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OUTDOORS: Waterfowl prime time has begun

Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) are among North America’s most recognizable birds

The blue-winged teal is just one of several species of locally wintering waterfowl appreciated and enjoyed by area sportsmen and wildlife watchers. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

The blue-winged teal is just one of several species of locally wintering waterfowl appreciated and enjoyed by area sportsmen and wildlife watchers. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

Whether one is hunter, birder, or overall wildlife watcher, now is the time to pay attention to waterfowl arriving in our region for the winter. Waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) are among North America’s most recognizable birds and most people are quite familiar with one or more species. Aesthetically pleasing and a great sporting challenge, waterfowl are widely appreciated by hunters and non-hunters alike.

Wild North American swans are represented by three species, all of which are similar in appearance. The tundra swan and the trumpeter swan are native to the continent while the mute swan is an introduced Eurasian species. These long-necked birds are easily identifiable by their white plumage and large body size.

There are also nine species of North American geese, though most people recognize only one or two by sight. The Canada goose is the best-known species, with the snow goose coming in a distant second. Geese are similar in size to swans. However, there are marked differences in body characteristics.

“The snow goose and the Ross’s goose are the only geese that are primarily white,” said wildlife biologist Bruce Todd. “Also, geese tend to have shorter necks and longer legs than swans. It is apparent why geese are physically different. Swans feed almost exclusively on aquatic plants, while geese feed primarily on upland vegetation. The longer legs of geese and the longer necks of swans aid each of these types of birds in its feeding strategy.”

Wild geese, the Canada (not “Canadian”) in particular, have become much more common in the Deep South in recent years. This is due not only to the increased numbers of non-migratory, year-round resident birds, but there is also some evidence that migrant geese wintering in the region have risen in number as well.

By far the greatest variety of waterfowl species is found among the ducks, with 34 principal species inhabiting the continent. Ducks can be divided into four broad categories: whistling ducks, diving ducks, dabbling or puddle ducks, and perching ducks. There are readily identifiable physical differences among these groups, though many of their behaviors are similar.

“Whistlers are one of the more unique types with their long legs and necks,” Todd explained. “These birds are grouped into the same subfamily as geese and swans. Unlike most North American ducks, both sexes of each whistling species have similar plumage. Also, whistlers mate for life, and both males and females share in the rearing of the young. There are two species of whistling ducks in North America; the black-bellied and the fulvous whistling duck.”

The diving-duck group also has several interesting traits that make its members unique. Divers are the only ducks physically able to obtain food from well below the surface of the water.

“Therefore,” Todd said, “their legs are positioned farther back on their bodies to aid in underwater propulsion. Also, diving ducks have a larger hind toe than dabbling ducks. Some diving ducks common to Georgia and other Gulf Coastal states are the bay ducks, which include the canvasback, redhead, ring-necked duck, and scaup (bluebill).”

The dabbling ducks, probably the most familiar of all duck species, are generally found along the edges of impoundments in shallow water, due to their inability to dive beneath the surface. With legs situated more toward the middle of its body than those of divers, a dabbler is better able to travel on land, but must feed in water by “tipping-up.”

“This strategy involves the ducks sticking their heads below the water’s surface while tipping their bodies upward,” Todd continued. “Dabblers use their feet for balance to maintain this easily recognized feeding posture. Another characteristic common to dabbling ducks is their ability to bound directly upward off the water and take flight. Divers, with their rearward-situated legs and feet, use the water’s surface more like an airport runway. There are a variety of dabbling ducks, but the most commonly recognized species is the mallard.”

Perching ducks are represented by but one species in North America. This species, the wood duck, is one of the most widespread and better known varieties of waterfowl and in certain areas the only wild duck species many ever observe. Most people are familiar with wood duck nesting boxes along the perimeters of waterways.

“Wood ducks have legs positioned even farther forward on their bodies than dabbling ducks,” said Todd. “They also have extremely sharp claws. These traits allow this duck, unlike other North American waterfowl, to perch and climb. As a cavity-nesting duck, these physical characteristics are important not only to a nesting hen, but also to fledgling ducklings in the nest, which must climb out of the nest cavity and often travel long distances on foot to reach water.”

With no less than 48 species of waterfowl making their home on this continent, and roughly half of those wintering in or migrating through the Southern states, we are afforded an opportunity to enjoy some of Nature’s most beautiful and interesting birds.

“This holds true for both hunters and those who are interested only in wildfowl observation,” Todd concluded. “However, with only a handful of resident waterfowl to observe, Southerners must plan their outings to enjoy the migratory species of waterfowl during the cooler months of fall and winter when the largest numbers of these lovely creatures are present in our part of the country. Now is the time to get out and enjoy them.”