True Ducks

Seven tribes, two of which only have one member (they are monophyletic), are included in the subfamily Anatinae — the true ducks. Although it can seem confusing that something once routinely called a goose is actually a duck, their genetic heritage has only been revealed relatively recently. Some commonly-used terms fall naturally together — they are polyphyletic. Scroll down to see the tribes.

Sea Ducks and allies

Sea ducks, the Mergini, are well adapted to marine life but the majority do nest inland. This tribe includes birds such as eiders, goldeneyes and mergansers. These ducks do need more protein than most. There are several specialised diets available. Diversity of foodstuffs provides an element of choice and can be enriching. Some birds may need different protein levels at different times of the year or when they move home. Eiders in particular are almost exclusively carnivorous.

Steller’s Eider

Spectacled Eider

King Eider

Common Eider

Harlequin Duck

Surf Scoter

Velvet Scoter

White-winged Scoter

Stejneger’s Scoter

Common Scoter

Black Scoter

Long-tailed Duck


Common Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye


Hooded Merganser

Brazilian Merganser

Common Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Scaly-sided Merganser

Shelducks and Sheldgeese

Shelducks and sheldgeese, the tribe Tadornini, inhabit every continent except North America and Antartica but are mainly found in the southern hemisphere. They are not best suited to a starter’s wildfowl collection due to their territorial nature and temperament.

Shelducks are more aquatic than sheldgeese, eating vegetation and invertebrates, such as small molluscs. They form strong pair bonds and are highly territorial. Both male and female are quarrelsome. Common Shelduck can be introduced to a mixed collection but most of the other species tend to be aggressive, especially during the breeding season.

Sheldgeese are essentially vegetarian whereas shelducks are more omnivorous. They spend considerable time ashore and some species regularly perch in trees. Sheldgeese form strong pair bonds, possibly for life. Many breeders are put off keeping them as both male and female are inclined to fight. They may kill other waterfowl, and as a result, you should anticipate housing sheldgeese as separate pairs.

Egyptian Goose

Orinoco Goose

Andean Goose

Upland Goose

Kelp Goose

Ashy-headed Goose

Ruddy-headed Goose

Raja Shelduck

Common Shelduck

Ruddy Shelduck

South African Shelduck

Australian Shelduck

Paradise Shelduck

Crested Shelduck

Perching Ducks and allies

The Cairinini or perching ducks are a varied tribe, including the popular Mandarin Duck and Wood Duck (/Carolina) through to the less common Brazilian Teal and Maned Duck (Maned Goose/Australian Wood Duck). Perching ducks tend to be more arboreal than other waterfowl.

The closely-related Mandarin and Wood Ducks are two of the most commonly kept ornamental waterfowl. 

Spur-winged Goose

Muscovy Duck

Comb Duck

Knob-billed Duck

African Pygmy Goose

Cotton Pygmy Goose

Green Pygmy Goose

Ringed Teal

Wood Duck

Mandarin Duck

Maned Duck

Blue Duck

Torrent Duck

Diving Ducks and allies

Diving ducks belong to the tribe Aythyini. With their legs set further back on their body, closer to the tail than most other ducks, they are ideally formed to be efficient divers but less well adapted for land.

Like most of the sea ducks and stifftails, diving ducks and feed at the bottom of water bodies, often many feet below the surface. A pond should be at least 1 metre (3′) deep to accommodate them. It is also important that it has sloped sides or ramps to enable easy access and egress. Since some diving ducks do not like to leave the water, it is necessary to place food dishes at the water’s edge or feed in the water itself.

Pochards and scaup are a group of 15 diving duck species. They are omnivorous, therefore wheat and pellets are suitable to supplement their diet. European Pochard and Tufted Duck are a good choice of starter species as they are both hardy, with a good lifespan and will breed well given the right conditions.

Hartlaub’s Duck

Blue-winged Goose

Marbled Duck

White-winged Duck

Red-crested Pochard

Rosy-billed Pochard

Southern Pochard



Common Pochard


Madagascan Pochard

Baer’s Pochard

Ferruginous Duck

New Zealand Scaup

Ring-necked Duck

Tufted Duck

Greater Scaup

Lesser Scaup

Pink-headed Duck

Dabbling Ducks and allies

The tribe Anatini includes several species of dabbling duck which are amongst the most commonly known waterfowl. Popular starter species include Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Common Shoveler and European Wigeon which all have distinctive male and female plumage, making it easy to be certain you have true pairs.

