Missouri’s Migration Sensation

By Matt Seek | November 1, 2020
From Xplor: November/December 2020

Every fall, hundreds of thousands of ducks flock to the Show-Me State to rest and refuel on their way south. Some ducks stick around through winter — especially when weather stays mild. Others return to Missouri in the spring as they’re flying north to nesting grounds. To witness this migration sensation, grab a pair of binoculars and head to one of Missouri’s wetlands.

You Discover DUCKS

A Mini Field Guide to Missouri’s Dabblers and Divers

Duck Designs

Here’s a quack — oops, quick — fact: Ducks can be divided into two groups, dabblers and divers. You can tell which group a duck’s in by the way it looks, flies, and feeds.


  • Legs placed near the middle of its body make it easy for a dabbler to waddle around on land.
  • Large wings allow a dabbler to rocket right out of the water on takeoff.
  • A dabbler feeds by skimming seeds and insects off the water’s surface. It also tips its head underwater (and sticks its bottom up) to grab deeper grub.


  • Legs placed far back on its body help a diver swim underwater but make it awkward to walk on land.
  • Smaller, skinnier wings cause a diver to pitter-patter across the water’s surface to get airborne.
  • A diver kicks its large feet like swim fins to dive underwater and catch fish or pluck up plant roots.

Flashy Fellas and Hidden Hens

Drakes (boy ducks) and hens (girl ducks) rarely look alike. Drakes wear colorful feathers to attract a mate. Hens wear drab feathers to help them stay hidden while they’re sitting on a nest.

Fantastic Feathers

Feathers are super important! They keep ducks warm and help them fly. To replace worn-out feathers, ducks molt twice a year. This means their old feathers fall out, and new ones grow back. In summer, ducks molt flight feathers and remain landlocked for several days. Drakes also lose their flashy feathers and take on a drab appearance. In fall, ducks molt body feathers, and drakes regrow their colorful plumage.

Precious Pit Stops

Missouri is the halfway point on the Mississippi Flyway. Imagine the flyway as a high-speed highway in the sky that ducks follow to get from northern nesting grounds to southern wintering areas. Along the way, ducks make pit stops at marshes, swamps, and sloughs. The water in these wetlands is packed with seeds, snails, aquatic insects, tiny fish, and plankton that travel-weary ducks can slurp up to refuel after long flights.

Show -Me Wetlands

To witness a migration sensation, visit one of these wonderful wetlands in the fall or spring.

  • B.K. Leach Conservation Area
  • Bob Brown Conservation Area
  • Columbia Bottom Conservation Area
  • Duck Creek Conservation Area
  • Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
  • Fountain Grove Conservation Area
  • Four Rivers Conservation Area
  • Grand Pass Conservation Area
  • Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area
  • Montrose Conservation Area
  • Nodaway Valley Conservation Area
  • Otter Slough Conservation Area
  • Schell-Osage Conservation Area
  • Ted Shanks Conservation Area
  • Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area
  • Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge
  • Mingo National Wildlife Refuge
  • Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Common Goldeneye

This little duck’s eyes aren’t always golden. When ducklings hatch, their peepers are grayish-brown. Over the next several months, they turn purple, then blue, then green, and — finally — yellow.


Chonky but tiny, the funny-named bufflehead is North America’s smallest diving duck. Being itty-bitty allows mama buffleheads to nest in abandoned woodpecker holes that other ducks can’t fit into.

Hooded Merganser

Many mama ducks sneak an egg or two into the nests of other females. Hooded mergansers usually lay about a dozen eggs each, but some nests have been found with more than 40 eggs in them.

Common Merganser

Toothlike ridges on a merganser’s bill help it hold on to slippery fish, their favorite snacks. When a merganser dives, its eyes change shape, which helps it see better while it’s underwater.

Ring-Necked Duck

Although they dive to find food, ring-necked ducks are often found in shallower water than most diving ducks.  You might even find a ringneck or two in shallow marshes and farm ponds.


Two kinds of scaup visit Missouri: greater scaup and lesser scaup. But good luck telling themapart! They look nearly identical. Greater scaup have rounded heads. Lesser scaup have pointier heads.


These regal ducks are among the fastest of flyers. With a strong tailwind, canvasbacks can reach speeds over 70 mph! They’re also deep divers, regularly swimming to the bottom of lakes to gobble plant roots.


Most male ducks show off to attract a mate, but redheads take it to the next level. Drakes bend backwards until their beaks touch their tails. Then they snap forward while giving a catlike mee-ooow!

Northern Shoveler

Comblike ridges line the edges of this duck’s impressive beak. The ridges work like a spaghetti strainer. They let water flow out of the shoveler’s beak, but trap seeds and insects for the duck to eat.

American Wigeon

Wigeons eat more veggies compared to other ducks. And their stubby beak is one reason why. Because the bill is so short, it can pinch harder at the tip, which makes it easy to pluck plants.

Blue-Winged Teal

These small, sun-loving ducks migrate earlier than other ducks. On their way to spend winter in South America, most pass through Missouri in September, long before other ducks arrive.

Green-Winged Teal

Stretching only a foot from beak to tail and weighing only as much as a soup can, this dapper duck is North America’s smallest dabbler. Instead of quacking, these little fellas give a squeaky, whistlelike peeep.


Mallards are the most common duck in North America. They’re foundin marshes, lakes, and even city parks. Nearly all farm-raised ducks can trace their ancestry to this widespread waterfowl.

Wood Duck

Wood ducks nest in holes high up in trees. A day after hatching, the ducklings follow mom to the entrance of the hole and jump out. The fluffballs can fall over 200 feet without harm.

Northern Pintail

Like many ducks, pintails migrate at night, cruising from marsh to marsh at speeds over 40 mph. Some pintails take travel to the extreme. One was recorded to have flown 1,800 miles nonstop!


Gadwalls are often seen away from the shoreline, feeding in deeper water than other dabbling ducks. These plucky ducks sometimes steal food from American coots or from diving ducks when they surface.

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This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Alexis (AJ) Joyce
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White