14 Incredible Duck Species

These interesting, colorful, and eccentric varieties go well beyond the mallard.

beautiful duck species in pond

Treehugger / Julie Bang

Duck is the common name for some 100 species of waterfowl. Usually found lingering around marshes, oceans, rivers, ponds, and lakes, ducks live wherever there's water, on every continent except Antarctica. They belong to the same family (Anatidae) as swans and geese and demonstrate vast interspecies variety. Some stand out due to their spectacular plumage, oddly shaped bills, or unique calls.

Here are 14 beautiful, unusual, and rare duck species.

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Harlequin Duck

Harlequin duck sitting on water
Mark Newman / Getty Images

Not all ducks are cut out for turbulence like the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). This small yet adventurous sea bird can be found diving for aquatic invertebrates in rough and fast-moving mountain streams, rivers, rocky coastlines, and whitewater. The males have a complex plumage pattern featuring chestnut and white patches on the head and body. The species goes by many names, including painted duck, sea mouse, rock duck, glacier duck, and white-eyed diver. These ducks like to gather in small flocks along rocky coastlines.

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King Eider

King eider flying over water

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Few duck species have a more distinctive face than this eider, with that prominent yellow knob located at the top of males' beaks. The king eider is a large Arctic duck species, breeding on the tundra during summer and spending winters at sea. It can dive as deep as 180 feet to feed on crustaceans, mollusks, and other aquatic prey. The male pushes its head forward while swimming around the females to show off.

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Long-Tailed Duck

Long-tailed duck sitting in water
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Beating out even the deep-diving king eider, the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) has been known to swim as far as 200 feet below the surface of the ocean for its food. In fact, this small, slender sea duck spends about 80% of its day foraging underwater. And that long tail? It's actually two extra-long central tail feathers, characteristic of males. This duck is typically found in groups on coastal marine waters or gathered on large freshwater lakes during winter.

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Mandarin Duck

Close-up of a mandarin duck swimming in Italy
Edoardo Mazzucco / Getty Images

The mandarin duck (Aix galericulata) is a species of perching duck native to East Asia, though it can now be found in England, Ireland, and California as captive individuals have escaped and created wild breeding populations. Males are admired for their many bright colors and hot-pink bills. They face a population decline in Asia due to logging and habitat loss, but have managed to avoid human hunters because they taste bad.

Unusual for a duck, it nests in trees, often high above the water. The mother must coax her ducklings to jump from the nest and make their way to the water, at which point the father rejoins the family and helps to care for the babies.

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Hooded Merganser

Hooded merganser lifting its fan-shaped crest
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The hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) gets its name from its extraordinary collapsible crest. Both males and females have them and will raise them in display, but only males have those striking black and white markings. Males will perform a head-bobbing maneuver when trying to impress females during courtship. They also flap their wings and emit frog-like croaks. These small ducks can be found on ponds and in streams. The young require little care and start diving for food within hours of hatching.

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Pink-Eared Duck

Pink-eared duck perched on a rock
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The unusual pink-eared duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus), hailing from Australia, is named for the flash of color on the side of its head, but its most distinguishing feature is actually its square-ended bill that looks disproportionately large for its body. That flat beak has grooves for filter feeding. The bird will submerge its shovel-shaped bill in shallow, warm water and circle around searching for microscopic plants and animals. It scoops up water and filters it through grooves on the side of the beak, retaining tiny invertebrates for consumption.

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Smew Duck

Male smew resting on the shore
DESPITE STRAIGHT LINES (Paul Williams) / Getty Images

The smew duck (Mergellus albellus) is another species of merganser found in Europe and Asia. The males are unmistakable in their snow-white plumage with black accents on the wings and chest. They have black, pandalike eye markings and a streak of black along the tops of their heads. They can be found nesting in the taiga of Europe and Asia, taking advantage of crevices in trees, such as woodpecker holes, to raise their young. Some of these birds visit the Aleutian Islands, in Alaska, every year; most prefer to overwinter freshwater sites in slightly more temperate areas.

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Spectacled Eider

Male Spectacled eider duck on the water
Patrick J. Endres / Getty Images

Another eider species with a distinctive face is the spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri). The pale-green patch of feathers on the back of its head and the vividly orange bill of the males help to exaggerate the spectacle-like eye markings even more. These beautiful birds are found in coastal Alaska and Siberia, nesting on the tundra during summer. Although it's not considered threatened, the species is not very well known or common. The population in western Alaska has declined by 96% since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Surf Scoter

Surf scoter eating a clam
mallardg500 / Getty Images

The surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) is sometimes called a "skunk-headed coot" or "old skunkhead" for its eccentric black-and-white aesthetic. Its markings and build are a bit like the harlequin duck's, also similar to an eider's. It is found in the coastal waters of the North American Pacific and Atlantic during summer, usually floating in large groups and diving for prey.

