What is the Difference Between Ducks, Swans, and Geese?

Wood Duck, a dabbling duck.

Waterfowl are those birds which swim in and depend on the water for their livelihoods. These includes geese, swans, dabbling, diving, and whistling ducks. The British call these birds wildfowl.

The scientific order is called Anseriformes. Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the Anatidae family which includes 170 species. There are 180 species of living birds in the order. Fifty-one species of ducks, geese, and swans naturally occur in North America.

As a birder knowing the difference between diving and dabbling ducks will certainly help me in the field. I was surprised how little I knew about ducks when I started researching this topic. Considering how important a food source ducks are to humans I felt I should know more. Those of us who are deepening our understand and spiritual ties to the land certainly need to know more.

This post is a basic overview of the differences between those birds collectively known as waterfowl.

Hooded Merganser Diving Duck. Jean from Shelbyville, KY, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Characteristics of Ducks, Swans, and Geese

Ducks, swans, and geese are large compared to songbirds. Swans are the largest of the waterfowl. Ducks are the smallest. These birds swim, float on the water, and some can dive in shallow water. Waterfowl live in a variety of habitats where water is found. It is the depth of water that is important. Ducks which dive deep underwater need deeper waters then ducks which gather food on or just beneath the water’s surface. The birds are found in both fresh and saltwater habitats. You will find them grasslands, shrublands, and forest. They spend their days on ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, bogs, fens, and bays.

Male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) preening. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) preening. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Male and female geese. swans, and whistling ducks look alike. Female and male diving and dabbling ducks can look very different. The male diving and dabbling ducks are often brightly colored compared to the drab coloration of the females. The drab female plumage serves to camouflage the female as she sits on the nest and incubates the developing eggs.

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

Waterfowl have broad, elongated bodies. Their wings are short and pointed. Strong wing muscles make these birds strong and fast fliers. Their wings beat rapidly during flight.

Waterfowl generally have long necks. Their legs are short and strong and set far back on the body. Most species are web-footed. They walk awkwardly on land but are strong swimmers.

canada geese
Head of a Canada Goose.

Their fattened bills have various specializations based on foraging certain foods. Some species have finely-toothed structures in their bills which stain tiny invertebrate from mud.

Ducks are shorter than swans and geese.

Categories of Waterfowl

  • Waterfowl are ducks, swans, and geese.
  • Other aquatic birds such as loons, grebes,  gallinules and coots are considered to belong to different families than ducks, geese, and swans.
  • Wading Birds include herons, egrets, ibises, storks and spoonbills.
  • Shorebirds include plovers, oystercatchers,, avocets, yellowlegs, sandpipers, dowitchers, snipes, terns and gulls.
  • Diving birds are loons, grebes, pelicans, anhingas, and cormorants. In this post we focus on ducks, swans, and geese.
  • Waterfowl and the Seasonal Round

Ducks, geese, and waterfowl are important Indigenous food sources. The the birds were hunted during migration in the spring and fall. Humans who live in northern areas of North America hunted ducks, geese, and swans when they arrived on their northern breeding grounds in the spring. Once the birds left the cold and tundra regions when the breeding season was over, duck hunting season was over until the next spring.

Waterfowl at Bombay Hook NWR. Photo courtesy NWR

In the lower regions of North America, ducks, geese, and swans were in abundance during the fall migrations. This happened as the agricultural harvest was winding down or completed. Hunters would form hunting parties and travel to areas were the birds were plentiful. The ducks were fat and well-fed in preparation for their migration journeys.

Rappahannock hunters of Tidewater Chesapeake Bay area, hunt waterfowl during the fall migration. The hunters would leave a trail of seeds from the water’s edge further into the bush. The birds follow the trail and eat the seeds. The hunter wouldn’t trap the birds on that first day. The second day the procedure was the same but the birds would be caught this time. If a local resident bird, such as a cardinal was caught in the trap instead of waterfowl, the hunter would release the local bird. This custom not to trap local birds but only ‘stranger’ birds which were passing through on migration. This custom benefited the continued workings of the local ecosystem.

