Ducks – Male versus Female Identification

The bright colors, color-patterns, and shapes of the male (drake) ducks make it fairly easy to identify the various species. But when it comes to the females, identification can be a little (or a lot) more challenging. The colors and patterns are more muted and subtle. It takes a discerning eye to distinguish identifying features.

Sometimes the males and females share similarities. Other times, they appear to be two different species. Below are several examples.

The Mallard, our most familiar duck, and can often be found in city parks. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much resemblance between the female and male. Yet, there are similarities such as the color pattern of the trailing edge of the wing (seen in flight). Also, look at the general shape of the bill and body.

It is the green head and yellow bill on the Mallard drake that really catches the eye. The female lacks both of these features. Canon 1D Mark II + 500mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 700mm, ISO 400, f8, 1/1000. ©Stanley Buman.

Very few people will have the opportunity to observe the King Eider of the high Arctic. There are very few similar features between the male and female.

Not only is the color pattern considerably different between the drake and hen King Eiders, but even the head and body shapes are different. Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 1250 f/5.6, 1/2000. ©Stanley Buman.

The Barrow’s Goldeneye is a duck of the northwestern United States. Location can help with identification but should not be solely relied upon.

The hen and drake Barrow’s Goldeneyes have vastly different colors and patterns. The golden eye of the female can help separate it from multiple, but not all species. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 497mm, ISO 400 f/8.0, 1/640. ©Stanley Buman.

The Canvasback drake is easily identified by its white back, red head and red eye.

The hen Canvasback has a coloration that differs from the male. One distinguishing feature they have in common is the long ski-jump appearance of the head and bill. No other North American duck has this shape. Canon 1D Mark II + 500mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 700mm, ISO 400, f7.1, 1/250. ©Stanley Buman.

Relying on color and color patterns alone can make it difficult to identify some species of ducks. By learning other identifying features, it becomes much easier to determine what species you are viewing.

So why are the female ducks typically a drab color? Look again at the image of the Eiders above. Note the color of the hen and the grass in the background. Imagine setting on a nest to hatch eggs. The coloration of the females helps them blend into the surrounding vegetation; like camouflage.

Enjoy the outdoors!

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