A Duck Hunter’s Tips for Quickly Identifying Waterfowl on the Wing

Take limits require rapid ID of fast-flying birds—a useful skill for any birder. One waterfowler breaks down how she does it.
A flock of ducks flying in the same direction with an out of focus landscape in the background.
American Wigeons. Photo: Andrew Hosford/Audubon Photography Awards

There is a moment that stands out vividly in my early days as a duck hunter. One sunny morning on a hunt with friends in California’s Sacramento Valley, hiding in bulrush as a flock of ducks came in, I saw a blinding flash of white on the wings of one of them. A friend dropped the bird cleanly. It was a handsome male American Wigeon, a duck that would make outstanding table fare.

It was a watershed moment for me, because I had never been able to identify a duck’s species while it was speeding by in the air; until then I’d relied on my mentors to tell me what I could shoot to stay within legal limits. But from that point on, I knew that bold, white flash meant drake wigeon.

Hunting ducks may be on your “nope, never” list, but the identification techniques hunters use are worth learning.

Before I tell you how I identify ducks, though, you might want to know why I want to shoot them. First and foremost, hunting is how I put healthy, sustainably sourced meat on my table. It also gives me stores of stock that beats bland, over-salted store-bought broths, and rendered fat that we use in recipes year-round.

But it’s more than that. I love everything about hunting. It starts with loving the marsh and all its denizens. (I don’t know a hunter who’s not enchanted by the Marsh Wrens that chatter at us as we try to hide, or who fails to gasp with delight when a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds sweeps inches over our heads.) I live for the moments everything goes right—when ducks respond to my call and fly within gun range—because most of the time, they outsmart me.

I’m also proud that hunters are a major force for conservation. Waterfowl are a happy asterisk in the otherwise alarming declines in bird populations, thanks to decades of wetland conservation funded largely by hunting license purchases, taxes on guns and ammunition, and charitable contributions. Modern hunting regulations in North America are designed to put the brakes on hunting well before it might threaten a species, and the result has been that no game species has been endangered or extinguished due to hunting under this system. We happily tax ourselves to save, restore, and maintain habitat.

For hunters, being able to identify a species before we shoot is critically important: In addition to a general daily “bag limit,” some species have lower limits. Others, such as mergansers, just don’t taste good. Our window of opportunity to shoot can be brief, so we must make snap judgments. Here’s how I identify the most common ducks I see on my hunts. I’ve omitted geese because while I do hunt them, they are much easier to identify on the wing.

Is it a duck?

It may sound obvious, but the first thing a duck hunter must learn is the difference between a duck and other waterbirds found in the same environments, such as coots, cormorants, ibises, grebes and shorebirds. Birders can use the same cues.

Most ducks have roughly potato-shaped torsos, egg-shaped heads, and long necks. While body size varies among species, the potato-to-egg ratio is a good approximation, as long as we’re talking Russet, not fingerlings. (Geese have similarly shaped bodies, but bigger, so it’s more like a football-to-egg ratio.) Aside from mergansers, ducks and geese also have rounded bills, not pointy beaks like many other waterbirds.

Ducks also have a distinctive wingbeat, even from geese: There’s no flap-glide-flap-glide; those wings stop flapping only during a descent, at which point they cup like an umbrella and the birds glide down like Mary Poppins in a hurry.

When coming in for a landing, their legs hang down, and this is the only time we can clearly see the webbed feet, because ducks keep their feet tucked close to their bodies in flight.

A black duck-like bird with big scaly yellow feet, a white beak, and a bright red eye takes off from the water.
Though American Coots look similar to ducks, birders can distinguish them by their pointy beaks and dangling feet in flight. Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards

The not-duck most likely to be confused for a duck is an American Coot, because they use the same habitat as ducks and have similar proportions. But coot feet hang behind them in routine flight, and coots have pointy white beaks, not rounded bills.

What sound is it making?

I began identifying most ducks first by sound, because it’s easier to find ducks that way: My eyes could see only what was in front of me, but my ears could detect anything around me. My study resource was the Ducks Unlimited identification page.

