Duck Identification Part 2: Using habitat, sound, silhouette and color to identify ducks
by M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
If you’ve read part one of this duck identification series, you know how important it is to be able to positively identify your target. It’s the cardinal rule of hunting, regardless of the quarry.
Truthfully, it’s not that tough. However, I won’t say that even with 47 seasons under my belt, I identify ducks correctly 100% of the time. Ninety-eight percent of the time? Yes I do, but it’s taken years of practice, observation, asking questions, plus looking and looking and looking again.
We’ve already talked about the differences between dabblers and divers, as well as how to use size, shape and flight details to identify ducks. Now we’ll get into how you can use habitat, sound, silhouette and color to tell one species of duck apart from another.
Where a duck is found can be an indicator of what it is (see “dabblers vs. divers” in part one). However, geographic location might not always be the best in terms of helpful hints.
Scoters, for instance, are sea ducks. They’re most at home on the salt and big, big, big bodies of water. That said, I once found a wayward hen white-winged scoter on a small upground impoundment in eastern Iowa some years ago — around 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean and roughly half that from the Atlantic. Lost, I’m thinking, but it goes to prove that while habitat can help with identification, it’s not an absolute.
Many times, all a ’fowler is given to aid in identifying a duck in flight (especially in dim morning light) is a silhouette — a black or black/grey visual outline. This, as you’d assume, leaves much to be desired in terms of positive identification. It can, however, be a starting point or a foundation upon which additional information can be layered until that positive ID is determined.
Size and shape, as discussed in part one, can be determined via silhouette. An outline or profile, too, can provide clues.
For instance, a drake wood duck’s crest can sometimes be seen in silhouette. The pintail’s wings appear thin, streamlined and swept back. So, too, is the bull sprig’s namesake long tail. A flock of green-wing teal careening through the decoys resemble honeybees frantically milling around outside the hive entrance.
Again, we return here to observation, time and repetition, as these elements together assist in our attempts at duck identification.
Sound plays a huge role in identifying birds, both on the water and in flight. Here are some examples:
- A peep could be a green-wing teal, although green-wing hens also make a high-pitched, odd-sounding “quack.”
- A rising whine or squeal in the predawn darkness is probably a wood duck on the water looking for company.
- A trilled whistle from the open water is likely a drake pintail.
- A throaty, croaking growl accompanying a knot of birds that twist and turn their way into the rig could be ’Cans, redheads or bluebills. You’ll know as soon as they get closer.
And finally there’s color. Here are some to look out for, depending on where you’re shooting:
- A green head might be a drake mallard. However, a prime drake shoveler (aka spoonbill) will also sport a green head, so it’s best to look twice before slapping the trigger.
- Drake woodies are overall dark, but in good light that old summer duck (as they’re sometimes known) will show all the colors of the rainbow. Or darn near!
- Bull sprig are white-chested; so, too, are drake canvasbacks and redheads.
- White speculums on the lower wing coverts could indicate a bunch of gray ducks.
- Powder puff blue on the shoulders could be blue-wings or early cinnamons or shovelers.
Mistakes in duck identification can and will be made. However, we must also remember that when we lack certainty regarding this duck or that duck, we always, ALWAYS have the option and the responsibility of NOT touching the trigger.So what’s the bottom line when it comes to accurate duck identification?
As you’ve read, there are several factors that contribute to telling this duck from that duck. But positive ID, a ’fowling friend told me once, isn’t using just one of these factors. It’s using all of the clues you’re given — visual and aural. That, and practice. Repetition. Observation. And for you new ‘fowlers, spending time afield with a duck hunting veteran is invaluable. Ask questions. A lot of questions.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
Read more from M.D. on Slayer’s Blog:
– A hunter’s guide to waterfowl guns and ammo
– Hunting gadwall ducks: Everything you need to know
– 9 things every new duck hunter REALLY needs: Resources and gear
– Why these waterfowlers love the cutdown call for duck hunting