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A Beginner’s Guide to Waterfowl Identification

I started waterfowl hunting, but quickly realized how difficult it is for a beginner to be able to identify waterfowl in the field and how important it is when hunting.

As a hunter, we must make sure we know what we are shooting to help ensure proper harvest limits and avoid wantonly wasting any undesired birds. I’ve found that learning to identify different ducks adds to the enjoyment of waterfowling. Sometimes I find myself bird watching and observing nature rather than shooting…it must be the beginner in me! Here are some tips I’ve picked up so far:

A Beginner’s Guide to Waterfowl Identification

First Observation

When distinguishing one species from another is it important to start with the basics and take note of the bird’s size, shape, wing beat, colors, sound and flock behavior.

Flock Behavior

Flock behaviors are clues when identifying waterfowl species. Note mallards, pintail and widgeon form loose groups. Teal and shovelers fly in fast compact groups. Canvasback shift v’s to waving lines while mergansers typically move in strong, direct “follow the leader” lines that are low to the water.


When the lighting is good and the bird is close, the plumage color will help you identify the species. I have found however that a single bird will often fly by and be silhouetted. In this case, it is important to look at the variations of neck length, head shape, size of the body and the length of wings and tails.


The sound of a duck wings can help you identify them as much as their calls. For example, a goldeneye’s wings make a whistling sound, this is how they get the nickname “whistler.” Wood ducks move with a swish; and canvasbacks make a steady rushing sound. Since diver ducks wings are smaller in proportion to the size and weight of their bodies, they have a more rapid wingbeat than a puddle duck.

This was my first season duck hunting, but it certainly will not be my last! I look forward to becoming a more experienced water fowler and sharing behaviors and tips that I pick up while in the field.

As always, I love hearing your feedback. Please comment below and share your thoughts with me!

Nikki Boxler
Nikki Boxler
Nikki Boxler grew up on a large dairy farm in Western New York and continues to reside there today. This setting has shaped her love of the outdoors and is how she developed a passion which drives her to spend as much time hunting and fishing as possible. For her, hunting is not about the kill, it is about the experience, the memories, the moments and having fun. Her most memorable adventures take place not only in the woods but also around the grill. Nikki thoroughly enjoys her role as co-host of Winchester Life.