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The Ducks. Bird Orders. Anseriformes-part1

Updated on August 6, 2015

Mallards are the commonest Wild Duck



The Anseriformes is an order of birds that will be familiar to most of us as it contains the Geese ,Swans and Ducks. here in part one we review the Ducks which belong to the Anatidae family within the Order. It is a large family which consists of about 146 species {including gees and swans},in forty genera. A few species have become domesticated and many others hunted and shot for the table in the name of 'sport'.

Five species have become extinct since the year 1600,and a great many more are endangered or threatened.

Duck shooting has long been a popular pastime

Painting by the British Artist Henry Thomas Alken
Painting by the British Artist Henry Thomas Alken | Source

Characteristics of the Anatidae

The general characteristics of the Anatidae are as follows. The bill broad and flattened,covered for the greater part with what may be considered as a sensitive skin,but often with a hard nail at the tip of the upper mandible. The edges of the bill are fringed with small transverse laminae,which however, vary with habits.

The wings are of moderate length,the tail in general short,the body large and flat. The legs rather back on the body and wide apart from each other.The plumage in general close and water proofed and on the under part mixed with fine down.

The characters vary much in the genera and even in the species,but there is still a family likeness among them all. This one of the most important family of birds both in natural history and an economical point of view.In the former,it constitutes that part of the succession between birds chiefly of the air and the birds chiefly in the water, which extends from the waders/shorebirds on the one hand,to the true divers,which seek their food under water and chiefly at sea,on the other.

Garganey is a member of the Anas genus

Taken at Leighton Moss Lancashire UK
Taken at Leighton Moss Lancashire UK | Source

Ducks swimming on a snowy pond.


The genus Anas.

The ducks are the smallest members of the this family and at the same time the most numerous and most colourful in respect of their plumage.Their general characters are familiar to everyone.Although there are considerable differences in their size and shape and colouring ,there is nobody familiar with ducks of any species that can possibly mistake a duck for a swan or a goose,or even for one of the true divers.

All the duck species can perform three motions. They can swim, and all of them capable of diving in an emergency and some dive for a living. They can walk,but some are not very good and none of them walk either very elegantly or fast.All of them perform their long journeys upon the wing and most of their short journeys by swimming along the water.

Anas are a genus of web-footed birds and we may consider the common wild duck ,or mallard as being typical.In this article the domesticated duck species are only mentioned in passing and it is the wild species that we are focusing on.

The whole of the duck tribe whether they are more terrestrial in habit or much more aquatic in their habits find their food more by sense of touch rather than by sight, and the bill is beautifully adapted for such purposes. It is covered by a sentient membrane and the edges, which come in contact,are covered with papillae and abundantly furnished with nerves,so that when a duck dabbles in the water,the sides of the bill enables them to distinguish edible substances from the sludge and pebbles in which they are mixed,and it literally 'sifts' the matter it catches at the bottom of the shallows.

In this character of the bill the ducks are very superior both to the geese and swans. They are also more compact in their plumage and altogether more adapted for the water.

The broad bill of the ducks such as this Blue -billed duck is typical

Taken at Perth Zoo.
Taken at Perth Zoo. | Source

Drawing of a Ducks foot


Character variations of the species in Anatidae

Some species have the hind toe plain or without any membrane or web. They also have the legs placed more forward,the tarsi larger and rounder and the toes shorter and the whole foot more adapted for walking. They also have larger wings,however, it does not follow that they are better fliers,for some of the diving ducks are very alert on the wing after they have gained their height,but the feathering of the wings of the more terrestrial ducks is much less compact than those of the diving ducks. The latter use their wings as a fin or paddle in making their way under water.

The birds moult from July onwards which is referred to as the eclipse and the at this stage of their annual cycle,they tend to venture to safe havens,for strong flight is not an option at this time.The process is a lengthy one.

When ducks flock they come to the estuaries and the low flats,where a considerable extent of sludgy ground is alternatively covered and left by the tide. Such places during the winter months contain a plethora of morsels on which the ducks feed.