Dabbling ducks are happy with shallower and more restricted bodies of water than diving ducks. In the wild they are gregarious and happy to live in large mixed concentrations, which makes them particularly well suited to wildfowl collections.

Dabbling ducks search for their food, sifting through surface water, up-ending in the shallow reaches and often dabbling in the mud. Their diet can be supplemented with wheat and maintenance pellets, with breeder pellets are recommended in the breeding season. Grass must be plentiful for grazers such as wigeon. The availability of clean water is essential and it is a good idea to edge the pond with wood to avoid erosion of the edge by their persistent dabbling.

In migratory northern birds, pair bonds are short and seasonal but some southern dabbling ducks form stronger bonds. Generally, dabbling ducks nest on the ground.

Flying Steamerduck

Fuegian Steamerduck

Falkland Steamerduck

Chubut Steamerduck

Salvadori’s Teal

Brazilian Teal

Crested Duck

Bronze-winged Duck

Baikal Teal


Blue-billed Teal

Puna Teal

Silver Teal

Red Shoveler

Cinnamon Teal

Blue-winged Teal

Cape Shoveler

Australasian Shoveler

Northern Shoveler


Falcated Duck

Eurasian Wigeon

Chiloé Wigeon

American Wigeon

African Black Duck

Yellow-billed Duck

Meller’s Duck

Pacific Black Duck

Laysan Duck

Hawaiian Duck

Philippine Duck

Indian Spot-billed Duck

Eastern Spot-billed Duck


Mottled Duck

American Black Duck

Mexican Duck

Cape Teal

White-cheeked Pintail

Red-billed Teal

Yellow-billed Pintail

Eaton’s Pintail

Northern Pintail

Eurasian Teal

Green-winged Teal

Yellow-billed Teal

Andean Teal

Sunda Teal

Andaman Teal

Grey Teal

Chestnut Teal

Bernier’s Teal

Brown Teal

Auckland Teal

Campbell Teal


Mergini (Sea Ducks & allies)

  • Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
  • Spectacled Eider Somateria fischeri
  • King Eider Somateria spectabilis
  • Common Eider Somateria mollissima
    • Pacific S. m. v-nigrum
    • Northern S. m. borealis
    • Hudson Bay S. m. sedentaria
    • Dresser’s S. m. dresseri
    • Faeroes S. m. faeroeensis
    • European S. m. mollissima
  • Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
  • Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata
  • Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca
  • White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi
  • Stejneger’s Scoter Melanitta stejnegeri
  • Common Scoter Melanitta nigra
  • Black Scoter Melanitta americana
  • Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis
  • Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
  • Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
    • European B. c. clangula
    • American B. c. americana
  • Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica
  • Smew Mergellus albellus
  • Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
  • Brazilian Merganser Mergus octosetaceus
  • Common Merganser Mergus merganser
    • Eurasian M. m. merganser
    • Asiatic M. m. orientalis
    • American M. m. americanus
  • Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
  • Scaly-sided Merganser Mergus squamatus

Tadornini (Shelducks and Sheldgeese)

  • Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca
  • Orinoco Goose Neochen jubata
  • Andean Goose Chloephaga melanoptera
  • Upland Goose Chloephaga picta
    • Lesser Magellan C. p. picta
    • Greater Magellan C. p. leucoptera
  • Kelp Goose Chloephaga hybrida
    • Lesser C. h. hybrida
    • Greater C. h. malvinarum
  • Ashy-headed Goose Chloephaga poliocephala
  • Ruddy-headed Goose Chloephaga rubidiceps
  • Raja Shelduck Radjah radjah
    • Black-backed R. r. radjah
    • Red-backed R. r. rufitergum
  • Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
  • Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
  • South African Shelduck Tadorna cana
  • Australian Shelduck Tadorna tadornoides
  • Paradise Shelduck Tadorna variegata
  • Crested Shelduck Tadorna cristata (possibly extinct)

Cairinini (Perching Ducks & allies)

  • Spur-winged Goose Plectropterus gambensis
    • Gambian P. g. gambensis
    • Black P. g. niger
  • Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata
  • Comb Duck Sarkidiornis sylvicola
  • Knob-billed Duck Sarkidiornis melanotos
  • African Pygmy Goose Nettapus auritus
  • Cotton Pygmy Goose Nettapus coromandelianus
    • Indian N. c. coromandelianus
    • Australian N. c. albipennis
  • Green Pygmy Goose Nettapus pulchellus
  • Ringed Teal Callonetta leucophrys
  • Wood Duck Aix sponsa
  • Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata
  • Maned Duck Chenonetta jubata

Blue Duck Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos

Torrent Duck Merganetta armata

    • Columbian M. a. colombiana
    • Peruvian M. a. leucogenis
    • Turner’s M. a. turneri
    • Garlepp’s M. a. garleppi
    • Berlepsch’s M. a. berlepschi
    • Chilean M. a. armata

Aythiyini (Diving Ducks & allies)

  • Hartlaub’s Duck Pteronetta hartlaubii
  • Blue-winged Goose Cyanochen cyanoptera
  • Marbled Duck Marmaronetta angustirostris
  • White-winged Duck Asarcornis scutulata
  • Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina
  • Rosy-billed Pochard Netta peposaca
  • Southern Pochard Netta erythrophthalma
    • African N. e. brunnea
    • South American N. e. erythrophthalma
  • Canvasback Aythya valisineria
  • Redhead Aythya americana
  • Common Pochard Aythya ferina
  • Hardhead Aythya australis
  • Madagascan Pochard Aythya innotata
  • Baer’s Pochard Aythya baeri
  • Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
  • New Zealand Scaup Aythya novaeseelandiae
  • Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
  • Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
  • Greater Scaup Aythya marila
    • European A. m. marila
    • Pacific A. m. nearctica
  • Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis

Pink-headed Duck – now believed extinct

  • Rhodonessa caryophyllacea

Anatini (Dabbling Ducks & allies)

  • Flying Steamerduck Tachyeres patachonicus
  • Feugian Steamerduck Tachyeres pteneres
  • Falkland Steamerduck Tachyeres brachypterus
  • Chubut Steamerduck Tachyeres leucocephalus
  • Salvadori’s Teal Salvadorina waigiuensis
  • Brazilian Teal Amazonetta brasiliensis
    • Lesser A. b. brasiliensis
    • Greater A. b. ipecutiri
  • Crested Duck Lophonetta specularioides
    • Andean L. s. alticola
    • Patagonian L. s. specularioides
  • Bronze-winged Duck Speculanas specularis
  • Baikal Teal Sibirionetta formosa
  • Garganey Spatula querquedula
  • Blue-billed Teal Spatula hottentota
  • Puna Teal Spatula puna
  • Silver Teal Spatula versicolor
    • Northern S. v. versicolor
    • Southern S. v. fretensis
  • Red Shoveler Spatula platalea
  • Cinnamon Teal Spatula cyanoptera
    • Northern S. c. septentrionalium
    • Tropical S. c. tropica
    • Borrero’s S. c. borreroi
    • Andean S. c. orinoma
    • Argentine S. c. cyanoptera
  • Blue-winged Teal Spatula discors
  • Cape Shoveler Spatula smithii
  • Australisian Shoveler Spatula rhynchotis
  • Northern Shoveler Spatula clypeata
  • Gadwall Mareca strepera
    • M. s. strepera
    • Coue’s M. s. couesi
  • Falcated Duck Mareca falcata
  • Eurasian Wigeon Mareca penelope
  • Chiloe Wigeon Mareca sibilatrix
  • American Wigeon Mareca americana
  • African Black Duck Anas sparsa
    • West African A. s. leucostigma
    • South African A. s. sparsa
  • Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata
    • Abyssinian A. u. ruppelli
    • African A. u. undulata
  • Meller’s Duck Anas melleri
  • Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosa
    • Australasian A. s. superciliosa
    • Pelew Island A. s. pelewensis
  • Laysan Duck Anas laysanensis
  • Hawaiian Duck Anas wyvilliana
  • Philippine Duck Anas luzonica
  • Western Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha
    • Indian A. p. poecilorhyncha
    • Burma A. p. haringtoni
  • Eastern Spot-billed Duck Anas zonorhyncha
  • Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
    • Common A. p. platyrhynchos
    • Greenland A. p. conboschas
  • Mottled Duck Anas fulvigula
    • A. f. fulvigula
    • A. f. maculosa
  • American Black Duck Anas rubripes
  • Mexican Duck A. diazi
  • Cape Teal Anas capensis
  • White-cheeked Pintail Anas bahamensis
    • Lesser A. b. bahamensis
    • Greater A. b. rubrirostris
    • Galapagos A. b. galapagensis
  • Red-billed Teal Anas erythrorhyncha
  • Yellow-billed Pintail Anas georgica
    • Chilean A. g. spinicauda
    • South Georgian A. g. georgica
  • Eaton’s Pintail Anas eatoni
    • Crozet A. e. drygalskii
    • Kerguelen A. e. eatoni
  • Northern Pintail Anas acuta
  • Eurasian Teal Anas crecca
  • Green-winged Teal Anas carolinensis
  • Yellow-billed Teal Anas flavirostris
    • Sharp-winged A. f. oxyptera
    • Chilean A. f. flavirostris
  • Andean Teal Anas andium
    • Merida A. a. altipetens
    • Speckled A. a. andium
  • Sunda Teal Anas gibberifrons
  • Andaman Teal Anas albogularis
  • Grey Teal Anas gracilis
  • Chestnut Teal Anas castanea
  • Bernier’s Teal Anas bernier
  • Brown Teal Anas chlorotis
  • Auckland Teal Anas aucklandica
  • Campbell Teal Anas nesiotis