Among dabbling ducks—those that tend to feed just below the surface with their butts in the air, as opposed to diving ducks that feed farther below the surface—hens generally quack, and it can be challenging to distinguish between them. The exception is the female Green-winged Teal, whose quack sounds like the cackle of the Wicked Witch of the West, on helium.

Drake dabblers in North America, though, have very distinctive whistles. Here’s what they sound like to me:

Mallard: zshwee, zshwee.

Northern Shoveler: tsibit, tsibit, tsibit.

Gadwall: a nasal meep meep.

American Wigeon: a whistley whoo-WHHHEAT-who.

Green-winged Teal: a high-pitched prrp prrp (with a little trill)—think police whistle in short bursts.

Northern Pintail: a deeper, slower, fluty prrp prrptrill; also, a slide-whistle sound that’s a bit dolphin-like.

Another species we commonly encounter, the Wood Duck, is from a different genus (Aix) than the ducks above (Anas), and appropriately makes very different sounds: the drake a funny zeet zeet that rises and falls (again, think slide whistle), the hen a rising squeal described as oo-eek.

Once you know these sounds, if you hear them coming from a solo duck, you have a definitive ID. If it’s a drake with a hen, the hen is likely to be the same species, but you’ll want to look hard to verify visual traits. Once you get the hang of drakes, you can focus on the subtler distinctions of hens.

But if you hear it coming from a group of ducks, make no assumptions. Ducks are highly social and will fly in mixed groups. Just because you hear an American Wigeon doesn’t mean every bird in that flock is an American Wigeon.

What does it look like?

The visual cues that duck hunters pick up on can vary widely from hunter to hunter, because it’s all about what catches your eye. I tend to see distinctive feather patterns; others see body shape and wingbeat.

Colors stand out when we hunt in sunny weather, but not so much when it’s overcast or raining. Under those conditions, I look for patterns of contrast, not colors. Here again, we key in on the drakes at first, because hens are mostly brown, though their silhouettes can provide clues as well.

A small flock of white and brown ducks flying in the same direction in an overcast sky.
Northern Pintails. Photo: Bobby Nicks/Audubon Photography Awards

These are the features on drakes that stand out to me:

American Wigeon: A medium-size duck with reddish coloring. I watch for a big white rectangle patch on the wing that looks square in flight. Others key in on the white racing stripe on top of the head and the petite powder-blue bill.

Gadwall: A mostly brown duck with a much smaller white rectangle patch on the wing. It also has a small black bill and a medium-large body with a bold black butt. (I never notice the butt, but many of my friends focus on it.)

Northern Shoveler: I home in on its white shoulders and rust-colored belly. It has a medium-small body but with an absurdly large spoon-shaped bill on its dark green head.

Mallard: A big duck with body colors opposite of shoveler: rust-colored shoulders and pale belly. It also has a green head.

Green-winged Teal: A small duck whose erratic flight—bodies often gyrate around always-upright heads—makes it hard to see feather patterns clearly. I look for a cinnamon head on a body of grays and browns.

Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal: These birds are small like Green-wings, but with big powder-blue patches on their wings. Cinnamons have a distinctive deep-red body. The hens of these two species are extremely hard even for many biologists to differentiate.

Northern Pintail: This species sports a chocolate head, long large body, long neck with a white swoosh pointing toward the head, and long, pointy tail feather. (It’s actually several feathers, but looks like one.)

Wood Duck: Look for a distinctive “hood” and a colorful bill with red, yellow, white, and black. In flight Wood Ducks’ tail feathers look blocky and square. The hen, mostly gray, is easy to spot because of the white teardrop shape around her eyes.

Mergansers: These fish-eaters—Common, Hooded and Red-Breasted—have distinctive narrow “sawbills,” but those don’t really stand out in flight. Instead, my friend Chris Nicolai, waterfowl scientist for Delta Waterfowl, says the trait he keys in on is that mergansers’ up-and-down wing strokes are much more shallow than other ducks’.

When the ducks aren’t talking, these visual cues can provide a definitive ID. And when you combine both sights and sounds of a solo duck, you can feel good about your assessment. Whether your goal is putting meat on your table or expanding your knowledge of waterbirds, there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to confidently identify a fast-moving bird.