When most non-birders think of ducks, they picture the common mallard or various hybrid ducks on local ponds. Birders know, however, that there are many different types of ducks – few of which actually have the word “duck” in their name. By understanding the different types of duck families and related species, identifying waterfowl can become much easier.
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“Dabblers” are ducks that tip up in order to feed, scrounging through shallow water and mud in search of plants and insects, and these ducks will also feed readily on land. The most common dabbling duck species is the mallard, but the northern pintail, American wigeon and different teals are also dabblers.
Diving ducks are agile swimmers that dive far beneath the surface of the water in search of food, including fish, insects and aquatic plants. These ducks prefer to stay in the water and can be ungainly on land. Diving duck species include the scaups, goldeneyes, canvasback, rosybill and redhead.
These types of sea-ducks are found in very northern, Arctic habitats, and they’re well known for their lush down and its spectacular insulating properties that protect them from the harsh cold. Eider species include the common, spectacled, Steller’s and king eider.
Aptly named for their brilliant yellow eyes, goldeneye duck species are diving ducks characterized by their big, round heads. They nest in tree holes and have sharp black and white plumage. Goldeneye species include the common and Barrow’s goldeneyes, though buffleheads are sometimes categorized as goldeneyes as well.
The most prominent features of these slim ducks are their narrow, serrated, hooked bills. These are the only ducks that regularly eat a large amount of fish, and their bills are specialized to make them keen hunters. Species include the hooded, common, and red-breasted merganser.
Perching ducks have claws on their webbed feet and can regularly be found perching in trees along wooded waterways and other areas with appropriate trees for nesting. The Muscovy, pink-eared, wood and mandarin ducks are example of perching ducks.
Scoters are bulky sea-ducks with dark plumage and swollen, brightly colored bills. These birds can be found in northern regions and along marine habitats, and species include the black, surf and velvet scoters.
Sea-ducks are so named because they are primarily marine birds found in coastal habitats, though they can range further inland during the nesting season and migration. These are bulky birds that have special glands to help them tolerate salt water. Sea-duck species include the eiders, scoters, goldeneyes and mergansers.
The stifftails are aptly named diving ducks with spiky stiff tails which they use as rudders while swimming. The tail may also be held angled or vertically as a breeding or territorial display. Stifftails include the ruddy duck, masked duck and blue-billed duck.
Teals are different types of dabbling ducks that often have brightly colored, distinctive plumage, including fantastic speculum coloration. These ducks prefer to feed along the surface of the water as opposed to tipping up. Teal species include the cinnamon, green-winged and silver teal.
These tropical ducks have long legs and necks, unlike typical compact duck proportions. These birds are named for their gregarious whistling calls, and species include the black-bellied, fulvous and white-faced whistling-ducks.
Not a wild species, domestic ducks are instead escapees from farms, gardens and zoos. These ducks frequently congregate in mixed flocks on urban and suburban ponds, and their indistinct plumage and mottled colors shows a high degree of hybridization with other domestic and wild birds.