Ducks, ducks and ‘ducks’

by | Sep 25, 2020 | Community, Environment, Voices

“Frequently the birds that people call ‘ducks’ aren’t actually ducks at all.”

By my calculations about twenty species of duck occur in the UK regularly (at various times of year). There are also several more that turn up occasionally from other parts of the world. Most bird books divide these into broad categories with names like Dabblers, Diving Ducks, Sea Ducks and Sawbills.

However, for people who are not really birdwatchers (i.e. most of the population) I think it is more helpful to split them all into three groups: ducks that are Mallards, ducks that are not Mallards, and ‘ducks’ that are not ducks.

Let me explain.

Ducks that are actually Mallards (even if they don’t look it)

I often get asked to help people identify birds that they can’t recognise. Often the bird in question is a funny-looking duck they saw on the park lake. About 9 times out of 10 the correct answer is ‘that’s a Mallard’. However the person often replies “Oh, no, no, no! I know Mallards – the males with green head and white collar, the females plain streaky brown. This was completely different.” They will go on to describe something very exotic – perhaps a mostly black duck with a white chest, or a nearly normal-looking mallard but much bigger with a massive rear-end, or an all-white thing with a funny tuft on the head. You may have seen ducks just like this in the park. However, despite their strange appearance these are still Mallards, albeit with some Domestic Duck ancestry.

Although this fellow looks quite similar to a ‘normal’ Mallard, his outsized rear-end and the rufous colour on his sides and back mark him out as having domestic ancestors (Photo taken Albert Park, Middlesbrough, 12th Sept 2020. © Colin Conroy)

You see, Domestic Ducks, like dogs, horses and cows, have many different varieties or ‘breeds’ – with names like Khaki Campbell, Aylesbury, Buff Orpington, Black Swedish and Indian Runner – but they are all descended from wild Mallards and are all still the same species. When they escape into the wild they will happily breed with their wild relatives producing all sorts of odd-looking ducks.

Mallards like this, mostly dark with white on the chest, are commonly seen on park lakes (Photo taken Albert Park, Middlesbrough, 12th Sept 2020. © Colin Conroy)

Ducks that aren’t mallards but are still ducks

With a bit of effort and a few trips to places like RSPB Saltholme, Portrack Marsh and Redcar seafront (for the sea-ducks), you could easily see at least ten other species of duck in a given year in and around Teesside. However, most are unlikely to be on your local park lake. Exceptions to this includeTufted Duck (aka ‘Tufties’) and Gadwall.

Male Tufties are dapper black and white birds with a backwards-pointing crest (the ‘tuft’) on the head and a bright yellow eye. The females are duller, being mostly brown with a shorter tuft. These are diving ducks and often disappear underwater only to pop up in a different place several seconds later.

A male Tufted Duck at Locke Park, Redcar (13th Sept 2020). His muddy-looking sides and shorter than usual tuft show that this one is in ‘eclipse plumage’, which male ducks get when they are moulting their flight feathers after the breeding season. (Photo © Colin Conroy)

Gadwalls, like Mallards are dabbling ducks, and feed at, or just below, the surface of the water. The females look very similar to female Mallards, but with a white patch on the wing (dark blue in Mallards). The males are a lovely grey colour with a jet black rear-end.

A female Tufted Duck. (Photo taken Locke Park, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020. © Colin Conroy)

‘Ducks’ that aren’t ducks

Frequently the birds that people call ‘ducks’ aren’t actually ducks at all. Most often they are Coots or Moorhens – Coots all black except for the white forehead and beak. Other possibles are Great Crested Grebe (chestnut and white in summer with a punk hairdo), or a Little Grebe (tiny, mostly brown and grey). Although these all look a bit like ducks, they are not closely related to Mallards, Tufted Ducks and the rest at all.

Male (left) and female (right) Gadwall. You can just see the white on the wing of the female which distinguishes her from a female Mallard. (Photo taken Coatham Marsh TVWT Reserve, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020. © Colin Conroy)
A Moorhen showing its distinctive bill. When they swim they move their heads back and forwards like a little clockwork toy, and often flash their white tails. (Photo taken Albert Park, Middlesbrough, 12th Sept 2020. © Colin Conroy)

Feeding ducks…

I’ll finish with a quick word about feeding ducks. It’s okay to feed them in parks – although of the three categories above it’s only the first that is likely to be tempted – but things like sweetcorn (uncooked), peas and oats are much better for them than bread. In more wild places it’s best not to feed them at all but to let them find their own natural healthy food.

For more of Colin’s Ramblings, visit


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