What You Might Not Know About Ducks

Back in the early 1960s, I spent a couple of years banding waterfowl in one of the newly-created marshes of the hydro project in Lake St. Lawrence, just west of Cornwall, Ontario. This is when I really got the opportunity to know the many features of waterfowl (duck, geese and swans).

The flooding of the new Lake St. Lawrence has to be the best engineering undertaking to benefit fish and wildlife across Canada, if not in all of North America.

When people pass by a pond and see ducks grazing the surface, few may realize that there is far more to ducks than just birds that spend most of their lives on the surface of water.

Aside from swans and geese (Anatidaes), which are distinguished from other bird species by their mostly broad, flat beaks and webbed feet, there are five subspecies of ducks: pond ducks, diving ducks, mergansers, ruddy ducks; and last but not least, the very interesting tree ducks.

In North America, there are about 14 species of pond and river ducks. Of the diving ducks, there are 21 species. I have seen all such subspecies, with the exception of the Labrador duck, which is extinct.

There are three subspecies of mergansers, one subspecies of the ruddy ducks, and two subspecies of tree ducks. In my 83 years I have had the pleasure of putting leg bands on most of the waterfowl subspecies. It may surprise some that there are approximately 225 species of waterfowl worldwide.

An easy way to tell the difference between pond ducks and diving ducks is in the placement of the legs. Generally, all duck legs are short, with the exception of the tree duck.

Yes, for those who have never seen a tree duck land in a tree or make its nest in a hollow tree, it is a sight to see. We had a pair of tree ducks on our property, back in Ontario. I have a picture of them perched on a limb.

A diving duck’s legs are well back on their body, which gives them a distinguishing waddle. These birds are seldom seen on land as everything they need is in the water, with the exception of their nests, which are generally close to the water’s edge.

The legs of pond ducks are well forward on their body, and they are as comfortable on land as they are in the water. This subspecies of ducks can be seen feeding with their heads underwater while the rest of their body remains above the surface. Thus, these ducks are called pond ducks.

If you see a long, slender duck with a beak that looks like a thin pair of wire cutters, you are looking at a merganser, a standout from other ducks. The beak is slender and cylindrical.

If you could look closer, inside the beak, you would notice that the merganser has what looks like teeth slanted backward in its mouth. The closest creature I can compare this beak to is that of a gar pike, which is found in the St. Lawrence River. This pike can actually cut a smaller fish in half. Of course, the beak of the merganser is for catching fish, and they are fast swimmers under water.


To my knowledge, swans hold the record (in general) for longevity — 40 years. Geese live about 30 years; and ducks, 20. This, of course, refers to waterfowl kept in sanctuaries, not those in the wild.

When I was stationed in the Erie District of Ontario, we ventured near the base of Niagara Falls to rescue ducks that had been swept over. We took those that survived, but sustained injuries, to bird sanctuaries. The ducks that didn’t survive were taken to research stations.

I had a life-and-death encounter with Niagara Falls, back in 1958, that I will never forget … but that is for another story, maybe for my book that is yet to be finished.

In part 2, we will look at the flight speed of bird species, as well as the altitude that waterfowl fly to, and this might surprise some. We will also dig into history and look at what climate change has done to decimate as well as to improve waterfowl habitats and the waterfowl themselves.

A closing note …

We live in an era that previous generations could not possibly have conceived of. When a product came to the end of its usefulness, it simply went to a garbage dump, what we now technically call a landfill. In most cases, dumps were habitats for wildlife.

It is now incumbent for manufacturers to not only consider products’ intended use, but to also consider the disposal of these products.

In short, manufacturers must find a concept for their products’ useful end, and they must do so before waste products circumvent what was formerly a serene environment.

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