Anatidae -1 Ducks.

This is the first of three articles looking at the species and the characteristics of the bird family Anatidae . Anatidae comprises of Ducks, Geese and Swans and is part of the Order of birds known as Anseriformes of which there are 146 species and 40 genera. The general characteristics of the Anatidae are -----

The bill is broad and flattened, covered for the greater part with what may be considered as a sentient skin, but often with a hard nail at the tip of the upper mandible. The edges of the bill are fringed with small transverse laminae, which however, vary with habits.

The wings are of moderate length. The tail is generally short. The body large and fat. The legs rather far back on the body and wide apart from each other. The plumage is generally close and very waterproof, and on the underside often mixed with down.  The characteristics vary with the genera, and even in the species but still there is a family likeness in them all. 

Anas clypeata belong to the family Anatidae.

The family Anatidae is one of the most important family of birds, both in natural history and from an economical point of view. as far as natural history is concerned it constitutes that part of the succession between birds chiefly of the air, and, birds chiefly in the water, which extends from the Gallinaceous and wading birds one the one hand, to the true divers, which seek food wholly under water, and chiefly in the sea on the other.

The family Anatidae is probably divided in to three genera Cygnus { swans}, Anser { geese} and Anas { ducks}. In this article we review the latter genus of Anas -Ducks.

The ducks are the smallest birds of this family and at the same time have the brightest and often the most colourful plumage. ducks are familiar to most people and are impossible to confuse with geese or swans. All ducks can perform the three most important motions, they can fly, swim and dive upon emergency and some of them well. They can all walk, but not very elegantly or with any speed. All of them are capable of long flight and swim along the water to undertake their shorter journeys.

The natural graduation in the species that visit Britain is from Shelduck to the Goldeneye. The Shelduck has in form the carriage of  its body a considerable resemblance to some of the wading birds that frequent the shores, to the Oyster catcher** in particular, and where it not for the shape of its bill, the length of the neck and the webs to the toes, it might be mistaken for a shore bird, which finds its food on the beach, mud-banks and does not swim.


And so its habits differ, it does not go out to sea, or to inland lakes, nor does it venture into mid water or even narrow streams which flow to the sea. the Shelduck lives mostly on banks, just by the margins of water, and seldom if ever, dabbles so deeply as to bring the body to the horizontal position.

Conversely in many respects the Goldeneye is the very opposite. Its legs are short, placed far back, and so wide apart from each other that it walks with great awkwardness and difficulty, but it swims very bouyant upon the water, and swims along with great velocity and apparently very little exertion. 

Its wings and tail are short,and  not easily ruffled. The plumage is close and waterproof even if the bird paddles in a reverse motion. It tends to be very little on land not often seen on freshwaters and seldom if ever encountered on smaller streams.


Two main sections

In the past ducks were divided into two main sections. They were divided into these sections by using criteria such as the distinction of feet. The first section the feet are nearly as much a walking foot as a swimming paddle. In the second section the feet is much more a swimming paddle than a walking foot.

The feet and legs of the first section are longer and rounder than the others and the front toes are less produced in proportion to the size of the birds. The necks are not so compact and they have the hind toe free or without any web connecting it to the rest, although there are some species in which the sections approach each other the hind toe has a slight margin.

The legs of the birds in the first section are placed so far forward that the body can, when the neck is a little bent, to be carried in a nearly horizontal position.The neck too, is larger in proportion to the size of the bird. The wings are also larger in proportion than the birds of the second section, reaching generally to the end of the tail.

Other noted differences in their structure, breastbone, ribs, trachea and internally the stomach and gizzard etc. Their habits was said to correspond with these peculiarities and structure  both external and internal. These birds frequent the fresh waters only, or chiefly, and do not launch themselves on broad lakes, but keep near the shores and shallow, very seldom feeding with their whole body beneath the water.

Their digestive system allows them to feed upon vegetable matter as well as small creatures.

The leading birds in this first section are Sheldrake, Muscovy, Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveller, Pintail, Widgeon, Garganey and Teal. 

The intermediate species which partake more or less the characters of both sections, includes the Eider,and the  Velvet and Common Scoter , these are for the most part sea ducks.

Eider ducks belonged to the intermediate group. Below is the female.

Photograph courtesy of A.Boyd

Second Section

 The external characters that inspired the criteria for the birds placed in the second section of ducks included--

The neck short not adapted for dabbling in the same depth of water as that of the other section. The wings are also shorter only reaching to the root of the tail, while those of the first section reach nearly altogether to the tip. the tail is also close and stiff.

The legs are much shorter and more slender in proportion. They are set far back and wide of each other. They feed much less on vegetable matter and more upon fish, which they catch by diving, but they also feed upon mollusc and other small aquatic animals.

They are much more adventurous and they can contend better with the more turbulent waters. They swim perfectly and dive readily and may remain under water for long periods where they can swim with speed and agility, resurfacing a great distance from where they entered the water. most of them are compact and their plumage  glossed and in may cases colourful. The leading species in this section are ---Pochard, Ferringus duck, Scaup, Tufted duck, Long tailed duck and the Goldeneye.

Tufted duck male

Courtesy of Laitche.  CC BY-SA 4.0 License.

Reuse of images.

The images on this page may be reused. However, the name of the relevant author must be attributed along with any accompanying license.