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Waterfowler's World: Know Your Ducks

DU biologists offer practical advice for improving your waterfowl identification skills

By Bill Buckley

Because bag limits are broken down by species and sometimes sex, waterfowlers have to be proficient at identifying ducks. That's not always easy. It takes an experienced eye, especially in low-light conditions and when flocks suddenly appear out of nowhere. 

Here are some helpful tips hunters can use to sharpen their ID skills. 


Dr. John Coluccy, director of conservation planning in Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region, offers this helpful tip: "You can often narrow down the most common species you're likely to see by the habitat you're in," he says. "For instance, if you're hunting a forested wetland, chances are you'll see more dabbling ducks, like woodies and mallards, than divers, like canvasbacks and scaup." Conversely, areas of big, open water aren't optimal habitat for dabbling ducks.

Size, Shape, and Color

"Divers have shorter, more compact bodies, stouter necks, and tend to fly straight and fast," Coluccy says, "whereas most dabblers move slower and more methodically. You'll also notice lots of black and white on divers, particularly on cans, scaup, and ringnecks."

In flight, mallard drakes and hens can sometimes be difficult to differentiate, especially in early-season plumage. Focus on the darkness and definition of the breast. Drakes typically have darker, more delineated breasts, but that's not always foolproof.

"Hunters often misidentify drake ringnecks and scaup until the birds are close enough to make out the scaup's solid blue bill or the ringed bill of the ringneck," Coluccy says. "Cans and redheads also might look similar from afar but can be distinguished by their bills when they get closer—the redhead's bill is light blue, and the canvasback's is black and triangular."


According to Dr. Mike Brasher, a DU waterfowl scientist based in Tennessee, the pace of a duck's wingbeats is another useful identifier. "In general, divers have much faster wingbeats than dabblers," he explains, "and larger divers like canvasbacks and redheads have longer, more pointed wings that are built for covering long distances over open water. Dabblers, which have to navigate around trees, typically have broader and more rounded wings that allow for greater maneuverability. But there are exceptions. Ringnecks have slightly more rounded wingtips, allowing them to use tighter, wooded environments. Also, teal certainly appear to have faster wingbeats than most dabblers, although that could be due to their small size."


Duck vocalizations can also be a huge help. Learn what each duck sounds like and you can instantly identify many species, and sometimes even distinguish hens from drakes. When a single mallard circling overhead quacks, you know it's a hen. If it makes a softer, raspy whine, it's a drake.

Low-Light Situations

Identifying ducks at first light and on cloudy days can be difficult. This is when the size of a bird, the length of its neck, and the shape of its profile, bill, and tail can help you make a positive ID. "Woodies, for example, have a telltale square tail," Brasher says, "whereas the long, pointed tails of pintails, even on hens, are unmistakable. Wigeon and gadwalls also have distinctive tails. Bill profiles can also be dead giveaways. There's no mistaking the sloped bill of a canvasback or the spoon-shaped bill of a shoveler. White on wings can also help in low light. Gadwalls, for instance, have white on their speculums, whereas wigeon have white shoulder patches."

Honing Your Skills

Hunters often have to use a combination of indicators to tell one species from another, and it takes lots of practice and experience to improve your skills. The more you study birds in flight and learn to decipher distinguishing features, the more confident you'll become.

Visit DU's Waterfowl ID.


Learn to call wild turkeys from the masters

By Tony Peterson


There are different ways to become a better turkey caller, but the best is to listen to live, chatty hens. (Photo by Tony Peterson)

There are a lot of reasons I love bowhunting turkeys in the spring, but one of the main ones (besides the obvious) is that you just get to hear a lot of hen talk. Running and gunning with a shotgun is a blast, but it usually results in fewer close-range, long-term encounters with live birds.

It’s just a different beast than bowhunting birds.

When you’re stuck in a blind with the best chance of filling a tag being birds that work into the decoys and stick around, your strategy is different. Your experience is, too. I can’t tell you how many weird, subtle hen sounds I’ve heard while sitting dark to dark in blinds.

Not only is that interesting in and of itself, but it’s also a great teacher if you want to be all you can be as a caller. While you can watch videos of great callers, or read all about calling, there is nothing quite like listening to actual hens saying what actual hens say.

It’s hard to describe, but there’s almost always a weird intangible between a good caller and an actual bird. With bad callers, the divide is way more obvious. Folks in the latter category usually exhibit a lot of hesitancy and then combine it with a cadence that just doesn’t sound natural (oftentimes it’s too fast).

There isn’t much of a way to get better than to listen to the real thing and try to mimic it. Now, I realize that not everyone can get out and listen up for nonstop hen chatter. Plus, during a hunt you might only have a few encounters with vocal ladies. The next best thing is to head on over to YouTube and just find some videos of real turkeys.

There’s no shortage of them, and they provide a glimpse into how varied a turkey’s vocabulary really is, and how often they use it to say different things. It’ll also expose you more to the real cadence that turkeys adopt, along with their wild swings in volume and frequency.

