Consider this common bag limit for ducks in Mississippi flyway states this season. The daily limit is six overall. However, the total cannot include more than: four mallards of which no more than two may be hens; three scaup; three wood ducks; two pintails; two redheads; two canvasbacks; and/or one black duck.
Of the ducks commonly seen and hunted here, that means a limit could include or be comprised entirely of blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwall, wigeon, bufflehead, ruddy ducks, shovelers, ring-necked ducks, and/or goldeneye. Then there is a separate limit of five mergansers of which not more than two may be hooded mergansers.
Enjoying duck hunting to the fullest and staying within the law demands hunters learn and improve on-the-wing identification skills. This is a burden to some would be duckers, as one of the most commonly cited reasons for giving up the game is complex regulations. Yet for many devoted waterfowl hunters, mastering these skills is a highly enjoyable part of the pursuit. Some are proud to shoot only drakes of specific species like mallards or pintails. For others, collecting a wide variety of waterfowl species becomes a primary motivator. In either case, you have to know one duck from another!
The first step in learning to I.D. ducks is to obtain a pocket-sized guide like “Ducks at a Distance” — a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service publication largely available for free from various duck conservation groups. Most printed state waterfowl hunting regulations also include excerpts from this same book. Study and challenge your hunting buddies, even your spouse and kids, to identify the ducks in the book. As a diehard waterfowl hunter my whole life, I’ve even cut up these books to hand make flashcard decks presented to friends for their newborn children — best to start them right, no?
The first things to learn are the habit, habitat, and physical characteristic differences between puddle ducks and diving ducks. Common puddlers are mallards, pintail, teal, wood ducks, gadwall (aka gray ducks), wigeon, shoveler, teal, mottled ducks, and black ducks. Common divers include ringnecks, scaup, redheads, canvasbacks, goldeneye, bufflehead, and ruddy ducks. There are also tree ducks and marine (sea) ducks, but they are so different and so regionally specific, it’s best to start with the basics.
Always take your pocket guide to the field with you, as it’s also a great tool to assist in-hand confirmation of the birds you shoot.
With the basics in hand, it’s time to take your knowledge into the field and practice. Identifying what you see is most easily done by running through a mental checklist.
Location & Timing
Where are you hunting? In a field set you’ll seldom encounter diving ducks. On large bodies of open water and large marshes, you’ll encounter more diving ducks. In the timber, you’ll see far more puddlers than divers.
For example, black ducks and hen mallards can look similar, but consider where you’re hunting and the frequency of black ducks in that area — i.e. you won’t be decoying many black ducks in a cornfield spread in central North Dakota.
Likewise some ducks migrate earlier than others. Chances of seeing blue-winged teal in Alberta in mid-October are slim.
Are the birds you’re looking at big ducks, medium to small ducks, or tiny ducks? Big ducks are mallards, pintails, black ducks, canvasbacks, and redheads. Medium to small ducks are gadwall, wigeon, wood ducks, shovelers, ringnecks, scaup, and goldeneye. Tiny ducks are blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, bufflehead and ruddy ducks.
In general, puddle ducks appear to beat their wings more slowly than diver ducks in sustained flight, given similar conditions. And the wing beat of puddlers looks to have deeper strokes than divers. Divers beat their wings with short, rapid strokes.
With experience, you’ll even be able to notice wing beat rhythms and flight patterns of individual species within the two broad categories. On quiet days, you’ll be able to hear different sounds ducks’ wings make. Goldeneyes are called whistlers because of the sound of their wings — a distinct whistle. Any hunter who’s experienced bluebills dropping from the sky into a lake will never forget the fighter jet sound of the scaups’ feathers tearing the air.
While coloring is the most distinctive characteristic of differing species, it’s also the most deceiving particularly in low light. It’s easy to see the beautiful, raucous colors of a drake wood duck on a pond in bright afternoon sun. It’s far more difficult to discern those hues on a flock of birds darting through tree limbs a half hour before sunrise.
Just ask the hunter who is convinced he shot a drake mallard on a gray drizzly day, but whose dog comes back with a Suzie! I’ve been that hunter, and sent the dog on a couple more fruitless searches because I was convinced she’d picked up someone else’s cripple. No matter how experienced you are, if you rely on color as your primary identifier, you’ll get fooled, especially in early season with ducks in eclipse plumage.
Silhouettes & Profiles
The surest way to accurately identify ducks in flight is to learn silhouettes. Each species has a distinctive shape and placement of white in its color scheme. It can be the shape of the duck’s head such as the canvasback’s long, sloping profile from head into bill. Overall body shapes are distinctive, too, such as the wood duck that appears to have had its tail cut square.
Identifying ducks by silhouette and white markings is something you simply must learn and practice. Distinguishing between scaup (aka bluebills) and ringneck ducks in flight is tough. Size, silhouette, wing beat, and flight pattern are similar. Markings on the head and bill are distinctly different, but these can be hard to see at speed and distance. By studying identification guides you learn that when viewed from below, both sexes of ringnecks displays large patches of gray/white on the forward portion of their underwings. Bluebills have smaller white patches at the rear of both upper and under wing surfaces. It’s subtle, but key.
Here are a few shortcuts to identifying certain species:
To identify drake mallards in low light, look for the white ring around their necks. This stands out except in the most juvenile or early plumage birds.
Pintails, even hens and drakes without a sprig, present a very long, thin profile in flight. Their necks especially seem skinny compared to other ducks.
Black ducks look big and dark in flight. The snowy underside of their wings starkly contrasts with the darkness of their other plumage.
Mergansers are also called “saw bills.” True fish eaters, their bills are long, narrow, and serrated. This thin bill is easily identified in flight and makes them appear dart-like compared to all broad billed ducks.
The small size of teal makes them seem fast, but it’s an illusion. The fastest duck is the largest diver — the canvasback. When ripping over the cattails, teal exhibit an almost bat-like erratic flight pattern.
The silhouette of the wood duck exhibits a squared off tail.
Gadwalls have a white speculum patch at the rear of their wings — the only puddle duck so marked.