After nesting in the far north, where the boreal forest meets the tundra, females will fly to southeastern Alaska, Puget Sound in Washington, Quebec, or New Brunswick to molt their flight feathers (during which they aren't able to fly).

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White-Faced Whistling Duck

White-faced whistling duck overlooking a pond with fish
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While many duck species are praised for their bright colors and unique physical characteristics, what sets the white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata) apart is—as its name suggests—its call. These birds make a high-pitched, three-note whistling sound instead of the standard quack, the Los Angeles Zoo says. They can be found in the wetlands of northern South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Madagascar. Sometimes they hang out in trees, which is why they're sometimes called "tree ducks."

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Baikal Teal

Close-up of the patchy green head of a Baikal teal
Mark Newman / Getty Images

From the iridescent patch of green on the back of the male's head to the pheasant-like feathers decorating its shoulders, the Baikal teal (Anas formosa) could be observed by a birder for hours. Also known as the bimaculate duck or squawk duck, this highly social bird stands out from other teal species with its recognizable green-and-yellow facial pattern. The species is native to eastern Asia, and is sometimes (though rarely) spotted in Alaska. They're considered to be one of the most beautiful ducks in the world and their feathers are sometimes traded as ornaments.

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Wood Duck

Colorful wood duck on the water
Tom Applegate / Getty Images

The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is related to the mandarin duck, as you may be able to gather from its array of colors and markings. This is one of the most colorful aquatic bird species in North America. It suffered a serious decline and near extinction in the late 19th century due to hunting and the loss of large trees where it nests. Conservation efforts—including habitat preservation, thousands of nesting boxes, and an end to unregulated hunting—have brought wood ducks back.

Wood ducks are comfortable flying through forests and perching in trees. When swimming, its head jerks back and forth similar to what a pigeon does while walking. These ducks tend to stay in small groups and avoid other types of waterfowl.

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Ruddy Duck

Male ruddy duck in breeding plumage on the water
Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

Found primarily in the Prairie Pothole region of North America, the small and compact ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) is known for its brilliant robin-egg blue bill. This and its inky black cap, stark white cheek patches, and chestnut-colored body feathers are all characteristics of a breeding male. During winter, the ruddy duck's coloring, including its beak (sadly), dulls to gray. This duck is most active at night, spending days asleep with its head tucked under a wing.

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Northern Shoveler

Norther shoveler walking on wet ground
Mike Powles / Getty Images

While the northern shoveler's (Spatula clypeata's) markings may look much like a mallard, you can tell the two apart by the shoveler's elongated, spoon-shaped bill, featuring 110 comblike projections along the edges. These help the duck filter out small crustaceans and other invertebrates from the water. Because its bill is so specialized for sifting through muddy marshes, it doesn't have to compete with other paddling ducks for food during much of the year. The bill almost looks like it's pulling the duck's body down into the water, with its rear half perched higher up.

View Article Sources
  1. Bohling, Mary. "Severe Michigan Winter Could Leave Some Diving Ducks Stranded on Land." Michigan State University Extension. Published February 10, 2014.

  2. "Histrionicus histrionicus: Harlequin Duck." Animal Diversity Web.

  3. "Harlequin Duck Identification," All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  4. "Somateria spectabilis: King Eider." Animal Diversity Web.

  5. "Clangula hyemalis: Long-Tailed Duck." Animal Diversity Web.

  6. "Long-tailed Duck Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  7. "Mandarin Duck: Aix galericulata." IUCN Red List, 2018, e.T22680107A131911544., doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T22680107A131911544.en

  8. "Mandarin Duck." The Wildlife Trusts.

  9. "Hooded Merganser Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  10. "Pink-eared Duck." Birdlife Australia.

  11. "Smew." BirdWeb.

  12. "Spectacled Eider." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.

  13. "White-Faced Whistling Duck." Los Angeles Zoo.

  14. "Baikal teal." Animal Diversity Web.

  15. "Wood Duck." Audubon.

  16. "Wood Duck Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  17. "Ruddy Duck Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  18. "Northern Shoveler." Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  19. "Northern Shoveler Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.