Some Basics on The Ducks of the Northern Hemisphere

Probably everyone will have seen ducks in his or her life somewhere. Ducks is the collective name for a large family of waterfowl. The thing is that ducks are rather common in general. Some species enjoy a near worldwide distribution, some are rare and declining in numbers. Others are very hard to find. In general ducks are amoung those birds which are not always as easy to identify as one might think. Usually we divide ducks in dabbling ducks, diving ducks, hybrides, marine ducks, sawbills and, last but not least, vagrant wildfowl.

As already indicated, this family of waterfowl is all but small covering a staggering number of over 40 species, hybrides and vagrant waterfowl included.

waterfowl dabbling ducks mallard Anas platyrrhynchos
Waterfowl – Dabbling Ducks – Mallard (Anas platyrrhynchos) on lake

Dabbling Ducks

Dubbling ducks form the largest group in the ducks family. In the Western Palearctic and also across Eurasia and the northern Hemisphere there are 14 species that can be watched somewhere in Europe. We find these species either as breeding birds, migrants, winter guests or as vagrants.

Dabbling ducks feed from the water surface. They are large-sized to small-sized ducks and we find them usually on lakes, ponds, river, shallow water, wetlands. Quite often their posture in water is upending while they search for food in shallow waters.

They are able to take off water without prior running over the surface as we know it from swans e.g. Their sexes are markedly dissimilar. Mostly ♂ are much more colourful than ♀. During summer ♂ change into their winter plumage; during that time ♂ change their flight feather, making them flightless. The flightless period takes about 3-4 weeks, during which ♂ can hardly ever be seen on the water. Mostly they spent daytime hidden in riparian vegetatio or in reed zones. At that time ♂ adopt a more ♀-like plumage.

A list of these species is below:

  • Mallard – Stockente – Canard colbert (Anas platyrrhynchos)
  • Gadwall – Schnatterente – Canard chipeau (Anas strepera)
  • Falcated Duck – Sichelente – Canard à faucilles (Anas flacata Georgi 1775)
  • (Northern) Pintail Spießente – Canard pilet (Anas acuta)
  • (American) Black Duck – Dunkelente – Canard noir (Anas rubripes)
  • Northern Shoveler – Löffelente – Canard souchet (Anas clypeata)
  • (Eurasian) Wigeon – Pfeifente – Canard siffleur (Anas penelope)
  • American Wigeon – Kanadapfeifente – Canard d’Amérique (Anas americana)
  • Marbled Duck – Marmelente – Sarcelle marbrée (Marmaronetta angustirostris)
  • (Eurasian) Teal – Krickente – Sarcelle d’hiver (Anas crecca)
  • Green-winged Teal – Carolinakrickente – Sarcelle à ailes vertes (Anas [crecca] carolinensis J.F. Gmelin 1879)
  • Garganey – Knäkente – Sarcelle d’été (Anas querquedula)
  • Blue-winged Teal – Blauflügelente – Sarcelle à ailes bleues (Anas discors)
  • Baikal Teal – Gluckente – Sarcelle élégante (Anas Formosa)
  • Mandarin Duck – Mandarinente – Canard mandarin (Aix galericulata)
  • American Wood Duck – Brautente – Canard arolin (Aix sponsa)
Eurasian Teal
Tufted Duck

Diving Ducks

Diving ducks is a group name applied to ducks who almost exclusively feed by diving. We will hardly ever see them upending. Sizes vary between fairly small to large. Their food covers vegetarian elements but they are also omnivorous. Although sea ducks are also diving ducks, they are explained in detail further below.

Important identification features are a ratehr heavy body, rather short wings – compared to dabling ducks – they can only take off from the water surface after prior running over the surface (swan-like). Pochards are mainly to be found in shallow and eutrophic lakes. Sea ducks are mainly living in marine environments.

Nests are build on the ground and are mainly scraped moulds which are lined with green plants from the surroundings. Only the ♀ will tend to the juveniles once those have hatched. The ♂ leaves after the clutch has hatched.

