An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide –

American Black Duck

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

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to and click on the yellow “donate” button.

American Black Ducks Vs. Mallards

2-27-19 black ducksAmerican Black Ducks (Anas rubripes), found year-round in all parts of New England except for northern Maine, are nearly identical to Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) in size, shape and voice. Both have rounded heads, thick bills, and bulky bodies. Like other dabbling ducks they sit high in the water with their tails high. These two closely related species often keep company with each other and it can be challenging to tell them apart, but it is possible to distinguish them with some certainty.

Most of the year male (drake) Mallards have a distinctive iridescent green head, a white neck ring and a yellow bill. However, the female (hen) Mallard’s plumage is very similar to that of both drake and hen Black Ducks. One of the most dependable ways to tell these two species apart is to look for the dark chocolate-colored body of the Black Duck, which is noticeably darker than the hen Mallard’s. At rest, the Black Duck is a uniform very dark brown from the bottom of its neck to its tail. The hen Mallard is a much lighter brown in this area, and in addition has a pale whitish patch on the belly. The color of the bill can also help with identification — the hen Mallard’s bill is orange and black, whereas the Black Duck’s bill ranges from a dusky yellow (drake) to a drab olive (hen) color. All of these identification clues go out the window when hybrids of these two species are encountered! (Photo: American Black Duck drake (L) and hen (R) )

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to and click on the yellow “donate” button.