Waterfowl FAQ

In biology, taxonomy is the science of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the founder of the current system of taxonomy, as he developed a system known as Linnaean taxonomy for categorizing organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms. With the advent of such fields of study as phylogenetics, cladistics, and systematics, the Linnaean system has progressed to a system of modern biological classification based on the evolutionary relationships between organisms, both living and extinct. All life which has ever existed on Earth is a gradient of relatedness, and taxonomy allows us to make a phylogenetic tree showing the evolutionary relationships among various biological species or other entities, based upon similarities and differences in their physical or genetic characteristics. Think of it as a huge family tree!

Breeds and species are two groups of living things that can breed with the members of the same group. Breed is mostly used to describe groups of domestic animals while all non-hybrid life forms belong to a species. The main difference between a breed and a species is that a breed is a specific population that is selectively bred for the preservation of specific characteristics whereas a species is the largest group that can routinely produce fertile offspring through breeding. Therefore, a breed is a smaller group of animals than species. Think of a breed as a domesticated version of a subspecies, which has been subjected to artificial, as opposed to natural, selection. All domestic waterfowl are descended from a select few species: the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) for all duck breeds except the domestic Muscovy Duck, which is descended from the wild species (Cairina moschata) of the same name, and the Greylag (Anser anser) and Swan Geese (Anser cygnoides) for domestic geese. For a breed to be standardised it has to have proven to breed predictably for several generations.

A true-breeding organism, sometimes also called a purebred, is an organism that always passes down certain phenotypic (i.e. physically expressed) traits to its offspring of many generations. An organism is referred to as true breeding for each trait to which this applies, and the term ‘true-breeding’ is also used to describe individual genetic traits.

In Mendelian genetics, this means that an organism must be homozygous for every trait for which it is considered true breeding; that is, the pairs of alleles that express a given trait are the same. In a purebred strain or breed, the goal is that the organism will ‘breed true’ for the breed-relevant traits.

The answer has to be that if you breed waterfowl with a view to obtaining birds of a particular type, then, like it or not, you are applying genetics. You are accepting that your birds are able to pass on features (in the form of genes) to their offspring, and that, by breeding only from those birds with the characteristics you want, you will ‘improve’ the next generation. By getting your head round some of the basic principles, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by realising what is or is not possible. If you are purchasing birds, you should be confident that the breeder has applied basic principles so that the birds you are buying are as you expect.
All domestic animals have been developed from wild ancestors by human intervention. Our domestic ducks, with the exception of Muscovies, are descended from the wild Mallard. The differences we see now have come about by mutations – random, rare changes in genes from those producing mallard characteristics, which humans have seized upon to breed selectively. In the wild, odd genes would disappear into the mass or the birds carrying them would be easy prey to predators, but in captivity they have been artificially selected for, and not only maintained, but combined in new ways, resulting in the wide range we see today.

So how does it work? Each living thing (including ducks) has a number of pairs of chromosomes in each cell of its body, carrying thousands of genes — one set from its father and one set from its mother. Since any duck receives one gene for a particular character from each parent it must have two genes for any character. Different versions of a gene are called alleles. Taking the simplest possible scenario, if these two alleles are the same, (called homozygous) there is no problem, the alleles will decide the feature and will show in that organism. If they are not the same (heterozygous), there are two possibilities. Often, one allele (the dominant one) will show itself (be expressed) and the other (recessive) will be hidden.

For example, the black colour seen in Cayugas, Black East Indians and others is caused by an allele that is dominant over the normal wild-type colour. If we use the letter E to represent the black, and e to represent the recessive wild colour, we can see that a black duck could be either EE or Ee, but a wild colour bird could only be ee. When these birds go on to breed, the homozygous black (EE) can only pass on E alleles, the wild type can only pass on one e allele, but the heterozygous can pass on E or e alleles. Thus, it would be quite possible that two black ducks could produce wild-type offspring (unless you could be sure they were EE) but virtually impossible for two wild-type birds to produce black offspring.

