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On Your Mark, Get Set...Name That Duck!

You, too, can learn to identify a bird in the blink of an eye.
“Here’s the first one,” the sneaker-clad professor called out, unveiling a photograph and making a mad dash across the room. One-tenth of the student’s grade hinged on correctly processing less than three seconds of information in that “fly-by” quiz. 

Seem unfair? Not when the class is ornithology, the study of birds, and the students had spent an entire semester learning the birds of Illinois. But is that testing method realistic?
It is for the nearly 2.6 million Illinoisans who take binoculars, field guides and cameras afield or sit in the comfort of their home watching resident birds at the feeder (2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation). And, for Illinois’ nearly 65,000 waterfowl hunters, correct identification of a speeding target on a misty winter morning can prevent a costly fine, a little harassment from their hunting buddies, and mean the difference between bringing a fish-eating or corn-fed duck to the table.
Field marks are used to aid in the identification of ducks, and, for that matter, all birds. A few seconds often is all the time a person has to make a quick assessment of a bird. You’ll need to note things like its overall size, and whether the bird has stripes, spots, blotches or streaks on the head, throat, sides, breast or wings. Look for the presence or absence of colored patches on the wings, head or rump, and the color and shape of the bill. Take note of the bird’s tail and wing shape.  

Lacking the pressure of earning a grade, you can learn to identify birds at your own speed and in the comfort of your home. Spend a little time reviewing field marks and learning to navigate through a bird guide borrowed from your local library or purchased from a book store, then head outside for your own version of a “fly-by” quiz.  

Unlike that college class, keep your eyes skyward as you may be rewarded when that bird gives you a second (or third or fourth) chance to pick up field marks.

  Puddle or
Marsh Ducks
Diving Ducks
where feeds surface depths
feeding style    tip up dive
favored foods aquatic plants, seeds,
small invertebrates
small invertebrates, plants
wing patch  colorful dull
leg placement near center of body; 
walking on land easy
near the tail;
walking on land difficult
swimming tail held up,
clear of water
tail parallel to water
flight habits spring from water run across surface for some distance
wing characteristics large in size;
slow wing beat
small in size;
more rapid wing beat  



(Anas platyrhynchos)
    Field Marks—males have a shiny green head, white ring around the neck, brown chest and gray body; females are uniformly brown; both have a violet-blue wing patch 
    Migration Status—abundant 
    Winter Status—common 
    Summer Status—year-round resident in the northern two-thirds of Illinois and uncommon in the south 
    Habitat—marshes, ditches, swamps, grain fields, ponds, rivers and lakes; common in cities and towns

Gadwall (Anas strepera
    Field marks—males have a gray body, patch of black near the tail and dark bill; females are mottled brown; both have a white wing patch 
    Migration Status—fairly common
    Winter Status—fairly common in south and uncommon in central and north 
    Summer Status—rare
    Habitat—ponds, lakes and overflow areas  

Northern pintail (Anas acuta) 
    Field marks—males have a long, pointed tail and white area on the front of the neck extending in a thin strip into the brown part of the head; females are mottled brown; both have a light border on the edge of the wing 
    Migration Status—common 
    Winter Status—uncommon in central and south and occasional in north
    Summer Status—rare in north and central
    Habitat—ponds, lakes and overflow areas  

Blue-winged teal (Anas discors
    Field marks—males have a white crescent in front of the eye; females are mottled brown; both have a chalky-blue wing patch 
    Migration Status—common 
    Winter Status—rare 
    Summer Status—fairly common in north, uncommon in central and occasional in south 
    Habitat—shallow ponds, sloughs and overflow areas  

American wigeon (Anas americana
    Field marks—males have a gray head and white crown; females are ruddy brown; adult birds have a white wing patch 
    Migration Status—common 
    Winter Status—uncommon in south and central and occasional in north 
    Summer Status—rare 
    Habitat—ponds, lakes and overflow areas  

Wood duck (Aix sponsa
    Field marks—male spring plumage consists of purple-green head, red eyes, red and white bill, white  throat, purple-red chest and golden sides; female is dark brown with a white belly and white patch surrounding the eyes 
    Migration Status—common 
    Winter Status—occasional in north and central 
    Summer Status—common
    Habitat—swamps and wooded rivers and ponds 

Common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
    Field marks—flattened bill with tooth-like fringed edge to strain food from the water; males are black and white and have a white spot on their green head; females are gray with a white collar and brown  head; both have a large white wing patch 
    Migration Status—common 
    Winter Status—common
    Summer Status—rare
    Habitat—deeper lakes and rivers 

Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola
    Field marks—males have a puffy head with a large white patch behind the eye; females are dark  and have a white cheek spot; both have a white wing patch 
    Migration Status—fairly common
    Winter Status—uncommon winter 
    Summer Status—extremely rare 
    Habitat—lakes, ponds and rivers          

Advanced Duck ID Tips
Ready for a little challenge? Once you have the visual recognition process down, ducks also can be identified by their call, silhouette, the sound and speed of their wing beats, and size and formation of the flock. 

Web sites for getting to know our web-footed friends: Ducks at a Distance: A Waterfowl Identification Guide
By: Kathy Andrews
Hen mallard
Drake bufflehead
Drake mallard
Close-up of drake wood duck head
Drake goldeneye
Drake blue-winged teal