Male Mallard showing the Blue speculum feathers


Mallard drake in half eclipse moult

Even in eclipse moult the male can be told by its greenish yellow bill.
Even in eclipse moult the male can be told by its greenish yellow bill. | Source

The species

As previously stated the species are very numerous and so we can only take a selection of them here. We commence with the common wild duck The Mallard,Anas platyrhynchos {formerly Anas boschas}. When most people use the word duck it is often this species which is referred to. It is the commonest and the largest duck of the species that are encountered in the UK.

It is from the female that the word duck is taken,while the male or drake,is the Mallard. The bill is a greenish yellow colour in the male,the irides hazel and the feet orange with a hint of red. The head and neck are of a dark green colour,remarkable both for its gloss and for the fineness of its feathers. Below this there is a white collar,and the neck and breast and shoulders are purplish brown. The scapular feathers are a mixture of silvery white and rust colour finely streaked with wavy lines of brown.

The wing coverts are ash coloured with white and black on the tips and the primary quills are dusky black. The wing spot or speculum {pictured above} on the secondary feathers is a rich purple with metallic reflections of blue and green. The lower part of the back,the rump and tail coverts,and the four middle feathers,which are curled up in the male,are black,with green reflections on the rump and and purple on the tail The other features of the tail are dusky brown,margined with dull white.

The under part from the breast downwards is whitish grey and slightly mottled with brown. The female is smaller than the drake and her general colours are dull brown lined and mottled with black. She lacks the curled tail feathers. The speculum on the wings very much resembles that of the male.Her bill is blackish brown. When in 'eclipse' moult the plumage of the male resembles that of the female but they can always be distinguished by their greenish yellow bill, the colouring of which remains the same throughout the year.



Radjah Shelduck

Taken at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust England
Taken at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust England | Source

Ruddy Shelduck

Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust .England
Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust .England | Source

The Shelduck.

The Shelduck ,formerly referred to as Sheldrake, are placed in the genus Tadorna of which there are about seven species. The Ruddy ShelduckTadorna furuginea, South African Shelduck T.cana, The Australian Shelduck T.tadanoides, Paradise Shelduck T.variegata. Crested Shelduck T.cristata,{Possibly now extinct} Raja Shelduck,T radjah and the one under review the Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna {Formerly t.vulpanser}

The common Shelduck is widespread and common in Eurasia. In the USA and Canada they are classed as infrequent visitors. These are handsome birds of very quiet disposition. They inhabit the line of the water or near to it rather than on the fens or broad waters. They lurk in holes along the beaches in which the female deposits her eggs. She covers them with down plucked from her own breast when she has to leave them,which in any event is not any unnecessary length of time.

The diet consists of insects and small crustaceans and the spawn and small fry of fish. The Shelduck has a little of the strut and swagger of a goose. The feet and greater part of the bill are of a reddish colour,but the basal enlargement of the bill, the openings of the nostrils and the nail on the tip are black.

The head and neck are a beautifully rich green,the lower part of the neck, the back,the rump,the tail-coverts and the basal part of the tail feathers are white. There is a band of reddish bay colour,which forma a collar on the lower part of the neck and proceeds along the flanks and through the band a line of blackish brown extends to the vent.The outer half of the scapulars and the principle quills,are black and the secondary feathers are glossed with a wing spot {Speculum} of green with purple reflections.It is one of our most handsomely coloured aquatic birds.

Male Gadwall


Female Gadwall with duckling


The Gadwall

This duck has been given the scientific name of Anas strepera { formerly Chauliodus strepera}, is eighteen to twenty two inches long. The male slightly larger than the female,and is an inhabitant of marshy situations during the summer or breeding season.

In Britain the Gadwall is a scarce breeding bird and winter visitor but seen to be slowly increasing.

It breeds in the northern areas of Europe and Asia and central North America. It appears to be extending its range in to eastern North America. However, they are probably less seen in proportion to their numbers than any other duck,due to their retiring habits and due to the fact that they mainly feed at night.

