Winging it: Learn Ducks From Their Wings

Quick Guide to Wing Identification Tips

Female Canvasback wing by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS || Canvasback female duck by Walt Rhodes/USFWS.

Whether you’re a casual backyard birder or a hard-bitten veteran with hundreds of birds on your life list, there is always something new to learn about identifying birds.

Waterfowl can pose a special challenge, as they are often congregating in the middle of a pond or bay, or flying off at first sight.

While correctly identifying waterfowl can be a fun hobby for birdwatchers, hunters need to be sure they know what birds are in hand, so they don’t exceed their bag limit. But as we have said, it can be hard for even experienced hunters can have a hard time picking out ducks on the wing, especially early in the season, when males have shed their distinctive breeding plumage.

Fortunately, there is one reliable way of picking them out, no matter what the season: wing feathers.

Male mallard wing by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS.

Unlike body plumage — think the green head on a male mallard — wing plumage tends to not change much over the course of a year, so it can be used to determine the species and sex of a bird, but that is best done with a bird in the hand.

Identifying Waterfowl Wings with a Little Help

Waterfowl populations have been doing pretty well, and generally, hunters are able to harvest at least one of a species (total daily bag limits do apply, regardless of species), but different species have different total limits, so it is important to know what you have so you know if you’ve reached the limit or not. For instance, in Maryland, the daily bag limit is 6 ducks, but within that framework, you can take 4 mallards, but only 2 pintails. Even within the mallards, only two can be females. So it’s crucial to know what you have in your hand.

Male Canvasback by Kayt Jonsson/USFWS.

Duck Identification: Mallard

For instance, the broad white bar above the secondary feathers in mallard males also covers the tertial feathers in females. Male wings are more grayish, while female wings have more brown in them.

While mallard wings have trademark blue secondaries over brown/gray wings, Northern shoveler males have blue shoulder patches with green secondary feathers, and American wigeon males have large white shoulder patches.

Female wings can often be more difficult to tell apart, but once you clue into the subtle differences among the species, it becomes easier to do. Fortunately, our new video series on identifying common waterfowl by their wings has tips to help beginners and even experts, from a biologist who has identified over 100,000 wings in his life.

Duck Wing Identification Tips

Our experts created a few video resources to show you how to identify some common ducks in the field from their wings.

Dabbling Ducks

Diving Ducks

Sending in Wings Helps Science and Management

Wing ID is not only useful for hunters and birdwatchers though — it helps us understand more about waterfowl populations, so we can better manage them. Through the Harvest Information Program (HIP) parts collection survey, a sample of hunters will mail in a wing from all the waterfowl they harvested in a season (or wing tips and tail feathers in the case of geese). In each of the four administrative waterfowl flyways, federal and state biologists gather together in “wingbees” to examine each wing to determine sex and species.

The results are combined with the harvest diary surveys, as well as spring habitat and population survey, other data to give us an idea of how populations are doing in different areas, and whether they need help or not. The system seems to me working: North American waterfowl are some of the best-studied bird families in the world, and in most cases, species numbers are at or near historic highs.

Next time you are out on a hunt, or simply watching birds, take a look for that flash of blue on a shoulder, or a speckled brown wing, and you may just discover a bird you weren’t able to identify before.

By Chris Deets, Migratory Bird Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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