Start Duck Hunting This Year – the ABC’s of Duck Hunting – Part 1
Whether you are a seasoned duck hunter or a complete newbie, the following pages will provide an in-depth look at all facets of duck hunting and start duck hunting this year. The goal of this article is to enable you to hunt ducks more effectively while providing easy-to-digest information. Here, the complete ABC’s of duck hunting will be presented.
North American Duck Species
There are four types of ducks that are typically hunted in North America: puddle ducks (aka dabbling ducks), diving ducks, sea ducks, and whistling ducks (aka tree ducks). In North America, puddle ducks and diving ducks can be hunted all across the continent, while sea ducks and whistling ducks are only found in certain regions.
Puddle ducks can be found in freshwater wetlands such as marshes, river backwaters, prairie pothole lakes, and shallow bays. A defining feature of these birds is their tendency to tip up (i.e. place their heads underwater with their rear in the air) for feeding in a foot or less of water. Puddle ducks also feed on land, consuming vegetation, agricultural crops, and aquatic invertebrates. They also make for good eating because of their diet.
In comparison to the other types of ducks, such as diving ducks, they function well on land, which is largely due to their anatomy. They have legs that are centered towards the middle of their body, enabling them to walk more easily. Their feet are smaller than diving ducks, and they lack lobed toes.
Puddle ducks use their strong legs and wings to flush upward when taking flight and are able to become airborne almost immediately. Their size varies among species, but in general dabbler ducks have large bodies. Indeed, dabblers can be distinguished from diving ducks based on their silhouette on the water. If the duck holds its head high, it is likely a diving duck; a high body is more indicative of a puddler.
The Mallard Duck is easily the most recognizable duck in both North America and the world. This bird is large, measuring 2 feet and commonly weighing up to 3 lbs. Drakes may also be called greenheads, due to the glossy
green coloring on their heads. Mallards are not picky eaters, and consume aquatic invertebrates, as well as submergent and emergent aquatic vegetation. When mallards are migrating they feed on crops like beans, corn, wheat, and barley.
Their breeding range is large, spanning the northern third of the US as far north as Alaska. Migration occurs in the late fall and winter in the southern US, with a large concentration of these birds found in the Mississippi Flyway. They are vocal birds, and they have provided the basis for duck calling. Besides their prevalence in North America, they are widely hunted because of their superior taste and wariness of hunters.
The Wood Duck is widely considered one of the most beautiful ducks in the world. This species differs from other
puddlers in that they nest in tree cavities and spend much of their time perching. Most often found throughout the eastern and southern US, many of the wood ducks that reside in the south do not migrate.
They feed on acorns and aquatic vegetation, such as duckweed. In addition, wood ducks eat crops, especially when mast production is poor. Like Mallards, wood ducks are great for eating. Defining characteristics of wood ducks include their distinct “hoo-eek” squeal when they take flight.
The American Black Duck, also known as the black duck, is a large puddler that resembles a mallard. American black ducks and mallards are the same size and share the same general habitat as both are commonly found in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways. They migrate late, staying in the north until food and water become scarce. Recently, black duck numbers have declined due to hybridization with mallards as well as competition. This species is wary and can be very tough to decoy.
The Northern Pintail, also called sprigs, is skinnier and longer than the mallard. They are graceful, with long necks and gull-like wings. Although numbers are down relative to recent years, the northern pintail duck maintains a large
breeding area in North America and northern Eurasia. While hens have a coarse quack, drakes emit a short, trill whistle. Northern pintails are early migrators and prefer shallow water with submergent vegetation. However, northern pintails will also feed in fields like other puddle ducks.
The American Wigeon, also called a baldpate, is a beautiful species that is both shorter and stockier than the mallard, with short bills, pointed tails, and narrow wings. A wigeon can be distinguished from another duck in flight due to its white belly and white wing shoulders. The American wigeon consumes aquatic vegetation as well as wild celery and other plants. When feeding on land they prefer grasses and plants as opposed to crops. The wigeon is also vocal. Drakes have a unique three-note whistle where the middle note is higher than the others. Wigeons migrate early to mid-fall.
The Gadwall, also known as the gray duck, is similar in size to the wigeon. Thanks to a recent population surge, gadwalls are one of the most populous ducks in North America, primarily found in prairie regions of the Central Flyway. Like wigeons, gadwalls primarily eat aquatic vegetation and rarely feed on land. Hen gadwalls sound like hen mallards, while drakes emit a “blat” sound. Unlike other birds, gadwalls are easy to decoy.
The Blue-Winged Teal is a small duck that measures only 16’’ long and weighs less than 1 lb. This bird migrates early, commonly leaving its breeding grounds in August or September. The Blue-Winged Teal also migrates farther than any other duck, heading all the way to South America. Called the acrobat of the duck world, bluewings are known for their stunts in the air. They feed on shallow aquatic vegetation and are good for eating. Drakes of this species emit soft peeps while hens emit a 4-5 note quack similar to a mallard.
