To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #9. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying this bird.
As I mentioned in the quiz, the photo was taken in Colorado in September. More specifically, we were in Pueblo, enjoying the birds at the duck pond near the zoo. That’s an excellent spot for photography, as the birds are very tame.
Hopefully, you can recognize this bird as a duck. While there are some other birds that might confuse a new birder—grebes, coots, and the like—most people can pick out a duck, even if it isn’t a mallard. In fact, as a beginning birder, I started with ducks. They tend to be easy to identify—in most cases, each species is pretty distinctive—and they don’t hide in the treetops.
However, this duck doesn’t look exactly like any of the pictures in most small field guides. Why is that?
Your clue is the time of year. In September, ducks are molting from their breeding finery into their “eclipse” plumage. Additionally, this year’s crop of youngsters are losing their baby feathers and starting to look like adults. While the ducks know what’s going on, it can be rather confusing for us birders.
Some larger books have illustrations of ducks in their various stages, but let’s say you aren’t lugging one of those with you. What hints can you gather from my photo?
Well, for one, the eye is bright red. While eye color can change with age and the seasons, in this case it’s a very important clue. Which ducks have obviously red eyes? Flipping through my Sibley’s, I pick out several: male Wood Ducks, Garganey (a very rare visitor from Eurasia), Cinnamon Teals, Ring-necked Ducks, Canvasbacks, and Red-breasted Mergansers. Of these, the Wood Duck’s eye most closely resembles the duck in the photo.
Now I look more closely at the Wood Duck illustrations. The juveniles have a white eyebrow over their eye, and so does this bird. The males have some blue feathers on their back, right where this bird does. And I notice the bicycle helmet-shaped feathers on the back of the head, just beginning to grow. I conclude that we’re looking at a young male Wood Duck.
If you were with me at the pond, you would have had a lot more information to go on. You would have seen that this was not a diver, and therefore not a Ring-Necked Duck or Canvasback. You’d have had a much better idea of the relative size of the bird. Perhaps most useful, you’d have noticed that the pond was full of Wood Ducks in all stages of molt. Our bird was far from unique.
I was quite hesitant to try identifying any duck that didn’t look like an adult male, but it turned out to be pretty straightforward. Again, ducks make an excellent “beginner’s bird” when it comes to juvenile plumage and season changes. The ones at the duck pond we visited were so tame, they almost assaulted me in their demand for bread crumbs. Feeding ducks is a bad idea, leading to overcrowding, polluted water, and disease. I have to admit, however, that going to places where ducks are fed allows for some easy close-up photos.