BY: Saartjie Kidson

Included in the Order Anseriformes are the ducks, whistling ducks and geese. There are two families that are indigenous to southern Africa and the majority of ducks fall in the family Anatidae, but the whistling ducks are in a separate family, the Dendrocygnidae.


Family Anatidae – dabbling ducks, diving ducks, shelducks, teals and geese

Yellow-billed Duck, African Black Duck, Cape Shoveler, Mallard, Cape Teal, Hottentot Teal, Red-billed Teal, South African Shelduck, Comb Duck, Egyptian Goose, Spur-winged Goose, African Pygmy Goose.


Family Dendrocygnidae

Fulvous Duck, White-faced Duck and White-backed Duck – called whistling ducks.


Ducks and geese are extremely common water birds, and are found almost everywhere in southern Africa. They live in wetlands of all types, as well as rivers, streams and estuaries. The large, webbed feet are designed primarily for paddling. Geese and dabbling ducks often feed on land and are well adapted for walking as their legs are not positioned as far back as those of diving ducks. Diving ducks’ legs are set far back, which gives them their characteristic waddle when they walk and they also rarely leave the water. They have highly waterproofed feathers. Their downy under layer of feathers will stay completely dry even when completely submerged. A special gland, called the ‘Preen Gland’, situated near the duck’s tail produces a waxy coating which is spread on each feather during preening to waterproof the outer feathers. Ducks have an eclipse plumage; most of their body feathers are shed twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. During that time period, they are completely flightless and more vulnerable to predators. They will mostly keep to deeper waters and dense swamps (Hockey et al. 2005) where they undergo a post-breeding wing feather moult. Many species also have a colourful metallic speculum in the wing and their flight is a series of stiff, rapid wing beats. They rarely glide except when coming in to land.


Dabbling ducks

They are the mallard-like teals and shovelers and they belong to the genus Anas as do the teals. Found mainly on fresh water bodies, shallow marshes, rivers and creeks, spending much of their time feeding and resting on small, shallow wetlands. They rarely dive for food and they do not totally submerge when feeding. They are often seen up-ended with just their rears showing as they head-dip for food or do surface feeding. Their beaks are broad and short. It has rows of fine notches along the edge called ‘lamellae’. The lamellae enable the duck to grip its food tightly and allow water to be filtered out of its beak while retaining the food inside. Dabbling ducks eat fish, molluscs, aquatic plants, seeds, grasses; also small insects and animals found on the water or beneath the water surface, where they are vulnerable to a variety of predators. Thus dabblers have long, broad wings that enable them to take off quickly and to manoeuvre gracefully around trees and other obstacles. They mostly breed on dry ground or in thick grass close to water, or on a dry, raised place above the water. 

Diving ducks

Diving ducks are gregarious and are mainly found on fresh water, large, deep lakes and rivers, coastal bays and inlets. They feed almost exclusively on aquatic plant seed, small fish, molluscs, grasses and other small insects and animals by diving beneath the surface of the water. Their beaks are long and narrow and have saw-like edges enabling them to grab slippery food. They are heavier than dabbling ducks and because their wings are smaller in proportion to the size and weight of their bodies, they have to beat their broad, blunt-tipped wings faster than many other ducks. It is more difficult for them to take off and therefore need a running start on the water to get airborne, but they are strong fliers.


The White-backed Duck is considered a diving duck together with the Southern Pochard and the Maccoa Ducks. They are known as the stiff-tailed ducks. Whilst swimming the tails are carried low, turned down towards the water and their wing speculums lack the brilliance of most other dabblers. Although our own Southern Pochard belonging to the genus Netta is supposed to be a diving duck, it is not always behaving as such. Unlike other diving ducks, the Netta species are reluctant to dive, and feed more like dabbling ducks on or directly beneath the water surface and may also be seen filtering mud on the shoreline. The Maccoa duck has a distinctive stiff tail that is either kept flat on the water surface or cocked upright. The body is kept low in the water when it is alarmed or when displaying during courtship. It is the only stiff-tailed duck species in the region. The Maccoa and White-backed Ducks build their nests over deep water and the nest of the Southern Pochard is built over shallow water in flooded grass.


The South African Shelduck belongs to the genus Tadorninae, a group of larger often semi-terrestrial waterfowl which can be seen as somewhat intermediate between geese and dabbling ducks. They breed away from water, sometimes in an antbear hole.


The African Pygmy Goose is not a goose but Africa’s smallest duck and although a dabbling duck will also dive for food. They belong to a group of very small ‘perching ducks’ in the genus Nettapus and usually nest in tree cavities.


Another fairly large perching duck species is the Knob-billed Duck. They sometimes perch in trees, clinging with their strong claws to vertical tree trunks and also nest in tree cavities about 6–9 meters above the ground. Through DNA analysis it is suggested that it is a basal member of the Anatidae family in the genus Sarkidiornis and that it does not have any close relatives.


Other species in the Order Anseriformes include the larger geese family, the Egyptian Goose from the genus Alopochen and the Spur-winged Goose from the genus Plectropterus. The Egyptian Goose and Spur-winged Goose are found on wetlands, in cultivated lands and in urban areas. They are almost exclusively herbivorous, feeding mainly on plant matter, grass, seeds and aquatic plants in and around water bodies. Both are also considered as perching birds and may breed in holes, tree hollows or in thick cover on the ground.


Ducks are unique and delightful birds, though they can be easily overlooked by both novice and experienced birders. Ducks are uniquely specialised for different types of habitats, climates and diets and it can therefore be quite tricky to identify ducks in their natural habitat. While male ducks can easily be identified by sight alone, hens with their dull-brown feathers can be more challenging. With practice, it is possible to identify them confidently by looking at the differences in size, shape, plumage and colour patterns, wing beat, habitat, flock behaviour, aerial manoeuvres, and their calls. Listening to and learning the extent of their vocabularies which can include quacks, whistles, honks, hisses, grunts, squeaks growls, hoots, purrs, coo’s or chatters could also be of great help. Another clue can be the sound their wings make in flight. Studying these different duck identification tips can help you to easily and correctly identify every duck you see.


Saartjie Kidson


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