This is a good pre-season endeavor. Instead of wailing away on your mouth call while driving to work, or hacking away on a box call at home in an attempt to drive your dog and your spouse nuts, you can practice with a purpose when you’re watching the real thing happen. This is a good way to level up your calling game before the season kicks off and you’ve got to put your conversation skills to practical use.


Deer testing finds additional cases of CWD 

By Minnesota DNR Reports

A wild deer harvested in Dakota County on Nov. 7 and a vehicle-killed deer in Olmsted County on Nov. 4 were confirmed positive for chronic wasting disease. To date, 95 wild deer have tested positive for CWD in Minnesota.

The case of the Dakota County deer, an adult male, marks the first time the fatal neurological disease has been detected in a hunter-harvested wild deer in the newly established south metro disease management zone. The deer was harvested less than a mile from a CWD-positive wild deer discovered in March and was tested after the hunter provided the sample as part of the DNR’s voluntary sampling program.

The Olmsted County deer, an adult female, appeared to suffer injury from a vehicle before dying in Rochester. The resident who reported the dead deer brought the carcass to be sampled by DNR staff for CWD testing. While this is not the first wild deer to have the disease within deer permit area 643, it is the farthest northwest that CWD has been found in the southeast disease management zone.

The DNR has notified the hunter and resident who submitted the deer for sampling of the positive test results, and the meat and carcasses from both deer have been properly disposed.

“It’s concerning to see these two positive test results. We will continue gathering data to see how prevalent the disease is in these areas, and maintain our aggressive management response,” said Michelle Carstensen, DNR’s wildlife health program supervisor.

The DNR continues to collect samples from hunter-harvested deer in designated areas during all hunting seasons to help monitor the spread of the disease. Hunters in CWD management zones, control zones or surveillance areas are urged to drop off the head of deer 1 year of age or older at self-service sampling stations.

“We’re grateful to hunters and other Minnesotans for providing samples to test for this disease and help safeguard the health of our wild deer population,” Carstensen said. “These two positive test results are unfortunate, but highlight the importance of our sampling efforts in getting information that shows us how prevalent the disease is in an area. We urge hunters to continue bringing deer to sampling stations. Every sample counts.”

As part of its CWD response plan, the DNR is monitoring for CWD in disease management zones around areas that CWD has been detected in wild deer, as well as in CWD surveillance areas where CWD has been found in captive deer. The CWD management zones are located in the southeast, north-central and south metro areas of Minnesota; the CWD surveillance areas are located in the east-central, west-central and south metro areas of Minnesota.


Record success rate for Camp Ripley archery deer hunts

By Mn DNR Reports

Archery hunters who participated in the Camp Ripley hunts near Little Falls harvested 310 deer and had a record success rate during the event held Oct. 15 to Oct. 16 and Oct. 31 to Nov. 1.

“It was an exceptional event this year,” said Dr. Bill Faber, head of the Central Lakes College Natural Resources Program. “Despite fewer participants, the harvest was up 11.5% from last year; and above the 40-year average of 305 deer.” During the hunts, 16% of archers harvested a deer, representing an unprecedented success rate at Camp Ripley. The rate is well above the long-term average of 9%.

This year, 1,864 participating hunters harvested 310 deer. During the 2019 hunts, 2,137 hunters harvested 278 deer. This year, hunters harvested at least 25 large, antlered bucks (greater than 8% of total harvest) during the event, well above the 3.5% long-term average of total harvest. The largest was a 16-point buck that a hunter checked in on the last day.

The Minnesota DNR modified some aspects of this year’s hunt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Administration of the event went well and without any major issues, said Beau Liddell, DNR wildlife manager at Little Falls.

The archery hunt at Camp Ripley is an annual event. The DNR coordinates the hunts in collaboration with Central Lakes College Natural Resources Program and the Department of Military Affairs, which manages the 53,000-acre military facility.


Michigan DNR sees spike in hunting amid pandemic

By Associated Press

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — A renewed interest in hunting has dramatically increased since March when the coronavirus pandemic hit across the U.S., forcing businesses to shut down and people to stay home, according to statistics from the Michigan DNR.

So far, the DNR has issued 751,310 deer hunting licenses, compared to 584,802 licenses issued in 2019, The Daily Tribune reported. Many hunters also acquired multiple licenses for the various deer hunting seasons – antlerless, firearms, or archery.

A mid-September report from the Michigan DNR indicates that overall participation in deer hunting is up 26.97% over the same time as last year, and overall participation in hunting is up 121.61%.

While the final numbers for 2020 won’t be known until end of the year, the DNR said its biggest day for issuing hunting licenses is usually the weekend before the regular firearm deer season begins in mid-November.

The increase in hunters is good as particularly when it comes to deer hunting, there have been fewer hunters in recent years as older people “age out” and fewer younger people don’t have the time or may have other priorities. The DNR relies on hunters to manage and cull the state’s estimated 1.7 million deer population.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Kristin Phillips, chief of marketing and outreach for the Michigan DNR. “I’m trying to keep my expectations in check.”

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