Confusing Domestic Ducks (and hybrids)
Pictures taken with an Olympus D-450, D-40, or Sony Sureshot digital camera through a Swarovski HD80 or Swarovski AT80 spotting scope.
All photos © Kevin and Jay McGowan, unless otherwise noted.
By Kevin J. McGowan
(First published in the Cayuga Bird Club Newsletter, February and March 2006)
What is that strange looking duck? It doesn’t look familiar, and you can’t find it in your field guide.
Waterfowl can be fun for beginning birders because they are relatively easy to watch, not flitting through the trees or into the bushes like little dicky birds. They have very distinctive plumages with large patches of color in bold patterns that make identification relatively easy. True, the female dabblers all look pretty much alike, but the males are distinctive. So what do you do when you run up against something you can’t identify and can’t find in the books? How can you figure out what it is?
Duck identification problems often fall into one of only a few categories. In this article I will attempt to explain some of them and give common examples of each.
It’s a domestic duck.
This is probably the most common answer to most beginning birder’s duck problems. Domestic duck breeds are not illustrated in most field guides, and the older guides did not mention this problem at all. When people go out looking for wild birds they seem to forget that domestic breeds exist. First rule of thumb: If your weird duck is found at a park, walking around on the grass or coming near people, it is probably a domestic duck. But, these domestic monsters do get mixed up in flocks of wild birds, too, so how do you spot them? Second rule of thumb: If your duck has large patches of white where you didn’t expect it, think domestic duck. People seem to love to breed white or partially white domestic animals, presumably because such mutations don’t do well in the wild and consequently are rare. Such mutations do turn up in the wild, though, and we’ll discuss them later, but for now, if you see big patches of white, think domestic duck.
Only two species of ducks have been domesticated: the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and the Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata).
Let’s deal with the Muscovy Duck first, as it’s pretty easy to tell. The most obvious character of a muscovy is the red facial skin. If your duck has a red face, it’s probably a Muscovy Duck. This red skin can be quite bumpy, exaggerated, and frankly, gross, with a knob on top of the bill and lumps all over. If you see that, it’s a slam dunk Muscovy Duck. The wild type plumage of muscovy is all black, glossy greenish on the back, and with large white wing patches. But, because of our fondness for white, domestic muscovies can be pure white, all black, or any degree of pied black-and-white.
Mallard breeds can be somewhat confusing. They can be larger than normal or much smaller, darker or lighter, all white or all black. Watch for the little curled feathers on the back of the male, above the tail. Only the Mallard and its domestic descendants have those. (Well, the Hawaiian Duck does too, but the chances of seeing one of those around here is about zero.)
Again, lots of white is often involved, including all-white breeds like the popular Pekin Duck. Another common form is the bibbed version. It has a sort of normal body and head plumage, and a white chest. Other forms and crosses can have spots of white just about anywhere. Usually these white spots are not symmetrical across both sides, and that asymmetry should tip you off to think domestic influence.
This bibbed domestic Mallard was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 19 February 2006.
The passion for weird plumage in domestic ducks does not stop with white, but can go the other way too. Some breeds are darker than normal Mallard plumage. One popular dark breed is known as the “Cayuga Duck,” and it may have actually originated in our area (central New York) in the 19th century. This duck is dark all over and rather iridescent, like its shiny speculum feathers got spread over the entire bird. Very handsome, indeed. Other color variations include faded and pale versions of normal (“apricot,” “buff,” or “fawn”), somewhat darker and without the white neck ring (“dusky”), or faded silvery (“blue”). There are lots of other weirdnesses too, including topknots and strange, barbless feathers, but I’d rather not go into them. Just be aware that very odd things exist in the world of domestic poultry, and oddity should make you consider domestic origin.
