Monday, February 7, 2011

Dabbling duck silhouette quiz: Answers


Last week's photo quiz was very popular! We had over 230 visitors check out the quiz on both Monday and Tuesday (we average about 100 visitors per day). This blog post even got mention on the ABA Blog!

If you haven't taken the quiz yet, I have reproduced the silhouettes below. So, go down there and really look at the shapes.

Many people said they were "just guessing" at some. However, since most guessed correctly, these birders actually were using shape to identify the ducks. They didn't know how they were using shape, they just did somehow. They were unable to put their identification technique into words.

Dave Irons posted a very revealing comment about this quiz on OBOL (Oregon Birders On-Line mailing list). Irons said that the quiz likely would have been "much more difficult" had I shown actual photos (such as above). Irons noted that the colored camouflage plumage was actually a "visual distraction" that prevented birders from seeing the shape of the birds. Once they were simple silhouettes, he found the identification "remarkably easy."

That was my point. Of course, if you've never used the paradigm of identifying birds by shape, then it might not be so "remarkably easy" for you, at least not yet. But with practice it can be.

Once you can identify these birds by silhouette, those camouflage-brown patterns aren't nearly as confusing. You'll be identifying those previously ignored hen dabbling ducks in no time!

Here, again, are the silhouettes, and below them are the answers.


The identification and description of birds by shape are often in comparison to some "standard." In this case, the familiar and common Mallard is the standard by which to compare other dabbling ducks.

A) Northern Shoveler.
The body is fairly long. The head is rounded. And that bill! It's longer than the rest of the head, and flattened at the tip like a spoon or shovel. Now you know where it got its name, shoveler, as well as another popular name, spoon-bill.

B) Northern Pintail.
This bird is long and elegant throughout. The bill is rather thin. The forehead is gently sloping. The neck is long and slender.

C) Cinnamon Teal. (Also Blue-winged Teal)
In life you may be able to compare this small duck to others around it to gauge size. Note that the bill is as long as the head and flattened--though not to the extent of the shoveler. The head is small compared to the body, and rounded. The bill of Cinnamon Teal averages longer and flatter than Blue-winged Teal, but I wouldn't use that as the only field mark.

D) Green-winged Teal.
This squat, compact little duck has a small, squarish head, with steep forehead, and small bill.

E) Gadwall.
At first blush this duck is quite similar to Mallard. However, note this duck's more compact shape, slightly taller and less flattened bill, and bump on the forehead forming a squarish head.

F) Mallard. (Also Black Duck and Mottled Duck, but not in the Pacific NW)
The prototypical duck. The largest of the dabbling ducks with a rather heavy body, medium neck, large rounded head, and large flat bill.

G) American Wigeon. (Also Eurasian Wigeon)
This compact duck has a square head on a short, thick neck and a short bill. The tail is rather long and pointed.

Practice with these silhouettes until you can name them at a glance. Then go out to your local pond and practice identifying the hen dabbling ducks by shape!