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Know Your Ducks

know your duck

Identifying ducks on the wing requires knowing a particular duck’s silhouette, flock and flight patterns, size, coloration, and calls. Using these visual and audio clues can help you positively identify ducks even under less-than-perfect conditions.

Identifying ducks on the wing is a win-win situation if you’re a waterfowl hunter. For one thing, bag limits allow you to take more of more common species thereby maximizing your potential bag limit. Some birds also have restrictions on them so knowing what you’re shooting at before you pull the trigger could help you avoid a ticket and help protect birds that have lower populations. Some ducks are also more desirable on the table than others. Shooting a tasty wood duck or mallard is better than harvesting a merganser.

Typically, you can get some idea of the ducks you can expect to harvest just by the type of habitat you’re hunting. Diving ducks are most common on the Great Lakes and big bodies of water. Puddle ducks are more common in marshes, swamps, and fields, but not always. A couple of years ago we shot redheads in a North Dakota cornfield.

The first step is to purchase a good identification guide, so you know what you’re looking for. For years the duck identification bible has been the “Ducks at a Distance” booklet published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The guide emphasizes ducks in their eclipse and winter plumage as well as relative shape, size, and flight patterns. You can download a copy online by going to

Whether the duck is small, medium, or large can give you initial insights as to what kind of duck you might be looking at. Teal are small birds as are buffleheads and hooded mergansers. Medium-sized ducks include wigeon, shovelers, golden-eyes, lesser scaup, and wood ducks. Black ducks, mallards, cans, and redheads are bigger birds.

Know Your Ducks
The bright blue wing speculum of a mallard is a dead giveaway when it comes to identification.

When the light is good, colors can be a good way of identifying ducks. Some birds have distinctive colors on their body, wings, and head that are a dead giveaway for identification. Wing speculum colors are a reliable identification tool. The white shoulder on a drake wigeon is highly visible in good light. Both blue-winged teal and shovelers exhibit a light blue wing patch that is very showy in flight. The green head on a drake mallard is unmistakable. Drake buffleheads are distinctive in flight with their garish pink feet and contrasting black and white wings and body. One of the identifying traits of a gadwall is it lacks color except for the white on its wings. Hence, their nickname- gray duck. Eclipsed plumage on adult birds and immature feathers on young ducks make colors less reliable early in the season.

The best waterfowling often occurs when light conditions are poorest- early or late in the day or during nasty, inclement weather. The coloration on a bird may not be visible in poor light. That’s why a silhouette can be so important when identifying waterfowl on the wing. Silhouettes are one of the most reliable indicators for waterfowl identification. The slender outline and wings of a pintail or the sloping bill of a bull canvasback is a dead giveaway. So is the square tail of a wood duck. The Jimmy Durant-like schnoz of a shoveler is a prominent characteristic and identifying indicator. Wigeons have crescent-shaped wings. Silhouettes are a failsafe form of identification.

Just the number of birds in a flock and how they fly can give you a good idea of exactly what kind of ducks you’re looking at, even at a distance.

Flight formations and patterns can provide valuable ID clues. Diving duck flight is low, strong, and direct and their wing beat is faster than a puddle duck. Puddle ducks tend to be in smaller groups, but not always, and do a lot of banking and turning unless they’re on a mission. Teal are known for their low-level aerobatics and evasive maneuvers. Wood ducks have a reputation for dodging trees like they’re on an obstacle course run. Pintails on the other hand prefer to approach on high making circle after circle before deciding whether all is safe. 

Know Your Ducks
Being able to identify waterfowl on the wing helps maximize the ability to harvest more abundant and more palatable species.

Sounds can be an additional audible clue. Many species of ducks have very distinctive calls. We all know the quack of a hen mallard. It’s kind of a universal call that many ducks respond to because they’re used to hanging with mallards. Drake mallards make a gravelly kreeek, kreeek call. Gadwalls are known for their coarse, relatively feeble quack. Shovelers make a very horse, guttural quack. Some ducks whistle and peep like teal, wigeon, and pintails. A whistle makes for a great confidence call especially when you can identify the duck beforehand.

Divers are much less vocal than puddle ducks, but far from silent. Diving ducks growl, make feeble quacks, chirp, and whistle. I’ve seen divers make a U-turn and pile into the decoys just by producing a throaty growl on my mallard call.

If you’re watching ducks that are feeding, make note of how they are obtaining their food. Generally, puddle ducks tip up when feeding. Aptly named, diving ducks dive underwater to secure their food. Watch how the ducks get up off the water when they take flight. Puddle ducks jump straight up when they take off. Divers need to run along the surface of the water to get airborne.

Once in hand, a duck’s bill or beak can be one of the most reliable ID indicators. Ducks have extremely unique and distinct bills. Dick LeMaster, a gifted carver, and waterfowl specialist created an ID system based on a duck’s bill and its color and shape commonly referred to as the LeMaster Method. LeMaster’s bill identification technique gives valuable insights into waterfowl identification that can be utilized by beginning and veteran waterfowlers alike.

Know Your Ducks
The contrasting black/white colors on a rake bluebill are a dead giveaway.

Although most hunters will be practicing their duck ID skills in the fall while hunting, spring is a great time to polish up on those talents. Shooting waterfowl with a camera or just observing them with binoculars can be great fun and the perfect way to hone both your hunting and your ID skills. Ducks in the spring are in their breeding plumage so the colors stand out. The best part about observing waterfowl in the spring is you don’t have to get up at ungodly hours or deal with nasty weather and there are no limits.


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If you measure between sizes, or prefer a loose or roomy fit, we recommend upsizing.

Jackets & Tops
Pants Numeric
30 Reg30"34"
32 Reg32"34"
34 Reg34"34"
36 Reg36"34"
38 Reg38"34"
40 Reg40"34"
42 Reg42"34"
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SizePalm CircLength
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