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Divers & Dabblers

Late March and April are prime time to observe waterfowl that are returning to the Northeast to breed, as well as passing through on their way to more northern breeding grounds.  Birders divide ducks into tribes, and two of these tribes are the divers/pochards (Aythyini) and dabblers/puddlers (Anatini).  You can tell them apart by the way they eat, look, fly and where they are found. 

MANNER OF EATING:  These two groups’ names pertain to the manner in which they obtain food.  Divers dive down beneath the water to obtain their food. Dabblers eat food that is at or just below the surface – you often see their tails up in the air while their heads are submerged as they search for plant material and invertebrates, such as the pictured Gadwall. 

POSITION ON WATER:  When you look at a duck on the water, notice how it is positioned.  Diving ducks, with dense and more compact bodies, often sit lower in the water.  By squeezing their feathers against their body to expel trapped air, they can quickly dive and chase prey such as fish and crustaceans.  Dabblers often float higher in the water, making their tails more visible than diving ducks.

POSITION OF LEGS:  The legs of diving ducks are located at the hind end of their body, where they act as effective propellers in water (but don’t lend themselves to traveling on land).  Dabbling ducks tend to have their legs located more centrally on their body, which enhances their ability to walk and feed on land. 

LANDING AND TAKING OFF:  Whereas diving ducks often need large expanses of water to land on as well as to take off from due to small wings relative to their body size, dabbling ducks’ proportionately large wings allow them to land and quickly take off from smaller bodies of water.

HABITAT:  Diving ducks are often located in deep water; dabblers in shallow water, often no more than a foot deep.

Diving Ducks:  Canvasback, Redhead, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck

Dabbling Ducks: Mallard, Mottled Duck, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Wood Duck

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7 responses

  1. Janet Crystal

    As a long-time birder, I would like to add that divers will sometimes dabble and dabblers will sometimes dive, so while it’s a generally accurate method to help in identification, it’s not without its exceptions. Aren’t there always!

    March 27, 2023 at 9:00 am

  2. Connie Snyder

    Mary, thanks as always for this helpful “tutorial” organizing for me things I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

    March 27, 2023 at 9:09 am

  3. Alice

    That’s a lot of duck info!

    March 27, 2023 at 11:05 am

  4. Betty Gatewood

    Mary!!! This is amazing and wonderful information about ducks! Many thanks!

    March 27, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    • Hi Betty! So glad you enjoyed this post. Hope you are doing very well!

      March 30, 2023 at 8:45 am

  5. You’re so welcome, Connie!

    March 30, 2023 at 8:45 am

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