The Cinnamon Teal is similar to the blue-wing teal, but only found in the western regions of North America.
This bird gets its name from cinnamon-colored breeding plumage while the hen looks similar to a bluewing. Like the bluewing, the cinnamon teal migrates early and can be found in shallow wetland areas.
The Green-Winged Teal is the smallest of all puddle ducks. Unlike the other teals listed, greenwings do not migrate until late October or early November. Drakes emit a short, high-pitched peep while hens are distinguished by their soft, nasal quack. Green-winged teals are also very acrobatic and agile. This species can be found in shallow wetlands feeding on exposed shorelines.
The Northern Shoveler, also known as the spoonbill, smiling mallard, or Hollywood mallard, is common in the Northern Hemisphere. This bird gets its name from a shovel-like bill that is both broad and flat. Shovelers have the unique ability to strain food from the water, allowing them to eat plankton and aquatic invertebrates. For this reason, northern shovelers are not considered good for eating. This early-migrating species is fast and prefers shallow wetlands.
A second type of duck is the diving duck, which describes the type of birds that dive underwater to find food. They can often be found on vast areas of water during both the spring and fall migrations, such as lakes and rivers, particularly the Great Lakes of the midwest. The typical diet of the diving duck is submergent vegetation and aquatic invertebrates, such as mollusks. Like other ducks, the type of diet the diver has will affect the duck’s quality for eating.
A diving duck typically has small wings and a short, stout body in comparison to puddlers. Therefore, these birds are often seen running very fast across the water before taking flight, with the exception of ringnecks. Hunters can distinguish diving ducks by their rapid wingbeats.
In comparison to puddlers, diving ducks have proportionately larger feet, with legs that are set farther back on their bodies. These characteristics make them appear clumsy when on land yet they are superior swimmers and divers.
Most diving ducks feed in water that is less than 10 feet deep, while certain divers such as buffleheads, goldeneyes, and sea ducks typically feed deeper. All ducks are capable of diving to great depths, however.
The Canvasback is considered the king of ducks and is indeed one of the most prized waterfowls in North America. Despite recent declines in their population, canvasbacks are still highly regarded. Their diet includes mollusks, aquatic tubers, and vegetation, particularly wild celery. Canvasbacks migrate mid-fall. This bird decoys well, but will become wary of hunters after extended interaction. This bird is considered one of the best-tasting of all ducks.
Greater and Lesser Scaups, also known as broadbills and bluebills, respectively, can be found across the US. The two
types of scaups are similar in appearance, except that the greater scaup is slightly larger than the lesser scaup. The two birds can be distinguished based on their wing feathers, as the white band across the secondary flight feathers extends into the primary feathers for the greater scaup, but stops before the primary feathers in the lesser version. Both types of birds can be found on big water during fall migrations. Their diet is comprised of aquatic invertebrates such as freshwater shrimp and zebra mussels. Lesser scaup hens make a “brr” call, while greater scaup hens are not vocal. Drakes of both types make a “scaup, scaup” sound, which is indeed how the bird got its name.
The Redhead is a diving duck that is similarly sized to a wigeon or gadwall and is swift-flying. This bird is similar in appearance to a canvasback, yet has a shorter neck, more gray on its back, and a light blue-gray bill with a black tip. In comparison to canvasbacks, redheads are blockier in flight. They can be found on large waters during migrations, but also can be frequently found in prairie pothole lakes and marshes. Their diet consists of submergent vegetation and aquatic invertebrates, and their migration begins earlier than most birds.
The Ring-Necked Duck, also known as the ringbill, is similar in size to the lesser scaup. Unlike other diving ducks,
ringnecks do not need to run across the water before taking flight. For this reason, they can be found in smaller bodies of water such as marshes and sloughs. Ringnecks migrate in early October and their diet consists of aquatic vegetation. This type of diving duck is generally easy to decoy.
The Bufflehead, also known as the butterball, measures 15’’ and weighs 1 lb. These birds can be found in tree nests, and they wait until late fall to migrate. Buffleheads can be found in smaller flocks of 15 – 30. Their diet consists of aquatic invertebrates and they tend to fly along the shoreline, unlike most other diving ducks.
The Common Goldeneye is also called the whistler due to the high pitched whistling sound of its wings. Goldeneyes migrate latest, typically waiting until everything freezes. These ducks are similar in size to redheads. Their diet is primarily that of mollusks and aquatic invertebrates, meaning they are not good for eating. Nonetheless, hunters enjoy the challenge of hunting the common goldeneye because of their strong flying ability. A close relative is the Barrow’s goldeneye, which can be found primarily in the west. A white, crescent-shaped cheek patch distinguishes this bird from the common goldeneye, whose cheese patch is round.
The Ruddy Duck is smaller than most diving ducks and distinguished by its stiff, fan-like tail. These birds migrate early and can be found in extremely large flocks on big water. They are not wary of hunters and are hesitant to fly from danger, which makes them poor for hunting.
