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Wetland Waterfowl & Wildlife Identification

Migration season provides some of the best bird watching opportunities, particularly for waterfowl.


Heading out with your binoculars can be a lot of fun – especially when you can spot a few characters in the crowd.

The shy ruddy duck who conceals itself in cattails…the fast-flying canvasback… or the boisterous Canada goose. Waterfowl identification may seem overwhelming at first. But, if you keep an eye out for some key clues, you’ll be picking out different wetland species in no time.

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Congregation of redheads species, loafing on grass.

Know your waterfowl

Waterfowl identification may seem overwhelming at first. But, if you keep an eye out for some key clues, you’ll be picking out different wetland species in no time.

The biggest distinction between different types of ducks is divers and dabblers. Here are a few tips for identifying some common species within these categories:

Watch what it does when it eats

Dabbling ducks that go “bottoms up” when feeding include the American black duck, American wigeon, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, mallard, northern pintail, northern shoveler, trumpeter swan and wood duck. Diving ducks “take the plunge” by diving below the water’s surface include bufflehead, canvasback, common eider, common loon, harlequin duck, lesser scaup, redhead and ring-necked duck .

Watch how it takes off

Dabblers fly straight up off the water. Divers patter across the water picking up speed before becoming airborne.

Look at the surroundings

Habitat is a key piece of identification. Dabbling ducks are most often found in shallow water around the edges of wetlands. Divers prefer deeper water like in the middle of large wetlands or on lakes and rivers.

Examine its colour and plumage

Does the type of duck you are looking have a tuft of feathers on its head? What colour are its wingpatches, cap, head, breast, belly, back and tail? How about its eyes, bill or feet? Generally, it’s the male (drake) that has the colourful plumage. Females have duller, drabber appearances to keep them safe on the nest. This can make them more challenging to identify.

Once you get the knack for spotting some of these waterfowl characteristics, you’ll begin to pick up on other differences in size, shape, wingbeat, voice and more.

Quick waterfowl identification hints

  • Mallard: A mallard drake is recognizable by his striking green head.
  • Blue-winged teal: This small, speedy drake has a white crescent in front of his eyes.
  • American wigeon: Male American wigeons have a white patch that runs from the forehead to the middle of the crown. In flight, its white shoulder patch is a distinctive characteristic.
  • Northern pintail: Graceful in the air, they’re also extremely fast.
  • Blue-winged and green-winged teal: These small ducks often do a tight corkscrew circle before landing on the water. Their flight can be erratic, with the entire flock twisting and turning as one unit.

Common Waterfowl Species

Green-winged teal trio in flight.

Migration Tracker

northern shovelers

Northern shoveler

Redhead drake and blackwing teal hen


ring-necked duck drake

Ring-necked duck

Lesser Scaup swimming

Lesser scaup

cinnamon teal flapping wings

Cinnamon teal

wood duck

Wood duck

trumpeter swan pair

Trumpeter swan

ruddy duck in a wetland

Ruddy duck

Northern pintail

Northern pintail

mallard pair


Harlequin drake standing in stream

Harlequin duck

green-winged teal

Green-winged teal

Great blue heron hunting

Great blue heron

gadwall drake



Common loon

Common eider

Common eider

canvasback drake & hen


Canada geese are waterfowl too!

Canada goose

bufflehead drake


blue-winged teal

Blue-winged teal

American black duck, bathing.

American black duck

American wigeon pair

American wigeon

Waterfowl Habitat

The natural world is complex. It works best when it contains a diverse system of fish and wildlife. Conserving the natural habitat that remains is the important first step in protecting wetland species.

Wetland Habitat Reports

Wetland Habitat Reports

Get the inside scoop from our field reporters on what spring habitat conditions looked like for our returning ducks and geese on their Canadian breeding grounds.



Canada’s wetlands are diverse, taking the form of marshes, bogs, fens, swamps &open water. Wetlands benefit waterfowl, wildlife and people.



Learn about the critical state of Canada's grasslands and the importance of preserving their biodiversity.

Boreal Forest

Boreal Forest

A vast network of wetlands teems with new life each year in the boreal forest. From the Yukon to Newfoundland, millions of ducklings hatch in the boreal and open their eyes to bountiful surroundings. Black spruce forests. Bright green bogs. A 1.3 billion-acre landscape defined by water and wildlife.

Take a Stand for Conservation

Help us conserve our water, wildlife, and the environment for future generations.

Take a Stand for Conservation