Warden Shows How You Can Become A Duck ID Expert

An article from WWA’s Words From The Wardens.

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Waterfowl Association’s November 1, 2018 eNewsletter.

By WDNR Recreation Warden Heather Gottschalk

Waterfowl identification is an important skill for a waterfowl hunter to possess. But, it takes practice – and lots of it – to be really good at identifying birds on the wing and in hand.

Here are a few tips that we use to train our warden recruits at our Duck School, a week-long course that focuses on all aspects of waterfowl enforcement. This system, developed by Retired Warden Cletus Alsteen, uses a process of elimination.

Let’s walk through the system so you can start using it your next time out! The first step is to know some terminology. For the purposes of this column, I will reference mostly the Speculum which covers the entire section of secondary feathers as shown in this graphic.

When identifying ducks, eliminate as many species as you can. Here is how you can do that:

  1. With bird in hand, where are the feet located? Are the feet in the middle of the body or way towards the back? If in the middle, the answer is puddle duck. If they are to the back – the answer is diver duck.
  2. Do you have a lobed toe or an elongated toe? Answers: Lobed = diver. Elongated = puddle.
  3. Here’s the big one – DO YOU HAVE COLOR (other than black or white) IN THE SPECULUM? Yes = puddle duck, No = Diver
    1. If you have COLOR, you have a puddle duck. This determination prompts the next question: What is the color?
      1. Blue/Purple: wood duck, Mallard, Black Duck
      2. Green: blue wing teal, green wing teal, shoveler, widgeon
      3. White: Gadwall
      4. Green to purple/brown tint: Pintail
    2. If you DO NOT have color, just black and white or all grey, you have a Diver. How much white do you have? Is the Speculum:
      1. Completely white from Primaries to Tertials? Yes: Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, White Winged Scoter
      2. 2/3 – 3/4 White with lots of white showing from Speculum through coverts? You have a common or Red Breasted Merganser, bufflehead, Goldeneye.
      3. No white, all grey wing: ring neck (green tint on tertials), Red Head or Canvasback

Although there are more steps to this process, I hope this will help you to narrow your bird down to one to three distinct species.



Here is a good example of the payoffs from ID training at Duck School.

A citizen called in a complaint concerning the shooting of this swan. Wardens responded, and the investigation determined the four hunters shot the swan thinking it was a goose.

Know your target!