Body size can often be a clue toward domesticity. The first breeds of domestic Mallard were bred for food, and consequently for large body size. A domestic duck can be twice the size of a wild Mallard. Even if they’re not obviously larger, they tend to be bulkier and more dumpy looking, especially in the belly. But, domestics can be smaller than normal too. Indian runner ducks are long and lean. These are very odd, tall, skinny ducks that look like bowling pins. They are great egg producers but have totally tubular bodies.
The pygmies of the domestic duck world are the “Call” ducks. Call ducks are tiny, teal-sized things that have smaller bills and more rounded heads than normal ducks. That means they’re cuter. They were originally bred as live decoys to attract or “call” wild ducks in to be shot, and are still sometimes known as decoy ducks. They can have normal Mallard plumage, white, faded, or dark. Males will still have the curled tail feathers and the plumage will generally fit in the same basic categories as the other Mallard types. The recent call duck hanging out at Union Springs, NY is a male (with some problems), and can be recognized by his cute look, curled tail feathers, “dusky” coloring, and the fact that he’s in love with a female Mallard.
This dusky call duck was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 27 December 2005.
This dusky call duck was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 19 February 2006.
It’s an exotic duck.
Ducks are good fliers, and some fly long distances in migration. That means sometimes we get European or Asian ducks turning up in North America. Such an occurrence is pretty rare, though, and the few species that do this are generally illustrated in the field guides. More frequently than that, we find escaped “pet” ducks. Keeping ornamental waterfowl is very popular. It can be surprising how many people have captive ducks and geese. Sometimes these ducks get loose, and sometimes their owners get rid of them by turning them out on a pond or lake. The best local examples of this phenomenon are the Mandarin Duck pair that was at Myers Point, Lansing, NY briefly in January 2003, and the Red-crested Pochards (and hybrid) that put in an appearance there many years ago. Although owners of domestic ducks are supposed to put bands on their birds and clip off the hind claw on each foot, that doesn’t seem to happen all that often, and birds are out there without these marks of captivity. One mark that seems to show up more frequently is pinioning, where the tip of one wing is surgically removed to keep the bird from flying. When pinioned ducks flap, you can see the half-a-wing pretty clearly (as was the case with the aforementioned pochards). A number of guides to all of the ducks of the world are available, so a quick browse through one of them might find your odd duck. If not, try one of the other possibilities.
This pair of Mandarin Ducks was seen in the marina at Myers Point, Tompkins Co., NY, 16 January 2003.
It’s a hybrid duck.
Male ducks provide no parental care, and female ducks do not have to feed their young, just lead them around. (Which is why male ducks can get away with not helping.) This situation can lead to careless sex and consequently hybridization. Although hybrid ducks are not that common overall, they do occur on a regular basis.
The most common in central New York are Mallard X American Black Duck hybrids. (It turns out that most females of the Mallard close relatives find a green head really sexy, and they will hook up with Mallard males whenever they are available. Such propensities create some conservation concern when domestic Mallards are introduced into the range of some other species, such as American Black Duck or Mottled Duck.)
These two different Mallard X American Black Duck hybrids were with Mallards at Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, 24 March 2001. Note that one has the curly upper tail coverts like a Mallard and the other one does not.
This Mallard X American Black Duck hybrid (in the rear) was with American Black Ducks at Point Lookout, Nassau Co., NY, 3 March 2001.
Sometimes the hybrid pairs are between species that are not closely related, such as Hooded Merganser X Common Goldeneye. In captivity where ducks from all over are housed together, anything can happen.
The clues for finding a hybrid are not so clear cut. The easiest way to spot them is when they have characters intermediate between the parental species. Look for a duck that looks familiar, but just doesn’t look quite right. A black duck X Mallard male will often have the mostly dull plumage of the black duck and some green on the head. It may or may not have the curled feathers over the tail, and the speculum can be blue like a Mallard or more purple like the black duck. Small green patches on the head can be a good sign of some Mallard parentage. In general, watch for symmetrical abnormalities, patches of color or lack of color.
Amongst the dabbling ducks certain patterns seem to occur in hybrids, even if they are not present in the parents. Pale cheeks and a Baikal Teal face pattern can result from a number of different pairings. Note its presence, if faint, in the second Mallard X black duck pictured above.
