WATERFOWL TAXONOMY, DISTRIBUTION, AND GENERAL BIOLOGY
Taxonomy is the theory and practice of classifying organisms into groups that have common characteristics (taxa). The taxonomy of waterfowl, while still an active area of research, is currently relatively stable, especially at the higher levels. By way of review, animal taxonomic groups, from the most general taxonomic group to the most specific, as kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Within this general scheme, super- and sub- groups can be distinguished: kingdom, phylum, subphylum, class, subclass, superorder, order, suborder, superfamily, family, subfamily, tribe, genus, subgenus, species, and subspecies. For example, the complete classification of the mallard is:
The order, family, subfamily, and tribe are of great importance in classification of waterfowl because they usually correspond to groups that are readily distinguished. The order of all waterfowl is Anseriformes, and all the Anseriformes except for screamers (family Anhimidae) are classified in family Anatidae. The taxonomic levels below family are summarized in the remainder of this handout.
Subfamily and Tribal Characteristics of Family Anatidae (Waterfowl)
Anserinatinae: Magpie goose: Has unique skeletal structures: Bill long and strong,
deep at base, nostrils small and located in middle of bill and close
together; lamellae much reduced; nail large, very strong, curved,
pointed and overhanging; lower mandible with convex nail-like tip;
forehead and lores naked; wings long with the first primary
equalling the 7th; the 2nd to the 5th the longest; no wing spur; tail
long, square with 12 retrices; legs long, most of the tibia naked;
tarsus reticulated; toes very long and slender; toenails long,
curved, and sharp; hallux long and on the level of the other toes;
webbing much reduced; male with very long trachea which is
convoluted, located outside the pectoral muscle on left and under
the skin; gradual wing molt; exude a strong musky smell.
Anserinae: Geese, Swans, Whistling Ducks: "Goose-like" posture and body
shape; tarsus reticulated in front; one molt per year; no sexual
dimorphism in plumage, voice or syrinx structure; displays simple
and similar in both sexes; no speculum or metallic colors; pair for
life; males assist in rearing young.
Tribe Dendrocygnini: Whistling, wandering, or tree ducks: High neck, held
straight with 17 vertebrae; short, wide by; broad, rounded wings with
primaries and secondaries equal in length and primaries variously
notched or emarginate; long legs with 1/2 naked tibia and large feet with
indented webs, long hind toe and inserted low; claws sharp; high, narrow
bill, large hooked nail at tip; 44 vertebrae in from of the pygostyle (like
ducks, geese and swans have 47+); shorted skull, bent pelvis (like
geese); tendency for flank feathers to be lengthened and ornamental;
downy young with white or pale yellow line extending across occiput and
under eyes and the bill; a broad, dark line through the eye and a light
line above it (downy young).
Tribe Anserini: Geese and Swans: Sexes alike in plumage; larynx
symmetrical, no osseus bulla; downy young never with strong contrasting
patterns; bony knob at the bend of the wing; mature in 2-3 years.
Tribe Stictonettini: Freckled Duck: Gooselike skeletal anatomy; reticulated
tarsal surface; gray, unpatterned downy young; sexes alike in voice and
plumage; pair for life (?).
Anatinae: Ducks: Tarsus scutellated in front (a few exceptions); 2 molts or more per
year; most with sexual dimorphism and always dimorphic in
voice and display; males usually with a bony bulla on the syrinx
(enlarged on the left side); female does not have this; most males
take on a dull, female-like plumage after breeding (the eclipse or
basic plumage); most have a brilliant, often metallic speculum.
Tribe Tadornini: Shelducks and Sheldgeese: Bill short and thick or depressed
and turned up at the tip; legs long and well forward on the body; short
neck; bright coloration in plumage; voices of the sexes markedly
different; bony knob at the bend of the wing; bold downy chick patterns;
most have a large metallic wing speculum in the secondaries or in the
greater coverts; lesser and median coverts plain, usually white.
Tribe Tachyerini: Steamer Ducks: Very large marine ducks; two species
flighttless; sexually dimorphic, but both sexes lack bright coloration; only
a simple white wing patch; downy young resemble those of the
shelducks, but have little spotting and less contrasting coloration.
