Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


October 2010 cover image On the Scent

Skill Builder: Which Duck Is Which?

Recognize the species before you pull the trigger.

By Will Leschper

Waterfowl hunters are birds of a different feather.

Rising long before the sun hints at making a rosy appearance to slog around in muck fit for a water buffalo while hauling around a gaggle of decoys in often less-than-stellar conditions may seem bird-brained to the average human. But for the average waterfowler, there’s no place he or she would rather be this time of year than right in the thick of it, patiently scanning for bright plumage and cautiously listening for whistling wings.

I still have yet to meet a casual waterfowl hunter. Perhaps they exist somewhere, but for the next couple of months, the guys and gals you might happen upon in any form of duck blind think it’s downright daffy to not be in their favorite hunting spot when the birds are humming along.

And though the crafty veteran duck hunter may be able to instinctively look at a small group of birds floating on the horizon and declare them to be wigeons or gadwalls without the slightest hesitation, properly identifying these birds can be tricky. Novice duck hunters may not be able to decipher right away what types of waterfowl are loafing toward them until they make a pass over the decoy spread.

Texas had been in the Hunter’s Choice program in past seasons when it came to waterfowl limits — a program intended to decrease the harvest of less-abundant species while keeping opportunities available for burgeoning ones. Under a more liberal framework in place since last year, hunters are allowed to harvest six ducks a day, no more than two of which may be scaups, pintails or redheads. Hunters also are limited to five mallards, three wood ducks and one canvasback or dusky duck as part of a daily bag. Consult the Waterfowl Digest for bag limit details. The long and short of it is that hunters must know without a doubt what variety of duck they’re pointing a shotgun at before they squeeze the trigger.

With this in mind, here are some ways to distinguish one duck from another.


The plumage of ducks is more brilliant in fall and winter than at other times of the year, which can work to the advantage of hunters. Birds that have shed dull feathers for brighter ones at this time of year are easier to spot and correctly identify, and males boast more striking colorations than females. Some ducks sport colored heads, which can ease the identification process greatly. Mallards also are known as greenheads, and they, along with redheads, are the easiest ducks to classify based solely on their front features.


Teal are the smallest ducks Texas hunters see. Though the early season is in September, there might still be some cruising around later on. Most ducks are similar in girth, but some species are slightly larger than others. For example, a canvasback drake and a redhead drake may have somewhat similar coloration, but a canvasback is larger, which could help distinguish them.

Flight patterns

Some ducks, such as mallards and pintails, fly in looser formations, while teal and others tend to fly in tighter bunches. Other ducks, such as wigeons, seem to be more nervous in flight than others, while mergansers tend to fly lower to water than some of their counterparts. There’s no hard and fast rule to flock size, but with practice you’ll be able to pick out certain nuances that would give away what type of bird you are seeing.


Not all ducks are built the same, which again is an advantage. Pintails have a more pronounced set of tail feathers than a mallard does, while shovelers have a more pronounced bill than other ducks. Practice is the best way to get good at correctly calling waterfowl based on their shape.


Not all ducks simply quack like you would expect. Canvasbacks and mergansers may make a croaking noise, while different species of teal and pintail offer up whistling peeps. The sounds of waterfowl wings in flight also have distinct rhythms. One example is the canvasback’s rapid, noisy flying as the fastest of ducks.

Waterfowl hunting is not always the easiest of pursuits, but the good days really are great and the slow days aren’t all that bad. More time in the field will bring better results when it comes to identifying ducks up close and far away. There’s still plenty of time to brush up on your skills. As an added resource on www.tpwmagazine.com, we will provide links to waterfowl identification books and illustrations.

back to top ^

    Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine