Avoiding embarrassment in the wild: Don't say a duck is a duck is a duck


October 27, 1991|By PETER BAKER

A week ago Friday, Philip Wagenbrenner, a senior instructor with the Maryland Hunter Safety Education Program, was kind enough to take me into the marsh in Calvert County for a morning of duck hunting.

By Wednesday evening, to make a long story short, I was eating crow.

In recounting the events of opening day of duck season, I managed to misquote Wagenbrenner and misidentify the ducks we were hunting -- calling them black ducks, which were out of season. They were wood ducks.

Undoubtedly, Wagenbrenner has experienced some amount of ribbing since, and for that I apologize.

After all, wood ducks and black ducks do not look alike once they are down and still. To the tutored eye, they are different in flight as well.

To the novice, a duck coming out of deep shadow or from the direction of the sun is little more than a silhouette. Identification, which often must be instantaneous, is challenging.

The following, based on "Ducks at a Distance," a waterfowl identification guide issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the "Book of North American Birds" published by Readers Digest, is a primer on identifying some puddle ducks and diving ducks.

Puddle ducks

General characteristics: Typically found in shallow marshes and rivers, where they feed by tipping up or dabbling rather than diving. Also feed in farm fields. Diet is mostly vegetable. The speculum, or inner rear feathers on the wings, usually is a bright, iridescent color. Wings are larger in proportion to body size and weight than diving ducks and wing beats will be slower.

Mallard -- Average length is 24 inches, average weight is 2 3/4 pounds. Male has a glossy green head and a blue wing patch bordered by two white stripes. Its breast is chestnut and its bill is yellow. The female is a light brown, with pale tail feathers. The female also has the blue wing patch and white stripes, but its bill is mixed yellow and orange.

Pintail -- 26 inches, 1 3/4 pounds. The male's head is brown, its neck slender with a white stripe. The body is largely gray with thin black feathers in its tail.

Widgeon -- 21 inches, 1 3/4 pounds. In flight, a large white wing patch is easily seen. Male has a white forehead and a green ear patch. Female has sandy brown color and a light blue-gray bill.

Blue-winged teal -- 16 inches, 15 ounces. In winter, female and male are grayish brown, but both have pale blue wing patches, which are best means of identification.

Green-winged teal -- 15 inches, 14 ounces. Male and female have small green wing patches. Male is gray with a rust-colored head and a green ear patch. Female is grayish brown with white belly.

Wood duck -- 18 1/2 inches, 1 1/2 pounds. Male and female have crested head feathers or hoods, with the male's green and the female's a gray brown. Male has a white face pattern, red bill and red eye. Its breast is chestnut and its flanks are a buff color. Female is dark gray with white eye patch.

Black duck -- 24 inches, 2 3/4 pounds. Male and female are a dark brown, with lighter browns in the head and neck. Wing patch is violet, undersides of wings are white. Male has a yellow-green bill and female's bill is mottled.

Diving ducks

General characteristics: Typically found in larger bays, rivers, lakes and coastal bays and inlets, where they feed by diving to catch fish, shellfish, aquatic pants and mollusks. The speculums are not as brilliant as those of puddle ducks. Smaller wings produce a more rapid beat than puddle ducks'. Feet are used as rudders in flight because they have small tails.

Canvasback (closed season in Maryland) -- 22 inches, 3 pounds. Male has white body, black breast, rusty head and neck and a black bill. Female has a brown head and grayish back.

Redheads -- 20 inches, 2 1/2 pounds. Male has a rusty head with a blue-gray bill with a black tip. Its breast is black and its back is is gray. Female is brown with the same bill as the male.

Ringneck -- 17 inches, 2 1/2 pounds. The male is largely black with a gray bill that is bordered in white. Wings are black with gray border visible when in flight. Female is grayish brown with whitish ring around the eye.

Greater scaup -- 18 1/2 inches, 2 pounds. Long white wing stripe shows in flight. Male's head is rounded with a greenish gloss. Its bill is pale blue, its body pale gray. Female is dark brown with white face patch and pale blue bill.

Lesser scaup -- 17 inches, 1 7/8 pounds. White wing stripe also shows in flight, but male head has purple gloss and peaked crown. Female is dark brown with white face patch.

Goldeneye (common) -- 19 inches, 2 1/4 pounds. Male is mainly white with a green head. White round spot at base of the bill.

Female is gray with deep brown head and yellow tip on its bill.

Bufflehead -- 14 1/2 inches, 1 pound. Male is black and white, with large white patch on black head just behind the eye. Female is dark brown with large white spot on either side of its head.

Common merganser -- 25 1/2 inches, 2 1/2 pounds. Male has white breast and flanks and a green head. Its back is black and its bill is red. Female has a crest to its rusty head and a white breast.

Red-breasted merganser -- 23 inches, 2 1/2 pounds. Male's head is green and carries a ratty crest. Breast is streaked with rust colors. Its flanks are gray and its back is black. Female has rusty head with ragged crest. Breast and flanks are grayish brown.

Hooded merganser -- 18 inches, 1 1/2 pounds. The male is largely black with rust-colored flanks. Crest on head has large white patch. Female is dull brown with crested head that is tinted with orange.

There is another difference between puddle ducks and diving ducks: Because of their diet, most puddle ducks taste better than diving ducks.

Not to mention crow.

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