Tribe Cairinini: Perching ducks (Wood Duck): Arboreal nesters in forests;
unlobed hind toes and other toes have well-developed, sharp claws; legs
set forward with long thigh; bill is thick, not depressed, often heavy, with
a large nail; retrices long and broad; tail is only slightly graduated
(squarish), never pointed; wings broad and brightly colored but without a
definite speculum; secondaries, tertials, and scapulars much developed
and ornamented; many species show much iridescence
(green/blue/purple in wing and/or black; bony knob at the bend of the
wing in most; downy young have long, stiff tails, are good climbers, and
have a sharp brown and yellow pattern.
Tribe Anatini: Dabbling ducks: Shorter body and tail and legs than shelducks;
also smaller body size than shelducks; legs farther back on the body and
shorter; long, pointed wings; large bulla on syrinx of males, great vocal
difference in sexes; most with iridescent metallic speculums; downy
young are boldly patterned in dark brown with buffy or yellow patterns on
the back of the head.
Tribe Aythyini: Pochards: Short, heavy body, short tail; big head, long neck,
large feet; legs set far back and laterally; hind toe lobed; females with
solid plumage (not mottled); no iridescence; speculum is non-metallic
white or gray; osseus bulla differs from that of Anatini by being pointed,
not round and more completely chambered inside; legs set farther back
on the belly than in Anatini.
Tribe Mergini: Sea Ducks: Bill strong, with a large, hooked nail; short wings;
large feet with a lobed hind toe; legs set far back on the body; many nest
in cavities; males brightly colored, with metallic colors restricted to the
head; wing speculums white; downy young black with white cheek and
belly or brownish (eiders); usually take 2 years to reach maturity.
Tribe Oxyurini: Stiff Tails (Ruddy Duck, Masked Duck): Stiff tail feathers,
mostly long with short coverts; broad bill, more or less depressed distally;
hooked nail; short wings; short, thick tarsus; lobed hallux on large feet
(one exception); short, thick neck with loose skin that can be inflated; no
osseus bulla; never with metallic plumage; all but one (Masked Duck)
with plain wings; plumage with fine spotting, streaking, or barring.
Genera and Species of North American Waterfowl
The following listing is the master taxonomic list we will use for North
American waterfowl. The listing is not only useful for the lab, but also as
background material for the lecture portion of the course. Examine it
carefully and note the variations in the biology of each species as summarized
herein. You will be responsible for learning both common and scientific names
for these species.
KEY - NS = Nest Site
N = northern or north
S = southern or south
WR = wintering range
W = western or west
E = eastern or east
BR = breeding range
Black-bellied Whistling Duck (D. autumnalis) BR - S Texas and Mexico to Argentina. WR –
move S. NS - tree cavities.
Fulvous Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor) BR-discontinuous without subspecies (1) SW
U.S. and Mexico but non in isthmus, (2) N S. Am., (3) S S. Am., (4) E Africa, (5) Madagascar, and (6) India, Burma, and Ceylon. WR of U. S. population - move S in U.S. or into Mexico. Vagrants are not unusual outside normal distribution. NS - open country, over-water in reedy vegetation.
Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) BR - Arctic tundra of Alaska NW Canada and W
Greenland WR - Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas, Central California and Willamette
Valley, Oregon. NS – on ground.
Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) BR - Arctic tundra of N. Am. particularly N Central Canada
WR - Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas NS - on ground.
Ross's Goose (C. rossi) BR - Arctic tundra - Perry River region of Canada WR - Central Valley
of California NS - on ground.
Emperor Goose (C. canagica) BR - Arctic tundra and coast of Alaska and Siberia WR –
Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula south to Cook Inlet. NS - on ground.
Hawaiian Goose (Branta sandvicensis) BR - Island of Hawaii, uplands on old lava flows WR –
same NS - on ground.
Canada Goose (B. canadensis)
Atlantic (B. c. canadensis) BR - Maritime Provinces of Canada WR - E Coast NS – on
Central (B. c. interior) BR - taiga and tundra around Hudson Bay WR - Missouri-Illinois
NS - on ground.
Giant (B. c. maxima) BR - past: widespread on prairies, now: in resident flocks and
Manitoba WR - Rochester, Minnesota and sometimes in Missouri NS – on
ground, ledges, and man-made structures.
Great Basin (B. c. moffitti) BR - western U. S. WR - western U. S. NS - on ground.
Lesser (B. c. parvipes) BR - widespread in taiga and tundra west of Hudson Bay to
central Alaska WR - California to Louisiana NS - on ground.