Swans and Geese

There are 12 species of swans and geese that naturally occur in North America. These are large birds, much larger than ducks. The often gather in large flocks. Their colors are muted shades of white, grays, and browns.

Tundra Swan sitting on nest.


Swans are the largest of the waterfowl. The birds are gray (juveniles) or white in color.

  • Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)
  • Trumpter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
  • Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)


  • Geese are smaller than swans and white, gray, or brown in color.
  • Brant (Branta bernicla)
  • Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
  • Cackling Goose (Branta hutchininsii)
  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
  • Emperor Goose (Chen canagica)
  • Graylag Goose (Anser anser)
  • Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)
  • Ross’s Goose (Chen rosii)
  • Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)


Ducks are generally smaller than geese and swans with shorter necks. These aquatic birds can be found on both fresh and saltwater.

Mallard, a dabbling duck, eats just beneath the water surface.

Dabbling Ducks are Surface Feeders

The dabbling ducks are ducks which which live near swallow water. They feed on the surface of the water rarely diving beneath the surface. Most ducks are omnivorous, eating both plants and animals.They feed on the surface of the water eating pond, duck weed and other floating vegetation. Dabbling ducks will tip their heads underneath the water surface and eat aquatic plants, insects, and crustaceans. Often their tail would stick straight up in the air. There are 12 indigenous and 2 introduced species here in North America.


Dabbling ducks can easily take off and fly from the surface of the water. Diving birds need a running start before taking off.

  • American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)
  • American Wigeon (Anas americana)
  • Blue-winged Teal  (Anas discors)
  • Bufflehead (Bucephaia albeola)
  • Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera)
  • Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)
  • Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) – rare visitor, near coast
  • Gadwall (Anas fulvigula)
  • Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) – the Mallard on Audubon.org https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mallard
  • Mottled Duck (Anas rubripes)
  • Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
  • Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)
  • Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)
Male Bufflehead taking off. Kevin Cole from Pacific Coast, USA (en:User:Kevinlcole), CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Diving Ducks

Diving Ducks are found on large deep bodies of water which allow them to dive beneath the surface of the water for food. They are found on the sea, lakes, rivers, and breed in marshes. Other names for these ducks is pochards or scaups. Ducks often found on saltwater are called seas ducks. Those found on estuaries are called bay ducks. Bay ducks found mainly on freshwater bays and estuaries. Diving ducks don’t walk on land as well as dabbling ducks.

Diving ducks can’t take off from the water as easily as dabbling ducks. This is because the divers have shorter, broader wings which help in diving beneath the water. These are the ducks you see “running’ across the surface of the water before taking off in flight.

  • Barrows Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica)
  • Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra)
  • Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
  • Canvasback (Anthya valisineria)
  • Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)
  • Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
  • Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)
  • Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)
  • Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus)
  • Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • King Eider (Somateria spectablis)
  • Lesser Scaup (Aytha affinis)
  • Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis)
  • Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)
  • Ring-necked Duck (Anthya collaris)
  • Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)
  • Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)
  • White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Further Information on Ducks

Waterfowl Migration in Autumn

Confusing Summer Eclipse Plumage of Waterfowl

Bird Migrations

Bird Migration Routes – Do You Live Near One?

Shorebirds: Birding Tips

Dabbling Ducks https://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/Dabbling (Ducks.org)

Diving Ducks https://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id/Diving (Ducks.org)

Works Consulted

Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Murray M. Humphries. “Ducks.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6456.

———. “Geese.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6457.

———. “Swans.” Http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/. Traditional Animal Foods of Indigenous Peoples of Northern North America (blog). Accessed September 24, 2021. http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/birds/waterfowl/page.aspx?id=6458.

Speck, Frank G., Royal B. Hassrick, and Edmund S. Carpenter. Rappahannock Taking Devices: Traps, Hunting and Fishing. Vol. no. 1. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1946.

We're Listening

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.