The 3 Types of Ducks Every Birdwatcher Should Know

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Duck with brown body, black and white head, and light blue bill swimming in glassy water
You're likely familiar with the mallard duck and its green head, but what about the ruddy duck, with its dark brown plumage and sky blue bill? James Hager / robertharding / Getty Images/Collection Mix: Sub
Key Takeaways
  • There are three main types of ducks: dabbling, diving and perching, each classified by their habitat and behavior.
  • Dabbling ducks feed on the water's surface, diving ducks plunge below the surface for food and perching ducks nest in trees.
  • Examples of diving ducks include the ruddy duck, mergansers and the harlequin duck, each with unique characteristics and habitats.

There are three types of ducks: dabbling, diving and perching. Wild ducks are classified based on their habitat and behavior.

Dabbling ducks live in shallow waters and forage on the shore for aquatic plants; diving ducks are the best swimmers and can even dive for fish. Perching ducks are excellent flyers and roost in trees.



Dabbling Ducks

Dabbling ducks, also known as puddle ducks, live in shallow lakes and eat aquatic plants. There are about 40 species of dabbling ducks, including the wild Mallard and the blue-winged teal. A couple dabbling duck species include:

Wild Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

When you think "duck," you might picture mallard ducks. According to Britannica, the wild mallard is "the ancestor of all domestic ducks."


The mallard was first domesticated in China about 2,000 years ago but can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Mallard ducks have pointed wings and short rounded or square-tipped tails. They have mottled brown feathers punctuated by a patch of blue on the wings. Male Mallards have green heads and yellow beaks, while females have subtler orange beaks.

Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors)

You won't notice any blue in the blue-winged teal's wings until this small dabbling duck takes flight. Blue-winged teals are predominantly mottled brown with gray heads and a small blue patch on the wing.

They spend summer in the Northern Hemisphere and migrate south for the winter.


Diving Ducks

Diving ducks tend to live in deeper bodies of water than dabbling ducks, and quite a few species, known as sea ducks, actually live in salt water. Diving ducks exhibit more diving behavior than other types of ducks.

Species of diving ducks include:


Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)

Ruddy ducks are stiff-tailed ducks, a subgroup of diving ducks with tails that stick straight up in the air at rest. During the mating season, male ruddy ducks develop a bright blue beak.


Mergansers are fish-eating ducks. The common merganser (Mergus merganser), known as the Goosander in England, lives in freshwater lakes and is, as its name suggests, the most common species of merganser.

The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) looks like the common merganser, but it has different nesting habits, preferring more northern salt water over fresh water and nests in the ground (rather than in cavities).

The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is the smallest and rarest merganser. Like the common merganser, the hooded merganser nests in cavities around ponds and swamps.

Harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)

The harlequin duck gets its name from the distinctive white pattern on the male's gray feathers. (Females have brown feathers.)

Harlequin ducks are strong swimmers and seem to prefer rougher rivers and coasts.


Perching Ducks

Perching ducks get their name from the fact that they tend to roost in trees. As such, they are stronger fliers than other ducks.

Wild Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata)

Wild Muscovy ducks are large, fast-flying ducks with black feathers and white accents. The male wild muscovy has a knob above its bill.


Native to the American tropics, wild muscovy ducks can be found as far north as Texas.

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

Male wood ducks are some of the most beautiful waterfowl you can see. They have jewel tone accents of green, blue and purple around their eyes, on the chest and on the wings. Females have brown feathers.

The National Audubon Society calls the wood duck "an early triumph of wildlife management." Once abundant in eastern North America, it was over-hunted by the late 19th-century, but conservation efforts succeeded in bringing back this colorful duck.

Its closest relative is the East Asian mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), another perching duck.


Domestic Ducks

The American Poultry Association accepts 17 domesticated duck breeds in four classes: heavy, medium, light and bantam. The 17 breeds are:

  • Appleyard
  • Aylesbury
  • Muscovy
  • Pekin
  • Rouen
  • Saxony
  • Buff
  • Cayuga
  • Crested
  • Swedish
  • Campbell
  • Magpie
  • Runner
  • Welsh harlequin
  • Call
  • East Indie
  • Mallard


Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common predators of ducks?
Common predators of ducks include foxes, raccoons, hawks, owls and snapping turtles, which prey on ducklings.
How can you attract ducks to your backyard?
To attract ducks, provide a water source, plant native vegetation and avoid using pesticides.