Flying Ducks Prove Difficult To Identify

Waterfowl, a general description for ducks, can be challenging to identify in flight. Mastering this ability provides satisfaction and pleasure for bird watchers and is a necessity and requirement for duck hunters.

Personally, bird watching has been my hobby for more than 50 years. I have had the luxury of using binoculars to study the details of color and shape of swimming ducks in local waters like Chautauqua Lake, Dunkirk Harbor or the Niagara and Allegheny rivers.

Once ducks took flight, their appearance blurred so I gave up attempts to identify them. I learned that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) offers a waterfowl identification course in numerous towns around the state. This four-hour course, which I completed in Elma this summer, used the book “Ducks at a Distance” by Robert W. Hines available online and downloadable at

The goal of this course is to teach hunters to spot specific wing markings unique to each species of duck so one can accurately identifying flying ducks. My primary reason to be qualified in waterfowl identification was to combine my new hobbies of skeet shooting and duck hunting and so I could legally hunt on state and federal wildlife management areas which provide additional options to private land.

Waterfowl hunters need to be skilled at duck identification and marksmanship as well as masters of camouflage in the field. The key to duck identification in flight is to observe characteristic wing color patterns. The top of the wing reveals long flight feathers at the tip of the wing called primary feathers. The trailing feathers close to the body are called secondary and typically have characteristic white or colored patches. The wing leading edge feathers, called coverts, may have colored bright plumage like blue on the blue-winged teal.

Ducks grow new feathers twice a year. Males lose the bright plumage after the spring breeding season, entering the eclipse phase, resembling the female of the species. The three species of mergansers, ducks with a toothed bill for catching and eating fish, have a daily bag limit of six.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) advises against consumption of mergansers due to their accumulation of environmental contaminants like mercury in the fish they eat. Since most hunters want to consume what they harvest, a hunter, after identifying a merganser, may decide to pass up the shot to concentrate on harvesting the more tasty ducks like wood ducks, pintails and mallards which feed on submerged water plants and grain. Since the duck hunter must quickly identify a duck flying at 40 miles per hour, often in poor light at sunrise or sunset while sitting in a duck blind, keen identification skills are required.

The hunter must identify waterfowl like loons, harlequin ducks and swans which are illegal to harvest. All duck species have bag limits or restrictions on the number a hunter can possess. In the case of the common mallard duck, identified by its green head, four can be harvested daily but only two can be females or hens. Daily bag limits are determined by the USFWS to project safe numbers of ducks to be harvested but still maintain a healthy breeding population for the next year. The hunter is on their honor to obey the regulations.

The effective range of a standard shotgun shell is about 40 yards. If the hunter can see individual feathers, and see the eye, the duck is in range for a potential successful shot. Steel shot, being non-toxic to feeding ducks instead of lead shot, is required when hunting waterfowl.

Waterfowl hunters require an annual small game license and a $15 Federal Duck Stamp. This fee is used to acquire or lease additional wetlands which benefit birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and plants living in the management area. Also waterfowl hunters must register with the NYS Hunter Information Program (HIP) on the telephone and answer questions about the previous year’s hunting experience.

Everyone interested in increasing wetland territory should purchase a duck stamp available in most post offices.