Monday, January 31, 2011

Dabbling duck silhouette quiz


The identification of hen ducks deserves more consideration than what is given in the field guides. Many birders identify hen ducks only by noting what drakes they are hanging out with.

The "Peterson System," where birds are identified primarily by field marks, is heavily weighted toward color and pattern. Yet the end plates in Peterson's field guides contain, not colorful birds with field marks pointed out, but silhouettes--in other words, shapes.

No one would mistake a wren for a sparrow if they birded by shape. Starlings and blackbirds are shaped nothing alike. A heron or crane? Please; they're nothing alike--just look at the shape!

Yet no field guides tell you how to bird by shape. Not that it can't be done, just that no one has sat down and created the vocabulary that would identify and explain the shapes. Well, actually, that's not entirely true. An ornithology manual would describe and define such bill shapes as spatulate, acute, pointed, recurved, etc. And then it would explain the terms long and short as it relates to bill length. Nevertheless, shape is used as an identification tool far too infrequently in field guides.

Dabbling, or puddle, ducks are those that tip up to feed and rarely dive. The males are colorful, but the females are camouflage patterned with various shades of brown. Nearly all ducks can be identified by shape alone, there are very few exceptions in the dabbling ducks or in the diving ducks--especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Here I present some hen dabbling duck silhouettes. They are created from photos I have taken, adjusted so they are all about the same size, and then turned to black.

So "forget" the patterns of buffs and browns, the color of the speculum, or the markings on the bill. Concentrate only on shape. Primarily look at the overall length--whether compact or long, the neck length and thickness, head shape, and bill shape.

Make your guesses in the comments section below. I'll give you the answers next week, with the silhouettes replaced with color photos. Sound fun?

Too hard? Then to help you get started here are your choices for the 7 dabbling ducks: American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shovleler.