There are three types of Mergansers, a type of diving duck not often hunted. The largest is the common merganser,
followed by the medium-sized red-breasted merganser and the small hooded merganser. These birds are also sometimes called sawbills because of their bills that resemble serrated knives. Their diet consists of fish, for which the serrated bill is useful. These birds are not good for eating.
The third group of ducks that will be discussed is the sea duck, which is rarely found inland. However, freshwater hunters can sometimes find them on the great lakes, as certain sea ducks winter in this region. Longtails (also known as oldsquaws), surf scoters, white-winged scoters and black scoters are all ducks that are common on the seas. The harlequin duck can be found on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and is widely considered to be a bucket list bird.
Other sea ducks include Eiders (including the common eider, Steller’s eider, spectacled eider, and king eider). Each variety can be found in a different region, with the Steller’s and spectaled eiders protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Finally, whistling ducks are comprised of birds such as the West Indian whistling duck, which can be found primarily in the Caribbean. In Texas (as well as Mexico and Central America) the Black-bellied whistling duck can be found. The Fulvous whistling duck ranges from southern California through Texas, the Louisiana Gulf Coast, and Florida.
Where to Hunt Duck
Now that you know the characteristics of many of the most popular types of ducks in North America, we will discuss where to find these birds. Because the many types of ducks have different physiologic features, they can be found in various habitats.
Puddle ducks prefer to feed in shallow waters, so they can be primarily found in marshes, swamps, river backwaters, lake shorelines, and temporary wetlands, like puddles. Many species of puddle ducks also dine on agricultural crops, and can therefore be found in fields.
Diving ducks, on the other hand, are more likely to be found on larger bodies of water. During migratory periods, diving ducks are typically found on lakes, impoundments, rivers, large soughs, the Great Lakes, and coastal estuaries / shorelines. Their preferred foods are fish, mollusks, vegetation, and invertebrates, so wherever these items are abundant will be where ducks can be found. Safety is another concern, so areas of cover are also appealing.
Locating ducks can be difficult, due to the various areas they inhabit. However, observational skills and a good work ethic go a long way. Avoid popular areas, such as the ones recommended in online chat forums. Since this information is easy to find, chances are that there will be many hunters with the same idea and ducks will be scarce.
To find diving ducks, look for good vantage points on large water and glass for flocks. From a distance, birds can appear as dark spots in an oil slick on the water. If you struggle to find birds from the shoreline, use a boat and look for feeding areas. Stay a safe distance away, though, lest you want the birds to relocate.
To start duck hunting this year find puddle ducks in an agricultural field, simply look for areas where ducks would like to feed. For instance, corn, oats, beans, wheat, and barley are all safe bets. Keep your eyes open during early morning and early evening hours, as those are the times of days ducks are most likely to feed in fields. Another hint is that fields which attract geese are also likely to attract ducks. Glass these spots to identify small ducks mixed in with a flock of Canadian or Snow Geese.
Another place to find puddle ducks is in shallow water environments; however, these areas can be more difficult to spot and require more leg work. Take a hike or travel by boat into swamps, backwaters, potholes, creeks, or flooded areas to find birds. Watch for areas where ducks land or flush and look for potential areas to set up a duck blind.
Overall, keep your eyes and ears open. Hunters quickly get the hang of the art of finding ducks after spending time looking for them. If you are vigilant, you will find that the ducks will reveal themselves.
When to Go Duck Hunting
As a general rule of thumb, the best time of day to go duck hunting is in the early morning and early evening hours, but duck hunters should be aware of the weather patterns and that even slight changes should necessitate prompt action.
Ducks migrate towards food and open water in the south, vacating northern regions every autumn, while making pit stops along the way. Seasons vary depending on the latitude of each region, with certain ducks migrating earlier than others depending on their primary region. Additionally, not all ducks migrate on the same schedule. For instance, some species don’t mind cold weather and will stay in cold regions until there is no food or open water left, while other species will head for warmer weather the second the thermometer drops.
Indeed, understanding waterfowl migratory patterns is certainly more of an art than a science. While some birds will follow the same schedule every fall, others do not operate like clockwork. Additionally, some birds will remain in a pitstop area until the weather changes. Therefore, hunters can never be sure when the time will be right for hunting their favorite bird, as each year is different.
There are, however, factors that remain the same annually. For instance, blue-winged teal begin migrating in August. In general, duck season for the better part of Canada and the northern US begins in September. In southern states, seasons open in October and November, with certain regions remaining open through January. These seasons are federally mandated, and each state is given a limit on the number of days a duck season can remain open.
Depending on the region, climates and conditions can be vastly different. In the north, the beginning of hunting season can feel like summer, while the end of the season takes place in the bitter cold. Southern states, hunters must wait for a cold front to push birds their way, offering only a short window of opportunity during unseasonably warm winters. In Florida, hunters are granted the opportunity to shoot in warm weather all throughout duck season.
Look for “ABC’s of Duck Hunting – Part 2” for the second half of this article.