Waterfowl are aquatic, swimming birds. Ducks, teal, geese and swans are waterfowl.
These birds stay near a water source throughout the year. They use the water for shelter from land-based predators, and they feed in the water, although some of them also search for and eat food a long distance from water. Because there is such variety in these birds, their diets are varied, too. Foods include aquatic plants, aquatic invertebrates, fishes, land-based plants, acorns and waste grain.
A few waterfowl nest and raise their young in Illinois, although the majority of these birds travel much farther north to do so. Breeding occurs in the spring. The nest is placed near water, often along the bank of a lake or stream. The young birds are precocial and leave the nest soon after hatching from the eggs. They can walk, swim and feed as they follow their parents.
Waterfowl have powerful flight muscles and can travel long distances as they migrate. Migration is a regular, annual movement from one area to another. In North America, waterfowl fly from their breeding grounds in the north to more southern locations where open water and food are easier to find in winter. Some waterfowl do stay in areas where the water freezes over for some time, and in those places, these birds often take shelter on the ice at night and when they are not feeding during the day. They fly to fields away from the ice to find food. They will move farther south when their food supply declines and/or weather conditions worsen. Other waterfowl species are permanent residents where they live because food and open water are available all year.
Illinois is a part of the Mississippi Flyway that waterfowl in the central United States and Canada travel each year. There are four flyways in the United States as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for purposes of management and hunting regulations.
Illinois is a very water-rich state. The Mississippi River, Illinois River, Ohio River, many smaller rivers, wetlands, Lake Michigan, other large lakes, ponds and swamps all provide habitat for waterfowl species. As they migrate, waterfowl species can feed and rest on these bountiful resources in our state. November is a prime month for observing these birds as they travel through Illinois.
Some common waterfowl species that you might see in Illinois in November include mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), American black ducks (Anas rubripes), northern pintails (Anas acuta), American wigeons (Anas americana), gadwalls (Anas strepera), wood ducks (Aix sponsa), lesser scaup (Aythya affinis), ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris), canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria), redheads (Aythya americana), American coots, Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and snow geese (Chen caerulescens).
The mallard male has a shiny green head, a white ring around the neck and a gray body with a brown chest. The female has a brown-and-cream speckled body. Both the male and female have a white tail, orange feet, a yellow bill and a violet-blue wing patch with a white bar above and below it. The mallard is a year-round resident in the northern two-thirds of the state. Its winter range includes the southern one-third of Illinois and continues south to Mexico. Most mallards nest in southern Canada, but some of these birds do nest in Illinois. Fall migration begins in September.
This species is similar in appearance to a female mallard, but the body feathers are darker. A violet-blue wing patch is bordered by black and a very thin white line may be present on the back edge of the wing patch. The neck feathers are lighter in color than the body feathers. The feet are red or brown. The male has a yellow bill, while the bill of the female is dull green with dark marks. When flying, the white underwing feathers are visible. The American black duck is a common migrant and winter resident in Illinois and a rare summer resident. It breeds in Canada, and winters in the United States as far south as Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia. Southward migrants may begin arriving as early as July, but the peak of their migration in Illinois is in November.
The male northern pintail has a long, thin neck and a long, sharply pointed tail. His head is dark brown, and the feathers on his back and sides are black and white. A white area on the front of the neck extends in a thin strip into the brown part of the head. The female has a short, pointed tail and yellow feathers dappled with darker brown. This species is a common migrant, uncommon winter resident and a rare summer resident in Illinois. It nests in the northern United States and Canada. Fall migrants begin arriving in Illinois in July. The pintail winters from the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and South Carolina to northern South America.
The American wigeon male has white on the top of the head. Both the male and female have a white belly, gray head with black flecks and gray-blue legs and feet. The wings are narrow, and the tail is long and wedge-shaped. The bill is light blue with a black tip. The male has a white patch on the shoulder. The female has a red-brown body with a gray wing patch. The male's chest is pink-brown with black highlights. This species is a common migrant through Illinois. It sometimes winters in central and southern Illinois but usually travels to the southern United States and northern Mexico. It may be seen migrating northward in Illinois as early as January and southward as early as July.