Dusky (B. c. occidentalis) BR - Kenai Peninsula WR – sedentary but some to Oregon.
NS - on ground.
Vancouver (B. c. fulva) BR - coast of British Columbia WR - sedentary, some to
California NS - on ground.
Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)
Cackling Goose (B. hutchinsii minima) BR - W coast of Alaska WR - S British Columbia
to California NS - on ground.
Richardson's (B. h. hutchinsii) BR - Arctic tundra of Hudson Bay WR - Texas and
Mexico NS - on ground.
Taverner's (B. h. taverneri) BR - western Alaska from Alaska Peninsula to Canada but
only on coast in NE Alaska WR – central California, some from Washington to
Texas. NS - on ground.
Aleutian (B. h. leucopareia) BR - Aleutian Islands WR – Japan and British Columbia and
California NS - on ground.
Brant (Branta bernicla) BR - Arctic tundra of Holarctic
Light-bellied (B. b. hrota) BR - E Arctic Canada WR – Atlantic coast from New Jersey to
North Carolina NS - on ground.
Lawrence's (B. b. nigricans) BR - NE Hudson Bay? WR - coast of New Jersey NS – on
Black (B. b. orientalis) BR - Arctic tundra of NE Siberia and NW Alaska to near Hudson
Bay WR - Vancouver Island to lower California NS - on ground.
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) BR - temperate Eurasia, introduced into New England states WR – E
seaboard NS - in shallow water or on land.
Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator) BR - formerly in N. Am. prairies, now at Red Rock Lakes
area of Montana and Wyoming, southern Alaska and NW Canada WR - inland waters
near breeding NS - large nests of aquatic vegetation, otter or beaver lodge or muskrat
Tundra Swan (C. columbianus columbianus) BR - Arctic tundra of Alaska and Canada WR –
Chesapeake Bay area and California coast NS - large nest near water's edge.
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) BR - deciduous forest of E N. Am. and in W N. Am. in California,
Oregon and Washington WR - S hardwood forest and in California NS - cavities in
Gadwall (Anas strepera) BR - prairies of N. Am. and in NW U. S. and SW Canada WR –
Chesapeake S across Gulf states and Mexico and N to Oregon. NS - dry ground.
American Wigeon (A. americana) BR - prairies of N. Am. then NW through Canada and across
central Alaska to W coast. WR – coastal areas from the Chesapeake S across Gulf
states and Mexico and along Pacific coast. NS - dry ground.
American Black Duck (A. rubripes) BR - NE U. S. and SE Canada in forested areas. WR – SE
U. S. NS - variable, on ground, in stumps, on flat areas, in limbs of large trees.
Mallard (A. platyrhynchos) BR - temperature and subarctic portions of Holarctic. In N. Am.
highest populations in prairies but widespread N and W to Alaska and California. WR –
widespread across S U. S. and into Mexico. Large concentrations in lowland hardwoods
of the Mississippi Delta. NS - very adaptable: on dry land, over water on muskrat
houses, or floating nests in tall emergents or lodged vegetation, in man-made structure,
or in stumps.
Mexican Duck (A. p. diazi) BR - New Mexico into Mexico. WR - Same NS - on ground.
Mottled Duck (A. fulvigula maculosa) BR - Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas. WR - same
NS – on ground near water.
Florida Duck (A. f. fulvigula) BR - S 2/3 of Florida WR – same NS - on ground near water.
Blue-winged Teal (A. discors) BR - in prairies NW to Alaska. WR – S U. S., Mexico, and Central
Am. NS - on ground.
Cinnamon Teal (A. cyanoptera) BR - in W U.S. from Mexico N to British Columbia. Not in
prairies. NR - W Mexico. NS – on ground.
Northern Shoveler (A. clypeata) BR - in prairies NW through central Alaska. WR - along coast
from S. Carolina, Gulf states, Mexico and N to Oregon. NS - on ground.
Northern Pintail (A. acuta) BR - in temperate subarctic area, Arctic portions of Holarctic. In N.
Am. in prairies N and W throughout Alaska and to NE California. WR - near coastal
areas from Chesapeake, across Gulf states and Mexico, north to British Columbia.
Large concentrations in central valley of California and on Texas coast. NS - on ground.
Green-winged Teal (A. crecca carolinensis) BR - temperate and Arctic portions of Holarctic. In
N. Am. in prairies NW to coastal Alaska (not on N Slope) and W to N California. WR –
from Chesapeake, along Gulf coast and Mexico and throughout the W NS - on ground.
