later in Missouri than pintails.

It’s a good thing mergansers are so distinctive, because the main reason to shoot one is to have it turned into a taxidermy mount. The merganser’s diet gives it an unpleasant fishy taste.

Diving ducks in general are less esteemed as table fare because their diets are long on fish, snails and other invertebrates, while puddle ducks tend to eat more grain, weed seeds and other plant foods. The canvasback is a notable exception. Though relatively uncommon, it is highly sought after by hunter epicures.

A handful of other divers have been seen in the Show-Me State, but they are too rare for the average hunter to worry about. For help identifying these and other waterfowl, write to MDC, Ducks at a Distance, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180 or e-mail Before you go afield, make sure you know all current regulations and limits. Pick up a Waterfowl Hunting Digest where permits are sold or online.

More detailed information is found in Birds in Missouri, a 375-page, softbound, large-format book covering more than 350 species. It is available for $30 plus shipping and handling and sales tax (where applicable) by calling (800) 521-8632 or visiting online.

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