The male gadwall has a brown head, gray body and black rump. There is a white patch near the back of the wing and a dark-red patch on the forewing. The belly is white. The bill is dark, and the feet are yellow. The female is brown with speckles, a white wing patch, yellow feet and a gray bill with orange on the sides. The gadwall is a common migrant, uncommon winter resident and very rare summer resident in Illinois. This species breeds mainly in North Dakota, South Dakota and Canada. Most of the gadwalls that pass through Illinois in fall spend the winter in Tennessee or Louisiana. Fall migrants may start appearing in Illinois as early as July.
The wood duck has a dark, long rectangular tail. The short, broad wings are black with white on the back edge. The neck is short. In the winter and spring the male becomes brilliantly colored. His head is iridescent purple-green. Two white parallel lines are present from the base of the bill over the head to the back of the neck. The white throat extends upward to the red eyes and the base of the bill. The maroon chest has white markings, and the sides are gold with a black-and–white design. In summer, the male is brown with white patches on the face. The bill is red and white. The female (all year) has a dark gray-brown body and head with tan sides. Her belly is white as are her throat and the circle around each eye. The wood duck is a common migrant and summer resident statewide. It is an uncommon winter resident but will stay in southern Illinois during mild winters. Fall migration starts in late September. These ducks travel to the southern United States for wintering. They breed statewide in Illinois as well as in the northern and northwestern United States and southern Canada. They start returning to Illinois in February.
The lesser scaup has a white stripe on the back edge of the wing that is visible when it flies. The male scaup has a blue bill, purple head, black chest and black tail. All other feathers on the male are light gray with small, dark bars. The female is dark brown with a white patch between the bill and eye. This duck is a common migrant, uncommon winter resident and a rare summer resident in Illinois. Spring migrants begin arriving in late March. The breeding grounds are mainly in Canada and Alaska. Fall migration starts in September. The species typically winters in Florida and Louisiana, although these ducks may stay farther north, including in Illinois, if open water is available.
The male ring-necked duck has a black back and chest and a white vertical mark in front of the wing. The female is brown with a white eye ring and a light face patch. Both the male and female have a white ring on the bill and a gray wing stripe that can be seen when the bird flies. This species is a common migrant, uncommon winter resident and very rare summer resident in the state. Spring migrants begin arriving in February. These ducks breed in the northern United States and Canada. Fall migrants start entering Illinois in September. Ring-necked ducks winter in Florida and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
The male and female of this species have a sloping forehead. The male canvasback has a white back, a rust-red head and neck and a black chest. The female is duller gray in color overall but with the same general shading pattern as the male. This species is a common migrant, uncommon winter resident and rare summer resident in Illinois. Spring migrants begin returning to the state as early as January. Fall migration begins in October. Canvasbacks breed in the northern and western United States and in Canada.
The male redhead has a gray back, rust-red head and black chest. The female is brown with a small, light patch near the bill. Both sexes have a blue bill with a dark spot at the tip and a gray wing stripe that can be seen during flight. This species is a common migrant, an occasional winter resident and a rare summer resident in Illinois. Redheads start returning to Illinois in March. Fall migrants appear in October. This duck overwinters in the southern United States and Central America. It breeds in the northern and western United States, Alaska and Canada.
This species has a brown body with long, black neck and a black head. There is a white patch on each side of the head. The chest is light gray. The Canada goose is a common migrant in Illinois and a common winter resident in most of the state. It is also a common summer resident throughout Illinois. Spring migration may start as early as January, while fall migration begins in September.
The snow goose is white with black flight feathers. The feet and bill are pink. The immature bird of this species has a dark bill and is not usually as white as the adult. Snow geese may be white-phase, blue-phase or mixed blue and white birds. The blue phase is a color morph of this species. It has blue-gray feathers, a white head and a pink bill and feet. This species is a common migrant and winter resident in the state. Spring migration starts in January or February. Snow geese breed in the Arctic. Fall migrants begin arriving in Illinois in mid-October.
Enjoy the late fall days of November by spending some time looking for these avian travelers in the Illinois skies and on our water bodies!