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Birds (waterfowl)

Estimated reading time: 8 min

For those addicted to waterfowl hunting, a big part of the allure is that there is so much to it. There are so many hunting skills and techniques to master before you can legitimately call yourself a master duck or goose hunter. Just a few include shotgunning, calling, decoying, concealment, dog training and handling, boating, waterfowl biology and identification, scouting … and the list goes on and on.

Yet this same list can seem daunting to someone just getting started or who doesn’t have the time and resources to devote to mastering so many skills. So it also makes waterfowl hunting a perfect pursuit in which to engage a highly skilled, experienced outfitter. By relying on the outfitter’s equipment, access and skills you can dip your toe in the marsh without diving in head first.

Of course, for those of us already over our heads in waterfowl hunting passion, an outfitted hunt now and then is also a great way to pamper ourselves. Great accommodations, awesome food, access to incredible fields or marshes, the very best gear and equipment, and a great guide’s skill at setting the decoys and calling make it easy for anyone to “just hunt” and enjoy the greatest in waterfowl hunting.

Since waterfowl of one kind or another can be hunted nearly around the world, highly rated outfitters also make it possible for non-resident hunters to enjoy new waterfowl hunting experiences in places like South America, Africa, Asia, or even Europe. They have everything organized so all you have to do is show up and enjoy an exotic new duck or goose hunting experience.

Waterfowl Facts

Especially when you look at the taxonomy of waterfowl globally, you’ll realize this is an extremely diverse sort of hunting opportunity. Ducks, geese, and/or swans of some kind are hunted on every continent except Antarctica. In total, there are about 150 species of waterfowl worldwide that are broken into 40 families.

In North America, the primary pursuits of waterfowl hunters are ducks and geese, though some states allow limited hunting of whistling or tundra swans. The ducks and geese pursued in Canada, the United States, and Mexico are also broken into a number of categories. The ducks hunted here are puddle ducks or “puddlers”, diving ducks, sea ducks, and tree ducks. The geese in North America are broken into two main categories: dark geese which include all of the subspecies of Canada Geese and white-fronted geese commonly called “speckle bellies” or just “specks” and light geese which are snow geese (in all their color phases including “blue geeses”) and Ross’ geese. There are also a couple species of brant which are marine geese.

Most waterfowl species worldwide are migratory birds. They spend the summer in cooler climates nesting and rearing their young, then fly distances of up to thousands of miles to winter in more temperate regions where preferred feed is plentiful. However, because of the diversity of species and distribution among waterfowl, there are many exceptions to this rule. In North America, for example, the introduction of Canada geese to many parts of the U.S. have created non-migratory flocks that live in the same area year round as long as there is available food and open water. Changing farming patterns and potential climate change in North America have altered wintering grounds for many of the continent’s ducks and geese.

Most duck species exhibit plumage that distinguishes males, called “drakes,” from females, called “hens.” Generally, drakes exhibit brighter, more contrasting, more vivid plumage, especially during the breeding season in the late winter and early spring while hens overall are more drably plumed in colors and patterns that allow them to be camouflaged on the nest. In North America, notable exceptions include black ducks, mottled ducks, and whistling/tree ducks. In North American geese, on the other hand, both sexes have identical plumage patterns.

Species identified as puddle ducks are generally more elongated in their build. On the water, they feed by “dabbling” at the surface and “tipping” in which they extend the front half to two-thirds of their bodies under water while their tails and legs stay at the surface. In taking flight, they leap straight into the air from the surface of the water or ground, catching flight instantly. In flight, the puddle ducks’ wing beats tend to appear more effortless and a bit slower than those of diving ducks and sea ducks. Puddle ducks are very comfortable on land and frequently feed in agricultural fields. Because their legs are positioned more centrally on their elongated bodies, they are well-balanced and agile on solid ground. Nesting locations of some puddle duck species are frequently some distance from open water. Some North American species in the puddle duck category include: mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, teal, gadwall, pintails, shovelers and widgeon.

Most species identified as diving ducks are more compact in build and they are shorter and wider in the body than puddlers. Their legs are positioned about three-quarters of the way back on their bodies making them far less comfortable on dry land. Therefore divers are nearly exclusively hunted over water. Divers are built for exactly what their name implies – they dive, in some cases to depths of 20 feet , to do their feeding. However, the common belief that divers feed primarily on fish, mollusks, and invertebrates is inaccurate. More than 90 percent of their diet is vegetation picked from some depth below the surface. In flight, divers appear shorter than most puddle ducks and their wing beat is more rapid. Hunters know them as the “jet fighters” of the waterfowl world because their wing beats create a tearing, whistling sound that can often be heard at a great distance and set the hunter’s pulse to racing. In taking flight, diving ducks must create flight speed by running along the surface of the water and furiously flapping their wings at the same time. However, once airborne, diving ducks are built for speed. The fastest flight speed for North American waterfowl is the Canvasback, a highly revered diving duck, though because of their large size they may not appear as fast as some of the smaller species. North American diving ducks include: scaup, canvasbacks, redheads, goldeneyes, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, ruddy ducks. Mergansers are another subspecies unto themselves and are distinguished from other diving ducks by a narrower, saw-toothed bill which is related to their preferred diet high in small fish.

