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Top 5 Ducks - The best ducks of North America

Ducks are weird, elegant, awkward, stunning, raucous, sleek, and have corkscrew penises. If that does not catch your attention, I just do not know what will.

A Hooded Merganser swims across calm waters.
The Hooded Merganser is a top 3 duck in our less-than-humble opinion!

The ducks of North America vary from shovel-faced dabblers to harlequin divers. They are found nesting in trees, cliffs, floating vegetation, grasslands, tundra, and almost any habitat you can think of. While the rest of the world also has colorful and interesting waterfowl, they won't be included in this list. Why? Two reasons. You would care about the list far less... AND you would not recognize the ducks. I write these lists to evoke interest and emotion, hoping for readers to challenge my lists in the comments below. Soooo, get to it. Read it and challenge it. Let's cut the duck fat and get commenting.

Duck migration season is right around the corner, so if you are interested in seeing some of these fantastic fowl, visit your local national wildlife refuges, wetlands, and more!


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Learn more about North America's waterfowl!


#5 - Wood Duck

A Wood Duck swims in a national wildlife refuge.
The Wood Duck is typically overrated, but we still think it is a top 5 duck.

The Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) is, to many, the most colorful and intricately marked duck in North America. While it cannot compete against many international species, it definitely is deserving of a top-five duck spot... in any duck ranking. The males and females exhibit sexual dichromatism, meaning the females are less colorful than the males. Their name, Wood Duck, comes from their habitat and nesting choices. They are frequently found in the holes of woodpeckers, and when the chicks hatch, they take a leap from the tops of trees. After surviving these spectacular falls, the ducklings run to the water, where their mother awaits them.

Population status of the Wood Duck

The Wood Duck population is estimated to be between 3 and 6 million individuals. Current estimates list the population of the Wood Duck as stable or increasing.

What I like about the Wood Duck

The Wood Duck is gorgeous. They nest in trees. The Wood Duck is aptly named. Their sounds are haunting and leave you with chills in the swamps of the south. What is not to like? Oh wait...

What I do not like about the Wood Duck

The Wood Duck is too mainstream. It is at the top of too many favorite duck lists. We just cannot elevate a duck that is overly loved.

#4 - Northern Shoveler

The Northern Shoveler has a lovely bill and plumage.
Check out the spatula-shaped bill of this Northern Shoveler! Are you not entertained!?

The Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) is a dabbling duck in the genus Spatula, which includes the true teals (Cinnamon, Blue-winged, and Shoveler). These dabblers all have the telltale spatula-shaped bill, but the Northern Shoveler has the most pronounced shape. The bill is unmistakable from any distance and the blue upper wing combined against the teal speculum makes for an obvious duck. It is a unique dabbling duck, as the Northern Shoveler is the most territorial of North American dabblers, and the shoveler will remain with its mate longer than many species.

Population status of the Northern Shoveler

Population estimates for the Northern Shoveler in North America range between 3 to 4 million individuals. Estimates for the global population range between 4 and 9 million individuals. In some regions, the Northern Shoveler's population is stable, however, in much of its range, its population is declining.

What I like about the Northern Shoveler

The bill of the Northern Shoveler is iconic. It is absolutely the number one reason to love this duck. However, we also love the vibrant orange legs, and the iridescent green head coloration.

What I do not like about the Northern Shoveler

The eclipse plumage of the Northern Shoveler is fairly tame. It is not my favorite.


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#3 - Hooded Merganser

The first diving duck on our list, the Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), has a taste for freshwater lobster, aka the crayfish. It uses its serrated bill and well-adapted underwater eyesight to find, capture, and crush these hardshelled invertebrates. It is the smallest of the mergansers, though, taxonomically it is between goldeneyes and mergansers. It is the only merganser that is restricted to North America, and it is known to parasitize the nests of other cavity nesting waterfowl such as goldeneye, Wood Ducks, and the Common Merganser.

Population status of the Hooded Merganser

Because of its habitat preferences and more reclusive lifestyle, the population of the Hooded Merganser is difficult to estimate. However, some estimates put the population of the Hooded Merganser between 350,000 to 500,000 individuals. Though it may be higher. The population of the Hooded Merganser is stable to increasing.

What I like about the Hooded Merganser

Serrated bill for crustaceans. Contrast of the 'hood.' Golden eye. Chestnut flanks. Tree nesting. Nest parasitism.

What I do not like about the Hooded Merganser

I do not get to see enough of them. Seriously, more Hooded Mergansers are needed.


Take your own duck photos with the Sony RX10 IV!


#2 - Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks in a tree
The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck can be found in marshes or trees! It is frequently seen in large flocks.

The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis) is a Neotropical species found only in southern most regions of North America and throughout Latin America. It is a wandering species, frequently seen in states far north of the Gulf of Mexico, which is its typical range. In fact, its range is extending northward, so visits to northern states and provinces will become more commonplace.

Population status of the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck has a global population of 1 to 2.5 million individuals. However, less than 10% of that population occurs in the United States. In North America (US, CA, MX), the population is likely 100,000 to 500,000 individuals. Its population is stable to increasing.

What I like about the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

The name alone is worthy of this number two position. However, the color palette, nesting style, nest parasitism, and their tiny squeaks and non-quack whistles make them far more adorable than your typical Mallard.

What I do not like about the Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

Its range in North America is too limited. Dangit, if it gets to live only on the Gulf of Mexico, why don't I? I need more beach time. Some beach. Somewhere.


Carrying a scope while watching ducks is a must. Distant waterfowl can prove to be difficult identification.

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#1 - Harlequin Duck

The Harlequin Duck sits on a log in some rapids.
Squeak, squeak goes the Sea Mouse aka the Harlequin Duck!

The Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) is not a regular pond visitor for most of us in North America. However, if you have the opportunity to find one, take it. This duck is colorful, comical, adorable, tough, and squeaky. It is one of the few ducks able to live, forage, and withstand the turbulent rapids in a variety of raging rivers. They feed primarily on larval insects and other aquatic invertebrates. Oh yeah, back to the squeakiness; that sound is where they earned the name "Sea Mouse." While the sound might lead one to think this duck is a weakling, a large percentage of Harlequin Ducks have been found to survive and thrive with multiple bone fractures from living a life in rapids. Boom. Impressive. Wait, no. SQUEAK. Impressive.

Population status of the Harlequin Duck

Not enough. The world needs more Harlequin Duck. In North America, the population of the Harlequin Duck is between 150,000 to 200,000 individuals. Its population is stable to decreasing.

What I like about the Harlequin Duck

  1. Sea Mouse

  2. Tough as nails

  3. Strong swimmer

  4. Orange mohawk

  5. Survives aquatic hellscapes

What I do not like about the Harlequin Duck

  1. It's not at the top of your list.

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Honorable Mention Ducks

While these ducks did not make our top five list, we felt they deserved to be mentioned by name:

  1. Ruddy Duck

  2. Steller's Eider

  3. Northern Pintail

  4. King Eider

  5. Long-tailed Duck

  6. Canvasback

  7. Black Scoter


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