In other situations, one allele is not dominant over the other, so that if the alleles are different (heterozygous), the result is a form like neither parent but somewhere between, or different from either. This is called co-dominance. An example of this is blue colour, as in the Blue Swedish, where the blue results from two alleles being different, the homozygous situations giving Black and Splashed White. Only 50% of offspring from two Blue Swedish will be like their parents. The only way to get 100% Blue is to cross a Black with a Splashed White! Thus, it will never be possible to breed pure Blue Swedish, and it actually raises the question about whether this can be considered a true breed at all. A get-out here is that the inheritance in blue birds is at least predictable!

The single gene situation is not the norm — many characteristics are the result of a number of genes acting together, often one gene modifying the effect of another (such as dilution genes), so that it is often far harder to see the underlying principles at work. In addition, since there are colour differences between male and female ducks, there is the added complication of sex Iinkage.

Only 22 mutations in domestic ducks have been described so far — there is obviously much more work to do. Mike Ashton has given much more detail of the mechanisms of inheritance of some of these genes, in his articles in Waterfowl and in his and Chris’s book, The Domestic Duck. I am not proposing to repeat his work here, but to urge duck breeders to think about the mechanisms underlying their breeding programmes, to try applying some basic principles and to share information with others to add to the body of knowledge available. It would be especially useful to keep track of the numbers of different forms obtained from particular pairings.

There are two possible issues arising from a lack of regard or understanding of the underlying principles. Sometimes all colours of Calls, for example, are run together. Offspring are chosen which happen to correspond to show standard criteria for a particular colour for exhibition and sale and a great disservice is being done to that colour. In all probability the birds will have a number of recessive alleles which are not expressed but will show up in successive generations. In other words, despite appearances, they are cross-bred and will not breed true.

Another issue is from random crossing, where a colour of duck appears which is novel and which the breeder likes. It is easy to assume to assume that, by successive breeding and selection, eventually a pure-breeding line can be produced. In all probability, the ‘new’ colour only exists when a gene or probably genes, are heterozygous, in other words ‘split’, and a pure-breeding form will never be possible. 

So, if you’ve never thought about the mechanism of inheritance in this way, give it a go. It can make sense of what you see happening and certainly adds interest to the breeding side of the hobby.

Geoff Chase

Waterfowl showing is fairly easy – a bird in good condition, is pretty much in show condition. Cleaning beaks, legs and feet is desirable just before penning. It is much better to provide the opportunity for birds to clean themselves and stay clean rather than try to clean their feathers yourself. Shows are a great place to see the diverse varieties, compare the quality of your bird(s) and gain customers for your stock. All standardised varieties of waterfowl can be exhibited and if your bird’s attributes, breeding and conformation fit a breed standard, you may be taking some trophies home! Ensure your bird is a true representative of a standardised variety — unfortunately just because it was sold to you as a particular one, doesn’t necessarily mean it is, so prior research will pay dividends. The standards for each breed is published in the British Waterfowl Standards. You could attend local shows first, though novices are welcome at our Champion Waterfowl Exhibition too. Speak to exhibitors — no question is a silly question, we have all been new once so go ahead and ask away! Just remember not to disturb or distract judges while they are judging.

In the UK we face few restrictions as to which species of waterfowl we can keep. Only the (North American) Ruddy Duck is prohibited. This is to protect the endangered White-headed Duck.

As long as you keep them contained, that means not released or allowed to escape, you may keep all the other Anseriformes. All may be traded freely as long as they are individulally proven as captive bred. This means close ringed or microchipped for identification. Our native and ordinarily resident birds listed in Appendix 2 of the General Licence may be moved without a ring. Mute Swan and Egyptian Goose require an individual licence to be moved.

Our responsibility to these birds is to keep them in conditions sympathetic to a contented mental state. They should be adequately fed and watered, kept in comfortable conditions with relation to their size and normal habits, and sheltered from weather extremes. We should protect them from pain, injury and disease and allow them the freedom to express normal behaviour. We should do all in our power to protect them from fear and distress.

Essentially, these are summed up in the five freedoms of animal welfare. Expanded; four physical or functional domains of nutrition, environment, heath and behaviour surround and influence the mental state. The Five Domains are key to the highest standards of welfare.

As the British Waterfowl Association we believe that the highest standard of welfare should remain one of our core values.

Read the paper about Fundamental Welfare Requirements here.

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