Of the 120 species of duck found around the world, there are a handful that really stand out with spectacular plumage, oddly shaped bills or unique calls. We've gathered a selection of 14 species that are way more unusual than your average mallard at the city park pond (though mallards are gorgeous ducks too). We can't stop staring at these species!
Though we typically think of ducks as quietly meandering around ponds, there are a few species that live their lives in much rougher waters. The gorgeous sea duck pictured above is one of them. Found along fast-moving streams and rocky coastlines, the males of this species have a complex plumage pattern. The species goes by many names including painted duck, sea mouse, rock duck, glacier duck and white-eyed diver.
There are few duck species with more distinctive faces than the eiders. The prominent yellow knob at the top of male king eiders' beaks is the source of its name, as the knob resembles a crown. The king eider is an arctic species, breeding on the tundra during summer and spending winters at sea, diving as deep as 80 feet to feed on crustaceans, mollusks and other prey.
The long-tailed duck has fancy plumage from head to extra-special tail. This species is one of the deepest diving ducks, swimming as far as 200 feet below the surface of the ocean for food. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the species spends more time underwater than at the surface compared to other diving ducks. "When it is foraging it is submerged three to four times as much as it is on top of the water." The long tail is actually two extra-long central tail feathers.
This perching duck species is native to east Asia, though it can now be found in several parts of the world including England, Ireland and California as captive individuals escaped and created wild breeding populations. The wild ducks in Asia, however, face a population decline due to logging and habitat loss. Thankfully for these ducks, despite the males' impressive breeding plumage, they aren't sought after by hunters. According to the BBC, "Mandarins are one of the few duck species which are not hunted for food - apparently they taste really bad!"
The extraordinary crest on this little duck is the source of its name. Both males and females have crests that they can raise in display, but only the male has the striking black and white coloring. Males raise their crest and perform a head-bobbing maneuver when trying to impress females during courtship. These small ducks can be found on ponds and in streams diving for fish, insects and invertebrates.
This unusual duck species is named for the flash of punk-rock pink on the side of its head, but its most distinguishing feature is actually its bill. According to The Guardian, "The large flat square-ended bill evolved for filter-feeding: the bill is fringed with fine lamellae (grooves) that filter microscopic plants and animals that make up most of this species' diet. The pink-eared duck can often be seen with its bill submerged in shallow, warm waters and it often feeds circling head-to-tail in pairs or groups." With such a distinctive look, this Australian species is never mistaken for any other species.
The smew is another species of merganser found in Europe and Asia. It is unmistakable in its black and white plumage. The males of this species are snow white with black accents on the wings and chest, black "panda" eye markings, and a streak of black along the crest on the top of the head. They can be found nesting in the taiga of Europe and Asia, taking advantage of crevices in trees, such as woodpecker holes, to raise their young.
Another eider species with an incredibly distinctive face is the spectacled eider — named such for obvious reasons. The pale green patch of feathers on the back of its head and the vividly orange bill of the males help to exaggerate the spectacle-like eye markings even more. These beautiful birds are found in coastal Alaska and Siberia, nesting on the tundra during the summer. The species is not very well known, is not very common and is on the decline. The breeding population in western Alaska, declined by 96 percent from 1970 to 1993.
The surf scoter has a very striking face, one that has earned it the nickname of "skunk-headed coot." Their markings and build make them look a bit like a mix between the harlequin duck and an eider. Surf scoters are found in the coastal waters of the Pacific and Atlantic during summer, where they dine on mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects and other small prey.
White-faced whistling duck
This beautiful duck species is fascinating not only for its looks but also its call. It is named a whistling duck because the sound it makes is much like a squeaker toy whistle. Have a listen:
From the iridescent patch of green on the back of the male's head to the pheasant-like feathers decorating its shoulders, this beautiful duck species is one that birders could watch for hours. The Baikal teal easily stands out from other teal species with plumage that is recognizable from a distance. The species is native to eastern Asia, and sometimes though rarely is spotted in Alaska. Though the species took a downturn in the late 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss, it seems to be rebounding with an estimated 1 million individuals as of 2010.
The wood duck is related to the mandarin duck, and you might see a family resemblance in the wild array of colors and markings and the elaborate crest on the head. This is one of the most colorful water bird species in North America. The species suffered a serious decline and near extinction in the late 19th century due to hunting and the loss of large trees where the ducks nest. Conservation efforts, including ending unregulated hunting, preserving habitat and setting up thousands of nesting boxes, have brought wood ducks back.
This handsome fellow is a ruddy duck. The species easily stands out from the crowd thanks to a brilliant blue bill. Males have this plumage and bill color during the breeding season when they want to look their best for any interested females. During the winter, their shiny chestnut bodies as well as their blue bill fade to gray.
While this species markings may look much like a mallard, you can certainly tell it apart by its oversized bill. The Norther shoveler has an elongated, spoon-shaped bill which features 110 comb-like projections along the edges. These help the duck filter out small crustaceans and other invertebrates from the water. Because its bill is so specialized for sifting through muddy marshes, they don't have to compete with other paddling ducks for food for much of the year.