A recent hybrid duck in Union Springs, NY resembles a duck illustrated by Audubon and described as “Brewer’s Duck.” It has a dark cap with some greenish sheen, a pale to tan cheek, a dark neck ring, a lighter thin neck ring, a dark chest, dark sides, black rear end with a faint white stripe in front of it, and a whitish tail. Audubon thought that his bird might be a cross between a Mallard and a Gadwall. The Union Springs Brewer’s Duck is very similar. The green on the head, white tail, black rear end, and pale neck ring are good Mallard characters. The gray sides, dark rear end, and intricately patterned chest suggest Gadwall. Where the face patch comes from is anybody’s guess, and nothing has a black-and-tan bill like this bird. But does this bird have Mallard in it? It looks very similar to a specimen in Gillham and Gillham (1996, Hybrid Ducks) that is labeled as Gadwall X Northern Pintail. It’s hard to know for sure, and Gillham and Gillhan (1996) give several known combinations that look like this duck.
This is Audubon's painting of "Bemaculated Duck" or "Brewer's Duck." It has been accepted as a Mallard X Gadwall hybrid.
This Brewer's Duck look-alike was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 13 February 2006.
It’s in eclipse plumage or transitioning out.
Dabbling ducks are unusual in that the males have a very briefly held drab plumage in the summer, known as an “eclipse” plumage. It looks very female-like, but usually a few characters are different. The transition back to the classy nuptial plumage can take a while, and the plumage can be mixed. Transitional Mallards can look like hybrids with American Black Ducks. Transitional Northern Shovelers can show a Blue-winged Teal-like white crescent on the face. Green-winged Teal often show a mix of patterned female-like and clean gray male feathers. The birds look weird and might be mistaken for hybrids, but if you know such things exist you should be less surprised to see such a mix of male and “female” characters.
This transitioning Green-winged Teal was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 22 December 2001.
It’s a mutant duck.
Weird things happen in nature. Albinism and other color abnormalities are rather common. Odd, often irregular white patches can be a sign of partial albinism. It can be hard to tell sometimes if a duck is a mutant or has domestic duck genes. It is always good to look at the shape and size of any suspect duck and see if it looks like the other, more normally plumaged ducks around it. Third rule of thumb: If it looks the same as the others ducks around it in every way except color (even behavior), then it probably is a mutant. Note also that Mallards and Muscovy Ducks normally do not dive, so if your patched white duck is spending lots of time under water, it's a mutant.
This female Redhead was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 24 November 2000.
Some mutations or odd plumages aren’t the result of albinism, but seem just to be rare variations. The white neck band on a male Gadwall or the white cheeks on a male American Wigeon are examples that you can find if you just look through enough individuals.
This white-cheeked American Wigeon was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 13 February 2006.
This normal American Wigeon was at Montezuma NWR, Seneca Co., NY, 29 October 2005.
This white-cheeked American Wigeon was in Union Springs, Cayuga Co., NY, 13 February 2006.
This normal American Wigeon was at Ithaca, Tompkins Co., NY, 13 March 2004.
This normal Gadwall was at Montezuma NWR, Seneca Co., NY, 29 October 2005.
This Gadwall with a white hind neck was at Montezuma NWR, Seneca Co., NY, 29 October 2005.
This Gadwall with a white fore neck was at Montezuma NWR, Seneca Co., NY, 14 April 2002.
The bottom line to this article is that you can expect to find some ducks out there (as well as other birds, too) that just do not look like anything in your books. And that’s ok. Domestic ducks aren’t that exciting to me, and once you realize that most out-of-place waterfowl are escapees and not real vagrants, they lose a little luster too. But, they’re still fun, and hybrids and mutants are rare enough to get excited about. It also is gratifying to know that you know the common things well enough that the oddities stand out. So get out and see what you can find.
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Revised: April 06, 2005.