Waterfowl: Bird Identification

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Learn to identify waterfowl species using sight, flight patterns, the habitat you’re hunting, and time of year. The species of duck should be known before you target the species with your gun.

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Know Your Ducks

Identify your target as a legal waterfowl species before putting your finger on the trigger.

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Mallard

Mallards, or "greenheads," are Missouri's most common duck. Hens have a loud quack; drakes give a lower-pitched kwek-kwek.

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Mallard hen

Mallard hen illustration
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  • Blue speculum bordered with white
  • Mottled brown body
  • Orange bill
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Mallard drake

Mallard drake illustration
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  • Blue speculum bordered with white
  • Iridescent green head
  • Dark brown breast
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American Black Duck

Male and female black ducks are similar in size, flight, voice, and coloration to mallard hens. To avoid confusion, look for the white underwing and the green-tinted bill.

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American black duck drake

American black duck drake illustration
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  • Dark body contrasts with white underwing
  • Green-tinted bill
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Northern Pintail

These slender ducks fly fast and often zigzag from great heights before leveling off to land. They may be seen in flocks with mallards. Drakes whistle; hens give a coarse quack.

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Pintail hen

Northern pintail hen illustration
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  • Long, pointed wings
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Pintail drake

Northern pintail drake illustration
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  • Long, slender white neck
  • Pointed tail
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Gadwall

These early migrants fly in small, compact flocks. They are the only dabbling duck with a white speculum. Note, however, that wigeon drakes have white shoulder patches.

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Gadwall hen

Gadwall hen illustration
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  • Brown body
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Gadwall drake

Gadwall drake illustration

 

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  • Gray body
  • Black tail
  • White speculum
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American Wigeon

The green eyestripe and white belly and shoulder patch helps identify wigeon drakes. Hens are generally brown. Both sexes have stubby bills and slightly pointed tails.

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American wigeon hen

American wigeon hen illustration
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  • Slightly pointed tail
  • Stubby bill
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American wigeon drake

American wigeon drake illustration
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  • Green eyestripe
  • White shoulder patch
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Wood Duck

The drake wood duck is Missouri's most colorful duck. While flying, their wings make a rustling, swishing sound. Drakes call hoo-w-ett, often in flight; hens give a wailing cr-r-ekk when frightened.

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Wood duck hen

Wood duck hen illustration
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Wood duck drake

Wood duck drake illustration
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  • Long square tail
  • Blocky head
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Northern Shoveler

The large spoon-shaped bill helps identify this duck. Shovelers often form mixed flocks with blue-winged teal. Both species have pale-blue shoulder patches, but shovelers are larger.

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Drake

  • Large, shovel-shaped bill
  • Pale-blue shoulder patch

Hen

  • Large, shovel-shaped bill
  • Pale-blue shoulder patch
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Blue-winged Teal

These swift-flying early migrants are normally far south of Missouri by the time the regular waterfowl season opens. However, a few stragglers may show up throughout the fall.

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Drake

  • Small size
  • Pale-blue shoulder patch

Hen

  • Small size
  • Pale-blue shoulder patch
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Green-winged Teal

Green-winged teal are North America's smallest duck. Their size, rapid flight, and iridescent-green wing patches help identify these ducks.

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Green-winged teal hen

Green-winged teal hen illustration
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  • Small size
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Green-winged teal drake

Green-winged teal drake illustration
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  • Small size
  • Iridescent-green speculum
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Canvasback

The swiftest of all ducks, the canvasback has a rapid and noisy wingbeat. The bill, lighter coloration, and large size distinguish this duck from the similar-looking redhead.

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Drake

  • Large, light-colored body
  • Forehead slopes to long, black bill

Hen

  • Large, light-colored body
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Redhead

Redheads are most often confused with canvasbacks, but in flight they also look similar to ringnecks and scaup. Note the steep forehead and short, bluish-gray bill.

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Drake

  • Steep forehead

Hen

  • Bluish-gray bill
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Hooded Merganser

The rapid wing strokes of hooded mergansers give the impression of great speed. Mergansers are often seen in pairs or very small flocks.

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Hooded merganser hen

Illustration of hooded merganser hen in flight
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Hooded merganser drake

Illustration of hooded merganser drake in flight
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  • Pointed bill
  • Thin white crest
  • White on trailing edge of wing
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Ring-necked Duck (Ringneck)

This diver can be confused with scaup and redheads. In flight, the dark wings of ringnecks are different from the white-edged wings of scaup. The bold white ring at the tip of the bill is usually conspicuous.

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Ring-necked hen

Illustration of ring-necked hen in flight
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  • Bold white ring at tip of bill
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Ring-necked drake

Illustration of ring-necked drake in flight
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  • Dark wings without white edges
  • Black head
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Greater and Lesser Scaup

Except for the wings, greater and lesser scaup appear almost identical in the field. The white band near the trailing edges of the wings runs almost to the wing tip in greater scaup, but only halfway in the lesser. Do not confuse scaup with the similar-looking ring-necked duck.

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Drake

  • White-edged wings
  • Black head

Hen

  • White at the base of the bill
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Canada Goose

Canada geese are often called "honkers" because of their distinctive call. The black head and neck, white cheek patch, and brownish-gray body are distinctive.

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Characteristics

  • Black head, bill, and neck
  • Brownish-gray body
  • White cheek patch
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Snow Goose and Ross's Goose

Snow geese have two color phases: white and blue. Ross's geese appear nearly identical to snow geese, but have a shorter bill with no "grin patch."

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White phase

Illustration of snow goose in flight
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  • Short white neck
  • Gray bill forms "grin patch" where upper and lower portions meet
  • Black tips on white wings
  • White body
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Blue phase

Illustration of blue phase snow goose in flight
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  • White head and neck
  • Brown back
  • Breast color varies from dark gray to white
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Greater White-fronted Goose

White-fronted geese, or "speckle-bellies," fly in V-shaped flocks. Their call is a laugh-like series of high-pitched paired notes.

Note: immature white-fronted geese and immature snow geese appear similar. Immature white-fronted geese have pink bills, orange legs, and black tails. Immature snow geese have gray bills, gray legs, and white tails.

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Characteristics 

  • Pink bill with white base
  • Brown back
  • White underparts with dark patches