The male bird is about nineteen inches long. The bill is two inches long ,flat and of a blackish colour. The markings on the plumage are minute,giving it a sort of appearance as if it were marked with delicate stripes and enclosed in a network. The ground colour of the head and neck is grey marked with brown points,but the lower part of the neck,the back and the breast are marked with small black crescents. The scapulars and flanks pencilled with zig-zag lines of black and white.

The primary quills of the wings dusky,the tail is reddish,but white at the tip,which is very much pointed. The under part white and the wing spot {speculum} white,with a red margin on the one side and a chestnut colour on the other. The female differs in having the wing covert duller,more brown on the neck and back and she lacks the crescent spots on the fore part,and the fine pencilling on the flanks and scapulars. She is also rather smaller in size than the male.

The nest is always well hidden.The eggs which are of a greenish-ash colour. This species is an expert diver.

Head of the Pintail duck


Pintail drake

Taken at Norfolk England.
Taken at Norfolk England. | Source

Illustration of Pintail pair


The northern Pintail Duck Anas acuta

The {northern } Pintail duck Anas acuta is sometimes referred to as Dafila acuta, is another very beautiful species,both in its form and in its markings.It is adorned with a very acute tail which is of a considerable length,pointed and of a black colour,glossed with rich green reflections.

Its distribution is the northern areas of Europe,Asia and North America. Wilson {1800's} gives the following account of the bird in America.

" The Pintail,or as it is sometimes known the Sprigtail,is a common and well known duck in our markets,much esteemed for the excellence of its flesh. It is ashy and cautious bird,feeds in mud flats and shallow freshwater marshes,but rarely resides on the sea coast. it seldom dives,is very noisy and has a kind of chattering note. When wounded they will sometimes dive,and comes up to conceal themselves under the bow of the boat,moving around as it moves,and giving the alarm on the approach of any gunner,who often curses the watchfulness of the sprigtail."

" Some birds when alarmed disperse in different directions but the sprigtail's when alarmed,cluster confusedly together as they mount,and thereby allow the sportsman a fair opportunity of raking them with advantage. They generally leave Delaware about the middle of March on their way to their native regions,the north where they are most numerous. On the marshy shores of some of the bays of Lake Ontario,they are often plentiful in the months of October and November. I have also met with them at Louisville,on the Ohio"

Both sexes have blue grey bills and grey legs and feet. The male as is generally the case with ducks is the more striking in appearance. It has a thin white stripe running from the back of the chocolate coloured head down its neck to the mostly white under parts. It also has attractive grey brown and black patterning on the back and on its sides.

The females plumage is a lot duller a drab brown. The duck makes a coarse quack while the drake emits a flute-like whistle.breeding generally takes place between April and June. The nest is located upon the ground well hidden among the vegetation,often some distance from the water. It is merely a shallow scrape in the ground lined with plant material and down. The female will deposit seven to nine cream coloured eggs. The female alone incubates the eggs for twenty two-twenty four days. The resulting ducklings are then led by the female to the nearest body of water.The survivors will remain with the female until she has completed her moult.

The Pintail feeds by dabbling and upending in shallow water. Its relatively longer neck allows it to feed on matter which are beyond the reach of most dabbling ducks.

Northern Shoveler

Taken at Brazoria national Wildlife Refuge
Taken at Brazoria national Wildlife Refuge | Source

The following duck species have been reviewed in great detail in my Series Birds of Europe.

Northern Shoveler {pictured above}

European teal.



Long tailed duck.

Tufted duck.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice ,

      Hi Deb, I know you are very familiar with your ducks and your knowledge is immense. Thank you for visiting ,it is always a pleasure to see you at my hubs.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I adore my ducks, and have managed to study some extras this past winter. I have yet to meet the Shelduck, but ran into several old friends during the Christmas Bird Counts.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika, Thank you for your kind and appreciated comments . Thank you for your vote up you are very kind. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful! It has been a while since I have actually seen these bird orders. The excellent description is greatly expressed with such lovely photos. Voted up!


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