Easy Duck ID Tricks for Next Season

The Duck Blog

Easy Duck ID Tricks for Next Season

Posted 2018-03-06T23:47:00Z

Practice Now to Distinguish Birds When the Action Starts

Pictures are helpful for learning duck identification, but there's no substitute for observing wild birds. Photo © Bill Konway

Quick, certain duck identification is always important, whether you're sitting in a Louisiana bayou or a Minnesota marsh.

Yet challenges — clouds, bright sun, low light or tired eyes — sometimes make the task difficult. And contrary to what some believe, real duck ID skills cannot be learned from a book. They must be acquired through observation afield.

Here are some quick tips to help next season.


Everyone knows what a wood duck looks like, right? Yet I've seen folks misidentify them, sometimes confusing them with teal or larger ducks.

If you can see the bird's colors, there's no question what it is. In low light, look for the wood duck's unique squared tail, which is always a dead giveaway. Also, note their flight level, which is typically in the mid-level range and very direct, with no circling or messing around.


Like wood ducks, cottontops are very distinctive. Still, some hunters fail to pick them out. First, look for the bright white wing shoulder on drakes. In large mixed flocks, note the profile of birds at a distance. Wigeon will appear stubby and blocky compared to gadwall and other large puddlers. In low light, focus on their white belly, but note how it has a more rounded shape than the straight dark-to-white chest transition of a gray duck.


Lots of hen pinnies get shot when eager hunters confuse them with other large puddlers. When in doubt, hold fire, as you do not want to knock down several sprigs and have a warden ruin your day. In low light, look at the wings and profile of approaching birds. Pintails have graceful, almost gull-like wings set against long, thin bodies. After a while, it's even easy to pick out immature hens by noting their sleek appearance. And when lighting improves, the distinctive markings of drake pintails become apparent.

Black Ducks

Discerning black ducks from the similarly sized and shaped mallard is easy enough when you can see well or when the birds fly in mixed flocks. In bright sun or low light, however, it can get tricky. First, look for (duh) the consistently dark coloration of black ducks and the lack of a drake mallard's darker breast and light belly. Second, pay attention to the undersides of their wings, which will appear almost silver against the dark chest.

Cans Versus Redheads

Again, this isn't tough duty when the birds fly together (which is common). However, it gets tougher when they're exclusive. Drake cans, of course, feature more white than bull redheads, especially later in the season. In flight, redheads look far stouter and blockier than their longer, more slender cousins. When you've seen them together, the difference gets burned into your memory.

Hen Ringbill Versus Hen Redhead

If you get this correct 100 percent of the time, call the newspaper. Yet we need to because of the strict limits on redheads. To make matters tougher, the species often run together, and they share similar flight characteristics.

The simplest solution is to note the size of the bird. Redheads are larger and more substantial than ringnecks. Further, hen redheads have a slightly lighter tawny color than most hen ringers. Honestly, the easiest method is to scan for drakes of either species. If you see the dark markings of a drake blackjack, you're probably safe. When a red head shines in the sun, beware.


Easy. If a situation appears too good to be true, it's a shoveler. (But for the record, look at the kamikaze flight pattern, crooked neck and long head-and-bill profile to ID spoonies. Then, shoot or hold fire as your conscience dictates.)

Click here for more Realtree waterfowl content. And check us out on Facebook.