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Waterfowl Identification in the Central Flyway

GIF -- Map of Central Flyway


Waterfowl numbers have been greatly reduced since early settlement of North America. Drainage of marshlands for farmland, cities and industrial sites has been the major detrimental factor toward reduction of nesting habitat. State, federal, and provincial wildlife agencies and private conservation organizations have been attempting to offset habitat losses in the United States, Canada and Mexico by purchase and development of wetlands for production areas. However, thousands of acres are still being lost annually.

The Flyway System was initiated in 1948 to allow differing regulations relating to individual waterfowl populations migrating through each Flyway. This was the genesis of species management. Further efforts toward species management came into being when bag limits were reduced or seasons closed on specific species that were in danger. Flock management within Flyways was put into effect to allow more refinement in regulations for specific groups of birds.

The most recent innovation is the point-system regulation for duck hunting. Point values are assigned each duck species on the basis of availability. Those in good supply are given low point values, while those in lesser supply have higher point values. The point-system regulation also allows in-hand identification of the duck taken which helps the hunter avoid violation.

Every effort is being made to allow the most generous seasons possible with the greatest amount of freedom for the hunter. Thus, it remains up to the sportsman to take his share of the responsibility and train himself in identification of waterfowl, not only in hand, but also in flight.

This guide demonstrates a sincere effort on the part of the Central Flyway Waterfowl Council to aid the sportsman in waterfowl identification. Paintings of ducks in various stages of plumage, photos of wings, and descriptions of distinguishing characteristics have been included as an aid to identification of birds in hand and in flight.

The observer should become familiar with seasonal variations in coloration patterns of plumage. Sexes of some species are nearly identical year-round, but most species exhibit marked differences between sexes with the male being more brightly colored. However, the brighter plumage of the male is present only from fall through the spring season. In summer, the male molts and resembles the hen very closely. Its coloration gradually changes from hen-like to a blotchy, partial coloration, and finally full winter plumage. Young-of-the-year males also evolve through these stages.

Thus, about the first of October when hunting seasons are likely to begin in the Central Flyway, many males may resemble females or are in various stages of molt toward full winter coloration. However, there are characteristics which will help identification. For example, the male's bill is usually quite different from the female's. The females bill in most species will have dark spots or blotches. Wings are also different between sexes for most species. It should also be noted that wings retain similar characteristics throughout the year while the body plumage is changing. Foot coloration can also be useful in identifying species. These features as well as other distinguishing characteristics, including some to watch for in flight, are made note of in the text or otherwise pointed out in this booklet.

As with most endeavors, there is no substitute for experience. Efforts toward mastery of identification should take place in the field. The design of this guide was specifically selected to encourage its use while hunting. Careful study and use of this guide coupled with experience gained while observing waterfowl in the field will allow identification to become automatic.


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