The Duck Family

The ducks, geese and swans make up a family called the Anatidae, which includes over 150 species distributed around the world. Birds in the duck family are fairly large and heavy bodied, with long necks, flattened bills, and of course webbed feet.

Taxonomists arrange birds roughly in an evolutionary order, with those that evolved earlier occupying the lower ranks on what is usually presented as a branching tree. Recent evidence suggests that the duck family evolved earlier than previously thought, so now they are placed lower on the taxonomy tree and thus have been moved near the front of modern bird guides.

We are lucky that about one-third of all the species in the duck family have been seen in North America, although some species like the eiders spend most of their time in the northern seas. We have three swan species, eight species of geese, and about 39 duck species. Many of the duck family species seen in the lower 48 states are featured here in the Nature Library.

Most accounts of the duck family divide the 39 species into sub-families. The dabbling ducks is a large group that includes the genus Anas, where we find Mallard, Gadwall, Shoveler, teals, and Pintail. The bay ducks, sometimes called diving ducks, are in the genus Aythya. The sea ducks are a diverse sub-family that includes the scoters, mergansers, Harlequin and Long-tailed duck, plus the Goldeneyes and Bufflehead. Other sub-families are the Stiff-tailed ducks (Ruddy duck) and the Whistling ducks.

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