Sea ducks are also diving ducks, but different in that they are generally larger birds and live in a marine environment. Different species are found on both coasts of North America and, for some species, to a growing extent in the Great Lakes regions of the United States. Sea ducks are primarily fish and mollusk eaters. Some species, like the eider family, eat shellfish like mussels –shell and all. A highly-corrosive bile in their digestive system dissolves the shells during digestion. Sea ducks are swift ducks, frequently flying in large flocks very close to the surface of the water. On days when the waves are large, hunters will sometimes see sea ducks actually fly through the tops of breaking waves. They are extremely tough and require solid hits at close range to kill. Because the overwhelming majority of sea ducks’ diet is animal matter, they usually have a strong “fishy” taste on the table, therefore most sport sea duck hunting is conducted as “trophy” hunting because the plumage of the birds is so unique and beautiful making fantastic taxidermy specimens. North American sea duck species include: eiders, scoters (both of which have multiple subspecies) and long-tailed ducks which is the new, politically correct name for the species that was commonly called the “Old Squaw.”

Around the world, there are dozens of subspecies of geese, and they are hunted in some form nearly everywhere. In North America, the most hunted goose species is Canada Geese (not Canadian geese) of which there are more than a dozen subspecies ranging in size from the Giant Canadas that can weigh nearly 20 pounds or more in late season condition to several tiny subspecies that can weigh as little as 3-4 pounds at maturity. Canada geese are commonly hunted in all North American Flyways which include the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. The other North American “dark goose” species is the white-fronted goose, which is an 8-10 pound bird that is commonly called the “speckle belly” for the dark spots and bars which it exhibits on its white breast plumage and which increases with the maturity of the bird. Primarily a bird of the Central Flyway, the white-front is the most highly regarded of North American wild geese as tablefare.

The most prolific geese in North America are light geese, commonly called snow geese on the whole. There are three primary subspecies of snow geese: the greater snow goose, which is limited to the Atlantic flyway, the lesser snow goose of the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic Flyways; and the Ross’s Goose which is a tiny subspecies mostly in the Central and Pacific zones. Greater snow geese and Ross’s Geese are nearly exclusively of white plumage at maturity exhibiting only the black wing tips characteristic of all snow geese. Lesser snow geese have a number of color phases that include gray and slate blue hues that earn them the separate designation of blue geese, though they are genetically identical to all lesser snow geese.

Changing agricultural practices and an increase in the wariness of light geese in general have sent their populations booming in the last couple of decades to the point where the number of birds threatens the delicate arctic tundra habitat where the birds nest and rear their young. Therefore, snow geese across the continent can legally be hunted in both spring and fall seasons, and limits in spring seasons have been liberalized to the point where it can be considered “high volume” wingshooting such as can also be experienced on hunting ventures in South America and Africa.

Waterfowl Hunting

With the incredible diversity of waterfowl species, distribution, habitat and habits, you can likely imagine that waterfowl hunting techniques and situations are equally diverse. In fact, there are far more places and ways to hunt ducks and geese than there are species.

Boiled down to the most basic division, you can hunt waterfowl in North America either over water in some form or in fields. Most traditional in either setting is to hide in a blind of some kind near a spread of decoys to attract the birds’ attention visually and call to them to complete the illusion of live birds contentedly feeding or resting. Because waterfowl are all “flocking” birds, the allure of joining secure birds is great, but hundreds of generations of hunting makes the birds wary even of flocks of live birds.

Other common ways to hunt waterfowl in North America include pass shooting in which you set up on a known flight path of the birds and wait for them to wing by in range for a shot; and jump shooting in which you stalk within range of birds on the ground or on the water, then flush them to sportingly shoot them from the air. Jump shooting has been taken to new heights with the proliferation of snow geese and a common method of hunting them is to sneak within range of a feeding flock by hiding behind mobile blinds that mimic cattle or horses feeding in the same field. Once within range, the hunter(s) concealed inside jumps up to flush the unaware birds.

However, within the three basic methods of decoying, pass shooting, and jump shooting there are nearly infinite variations that are employed on a species and regional basis. In North America, waterfowl are hunted on Alaska’s Kodiak Island on huge saltwater bays at the base of mountains jutting directly from the ocean; in golden, harvested grain fields under gunmetal gray skies on the prairie provinces of Canada; from layout boats on Utah’s Great Salt Lake; in flooded backwater timber on the great river ways of Illinois and Arkansas; in peanut fields in panhandle Texas; from huge constructed blinds handed down from generation to generation on Maryland’s Potomac River; on lagoons along the eastern gulf coast of Mexico; and on and on and on.

That breadth of adventure and destination is also a big part of what makes waterfowl hunting so alluring. There are so many places and ways to hunt ducks and geese, there are always new ones to explore for the adventurous … and addicted … waterfowl hunter.

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