Canvasback (Aythya valisineria) BR - prairies of N. Am. Best in N. Dakota and S. Manitoba.
WR - coastal from Chesapeake. Gulf coast, and Pacific coast. NS - over water in
Redhead (A. americana) BR - prairies of N. Am. in Utah, and NE California and S Oregon. WR
- Chesapeake Bay, Gulf coast, and California. NS - over water in tall emergents or low
Ring-necked Duck (A. collaris) BR - forested areas in NE U. S. (Maine and New Brunswick) and
Wisconsin and Minnesota NW to Great Slave Lake. WR - California and Oregon coast
and SE U. S. NS - edge of water.
Pacific Greater Scaup (A. marila mariloides) BR - subarctic-Arctic N. Am. from Great Slave
Lake NW throughout most of Alaska. WR - along Pacific coast from Alaska S and in E
Great Lakes and S along Atlantic Gulf coast. NS - on ground near water.
Lesser Scaup (A. affinis) BR - some in prairies NW throughout W Canada to Alaska. WR – W
U. S., Gulf coast, and SE U. S.
Steller's Eider (Polysticta stelleri) BR - tundra of coastal Alaska and Siberia WR – Aleutian
islands NS - on ground.
Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri) BR - tundra of coastal Alaska and Siberia. WR – Aleutian
islands NS - on ground.
King Eider (S. spectabilis) BR - coastal Arctic from Siberia, Alaska, Canada including N. islands
and Greenland. WR – Aleutian islands and Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to New
York. NS – on ground on small islands usually near fresh water.
Common Eider (S. mollissima) BR - maritime areas in Holarctic. NS - in colonies on
Northern Eider (S. m. borealis) BR - NE of Hudson Bay and Greenland WR – Atlantic
coast n of U. S. NS - colonies on ground.
American Eider (S. m. dresseri) BR - Hudson Bay and coast of NE U. S. and SE
Canada. WR - Atlantic coast N of Chesapeake. NS - in colonies on ground, often
Pacific Eider (S. m. v. nigra) BR - coastal Alaska and NW Canada. WR - coastal S to
Washington. NS - in colonies on ground.
Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) BR - in Holarctic. In N. Am. is E from Greenland S to
Newfoundland S to New York. In W from Alaska to California. NS - along streams on
ground or in tree cavities or on cliffs.
Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) BR - from Great Slave Lake NW to Alaska. WR – Pacific
and Atlantic coasts. NS - on ground.
White-winged Scoter (M. fusca) BR - temperate and subarctic portions of Holarctic. In N. Am.
from prairies NW to Alaska. WR – Pacific and Atlantic coast NS - on ground.
Black Scoter (M. nigra) BR - tundra of Holarctic. In N. Am. in Alaska. WR - Pacific and
Atlantic coast. NS - on ground.
Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) BR - tundra of Holarctic. In N. Am. - tundra from Alaska
to Greenland. WR - Pacific coast from Washington N, Great Lakes, and Atlantic coast
from Chesapeake N NS - on ground.
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) BR - forested areas of N. Am. From Ontario to Alaska and S to
N California WR - throughout S U. S. NS - cavities in trees often formed by Flickers.
Common Goldeneye (B. clangula) BR - forested areas of Holarctic. In N. Am. from Alaska to E
Canada. WR - open water throughout U.S. NS - tree cavities.
Barrow's Goldeneye (B. islandica) BR - Greenland, in W from Alaska S to California and in
Rocky Mountain states. WR - Atlantic coast N of Chesapeake area; Pacific coast from
Alaska to California. NS - tree cavities or in cliffs.
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) BR - deciduous forest of N. Am. from SE U. S. to
British Columbia. WR - Atlantic and Pacific coasts NS - tree cavities.
Common Merganser (M. merganser) BR - forested portions of Holarctic. In N. Am. in coniferous
zone from S. Alaska to Newfoundland. WR - mainly fresh water areas in E and W N.
Am. NS - in cavities in trees but also on the ground.
Red-breasted Merganser (M. serrator) BR - forested portions of Holarctic. In N. Am. In
coniferous forest from Alaska to Newfoundland. WR - throughout E U. S. and on Pacific
coast often near salt water NS - on ground under bushes.
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) BR - prairies of N. Am. WR - Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf
coasts. NS - over water in emergent vegetation.