Species of diving ducks distributed across the Western Palearctic:

  • (Common) Pochard – Tafelente – Fuligule miouin (Aythya ferina)
  • Canvasback – Riesentafelente – Fuligule à dos blanc (Aythya valisineria)
  • Red-crested Pochard – Kolbenente – Nette rousse (Netta rufina)
  • Ferruginous Duck – Moorente – Fuligule nyroca (Aythya nyroca)
  • (Greater) Scaup – Bergente – Fuligule milouinan (Aythya marila)
  • Tufted Duck – Reiherente – Fuligule morillon (Aythya fuligula)
  • Ring-necked Duck – Ringschnabelente – Fuligule à collier (Aythya collaris)
  • Lesser Scaup – Kleine Bergente – Fuligule à tête noire (Aythya affinis Eyton 1838)
  • White-headed Duck – Weißkopf-Ruderente – Érismature à tête blanche (Oxyura leucocephala) – North Africa, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea
  • Ruddy Duck – Schwarzkopf – Ruderente (Oxyura jamicensis) – American species, introduced to Britain, now beginning to spread across Europe
eider duck somateria mollissima
Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima)

Marine Ducks

Although they are also “diving ducks” a special explanation is designated to them. A name says it all and, matter-of-factly, sea ducks are perfectly adapted to a live at sea. They spend most of the year in the vicinity of the coast and only return to land for breeding.

Sea ducks are perfectly adapted to diving in the sea and can reach diving depths of about 20 m, with diving times of >60 seconds. In stark contrast to dabbling ducks they have a later maturity and can actually get quite old. The eider e.g. can reach an age of c. 37 years.

In Europe we can watch sea ducks in the entire Wadden Sea area all year round, where we will find breeding birds as well as migrants between late summer, throughout winter and in spring.

Sea Duck species in the Western Palearctic are:

  • (Common) Eider – Eiderente – Eider à duvet (Somateria mollissima)
  • King Eider – Prachteiderente – Eider à tête grise (Somateria spectabilis)
  • Steller’s Eider – Scheckente – Eider de Steller (Polysticta stelleri)
  • Common Scoter – Trauerente – Macreuse noire (Melanitta nigra)
  • Velvet Scoter – Samtente – Macreuse brune (Melanitta fusca)
  • American Scooter – Pazifiktrauerente – Macreuse à bec jaune (Melanitta [nigra] americana)
  • Surf Scoter – Brillenente – Macreuse à front blanc (Melanitta perspicillata)
  • White-winged Scooter – Höckersamtente – Macreuse à ailes blances (Melanitta [fusca] deglandi)
  • Long-tailed Duck – Eisente – Harelde boréale (Clangula hyemalis)
  • Harlequin Duck – Kragenente – Arlequin plongeur (Histrionicus histrionicus)
  • (Common) Goldeney – Schellente – Garrot à oeil d’or (Bucephala clangula)
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye – Spatelente – Garrot d’Islande (Bucephala islandica)
eider duck
Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima)
Goosander (Mergus merganser)


Sawbills are also diving ducks and their sizes vary from rather small to large. Their most prominent identification feature is a slender bill, hooked at the tip. These birds feed on fish. Their bill has tooth-like lamellae along the cutting edges providing a better grip on their prey. There are only three species existing of which two are larger with longer necks.

Sawbills are excellent divers and dive over large distances, diving depths of >10 m, diving time 30 seconds on average. They tend to dive and hunt in groups.

The three species of sawbills distributed in the Western Palearctic are:

  • Smew – Zwergsäger – Harle piette (Mergellus albellus)
  • Hooded Merganser – Kappensäger – Harle couronné (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • Goosander – Gänsesäger – Harle bièvre (Mergus merganser)
  • Red-brested Merganser – Mittelsäger – Harle huppé (Mergus serrator)
Mandarin Duck

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: