Wildfowling, shooting and conservation

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Chapter 7

The Quarry

Without question wildfowl are amongst the most fascinating of all nature's creatures. From the diminutive teal to the great grey geese, they are birds which have captured man's imagination since the beginning of history. The wonder of their annual migrations, the romance of their wild habitats, the orderly social patterns of their daily routines and the fact that they normally flight during those magic hours at dawn and dusk combine to explain the allurement which the family ANATIDAE exercises over those of us who call ourselves wildfowlers.

Unlike some branches of shooting sport, wildfowling is characterised by the absolute necessity of fully understanding the habits and habitat of the quarry species. Whereas the gentleman enjoying a day on a formal covert shoot need not concern himself with the mechanics of pheasant production, every fowler must become thoroughly steeped in the natural history of wildfowl if ever he is to come to terms with the geese and duck of the marsh. It is no accident that so many of the greatest naturalists, artists and wildlife photographers are also wildfowlers. All of those interests share a common basis of knowledge and each is enhanced by a fascinating blend of love and sympathy for the birds themselves.

It is for this reason that no excuse is necessary for placing a chapter about the natural history and identification of the quarry before any consideration of guns and cartridges.


Members of the family ANATIDAE (swans, geese and duck) have many common characteristics which distinguish them from other groups of birds. Most have short legs with webbed feet and their flight pattern is typically one of strong continuous wing beats with the long neck outstretched. This flight pattern helps the fowler to identify a flying bird as a wildfowl species while variations within the general pattern provide keys by which individual species can be recognised.

Plumage and Moulting

There are two quite distinct types of plumage characteristics to be found amongst swans, geese and duck. Most swans and geese, on the one hand, display almost identical plumage in both the males and the females of a species with the result that it is exceedingly difficult to tell the sex of an individual from the feather coloration alone. In contrast, the majority of duck species exhibit a degree of sexual dimorphism in their adult plumage so that the sexes may be fairly readily distinguished.

The males of dabbling duck such as mallard, teal, shoveler and pintail are brightly coloured, often with areas of iridescent plumage, but their females are relatively drab birds in feathers of mottled and spotted brown. This characteristic tends to be slightly less striking in the diving duck and even less so in the sea duck species but, nevertheless, it is not difficult to tell the sex of adult birds during the winter and spring.

One unusual but very important feature of the natural history of wildfowl is the manner in which they moult their plumage. Most other families of birds undergo a gradual moult during which the flight feathers are shed and replaced gradually over a protracted period. Wildfowl, on the other hand, moult all of their wing feathers simultaneously with the result that they become flightless for several weeks. The susceptibility of some male duck to predation during this flightless period is reduced by the fact that they typically moult out of their distinctive breeding colours and assume a drab appearance similar to the females and juveniles of their species. Other wildfowl, which do not exhibit markedly different eclipse plumage, may undertake moult migrations so that they spend the flightless weeks in places of comparative sanctuary.

The feathering of wildfowl has other important characteristics which particularly suit the birds to their aquatic lifestyles. As a protection against the inhospitable environment which they frequent, duck and geese have evolved a covering of heat-retaining down beneath an outer coat of closely interlocking feathers. A gland at the base of the bird's tail secretes waterproofing oil and frequent preening serves both to distribute this oil throughout the plumage and to maintain the interlock of the feathers. Additional protection against heat loss is provided by a subcutaneous layer of fat which, in healthy wildfowl, is considerably thicker than that possessed by many other families of birds.

Feeding Habits

Each species of duck or goose is also well adapted to its particular feeding habits. Dabbling duck are broad-billed and sieve water or mud to extract the small crustaceans or vegetable particles which form the staple part of their diet while geese and wigeon, being grazing birds, have shorter, more pointed bills. Those wildfowl which feed on land have strong, centrally placed legs well suited to walking whereas the diving duck are efficient swimmers by virtue of shorter legs situated farther towards the rear of their bodies.

In addition to physical differences, wildfowl have also evolved behaviour patterns which reflect their feeding requirements. Many species, especially in winter, engage in flock feeding and some, such as the shoveler, appear to unconsciously co-operate by feeding in long lines so that one bird can sieve the water which has been disturbed by the feet of the duck in front.


In their breeding habits wildfowl also demonstrate a considerable degree of adaptation to their environment. Most duck species nest at ground level and, in consequence, they can suffer fairly high losses as a result of predation or flooding. Sitting duck may fall prey to foxes or feral mink while gulls and skuas are a threat to eggs and young ducklings. The survival of the species in such adverse conditions is assisted by the fact that duck lay fairly large clutches of eggs and the ducklings are able to walk and swim within a few hours of hatching.

Geese, being larger birds, are less susceptible to predation and tend to have a smaller brood size than most duck species. Both parents normally share in the protection of eggs and goslings. Young duck and geese grow at a rapid rate and those which breed in Arctic areas have to be fully fledged and ready to undertake an arduous migration by the end of the short northern summer. The timing of the breeding cycle is extremely important and there is evidence to suggest that day-length is the critical factor which stimulates behaviour so as to ensure that chicks hatch at a time of greatest food availability. This may be one of the reasons why wildfowl collectors in temperate countries have difficulty in breeding some of the species which spend the summer in the high Arctic. It is possible that day-length in Britain never reaches the threshold level necessary to induce breeding behaviour in those birds.


Many behavioural features will be observed and noted by the observant wildfowler but, above all else, he will be fascinated by the annual cycle of migration which becomes as significant to him as it is to the fowl themselves. Each year in April fowlers watch with a little sadness as skeins of geese pass high over the hills on their journey to more northern climes and then, come mid-September, we will thrill to the music of pinkfeet as they return from their breeding grounds once again. In October the pinks are joined by their larger greylag cousins while, in other parts of the country, similar migrations will be ending as whitefronts splash down at Slimbridge and the ever-increasing army of brent geese make their landfall in south-east England.

Pinkfooted geese migrating from Iceland to Scotland cover the distance of over 800 miles in a single day but, at the other end of the scale, duck such as wigeon, teal or pintail may have to travel almost 2000 miles from their breeding territory in central USSR and are likely to complete the journey in stages spread over a period of several weeks.

The precise mechanism by which migration is guided is not yet completely understood and it may differ considerably between different species of migratory birds. The swallows and martins, for example, appear to have highly developed directional instincts and birds in their first year will successfully find their way to their wintering grounds without the benefit of previous experience or adult company. In contrast, it appears probable that memory and experiential learning are of considerably greater importance to the migrations of duck and geese. Although there may be a degree of instinctive behaviour involved in the timing of migrations and in navigating over ocean areas, wildfowl seem to be able to alter their patterns of movement to take account of environmental changes and will return to places where food has been plentiful in former years whilst forsaking previously favoured areas which have become inhospitable. Geese especially tend to travel in family groups, the oldest members of which will have experienced several annual migration cycles.

In addition to the principal autumn and spring migrations, which are a fairly commonplace phenomenon in the avian world, some wildfowl species engage in pseudo-migrations. As previously mentioned, certain duck undertake a moult migration to places of relative safety prior to shedding their flight feathers. One German inland lake is regularly visited by a flock of over 10,000 pochard and up to 250,000 sea duck moult in the shallow seas around Denmark. Another mass movement of duck can be triggered by the sudden onset of particularly hard weather in winter. If, for instance, a severe freeze-up grips northern Germany and the Netherlands, we may witness a migration of mallard, wigeon and teal from those countries to eastern Britain.

When a wildfowler steps out on to the remote saltings he enters the world of the wildfowl and, if he is to be successful in his hunting, he must understand and appreciate the ways of his quarry. Each fowling expedition is an adventure - an adventure within which the discharging of his gun might be an infrequent occurrence. To the true wildfowler the failure to fire a shot does not detract from the enjoyment of his sport because he has spent time in the wilderness of a dawning estuary, he has been enthralled by the sight and sound of the fowl and he has learned a little more about the habits of the wild birds which feature so large in his daytime thoughts and in his night-time dreams.


In the bad old days of the sportsman-naturalist, times when any bird which flew was fair game for the roving gunner and the rarer the species, the more prized the trophy, there used to be a saying "What's hit is history and what's missed is mystery." Fortunately we have a more enlightened approach to our sport today and the cardinal rule for fowlers is "Never raise your gun until you have positively identified the bird as legitimate quarry."

The problem facing all wildfowlers is that the run-of-the-mill bird books have drawings or photographs of the duck and goose species sitting obligingly on the water, presenting a nice side-on view. When we are out on the marsh with dog and gun it is more common for a grey shape to flip past our left shoulder in the half-light of dawn or dusk.

Wildfowl identification under those conditions is a somewhat different matter from leisurely admiring the duck on the village pond on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Very often the plumage colouring will be indiscernible and the fowler must rely upon other "keys" to help him determine the species.

It takes a lot of experience before any shore shooter can positively identify every duck or goose which he might encounter but, before too long, he ought to be able to distinguish the common quarry species from the common protected birds. The descriptions which follow not only deal with the plumage characteristics of the fowl which are most likely to be seen by the longshore gunner, but also mention the more obvious "keys" such as variations in wing beat speed, flashes of light or dark colour, wing length to body length ratio and differences in flight sound which the accomplished wildfowler will recognise in that split second before the gun is raised.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

The commonest and best known of all our duck, the mallard is a a superb table bird, especially early in the season. The male has an iridescent bottle-green head and neck, separated from its chestnut breast by a narrow white neck ring. The underbody and wing coverts are predominantly grey with the characteristic white-edged, blue-purple speculum being a striking feature. Tail coverts are black with the four central feathers upturned. A greenish-yellow bill and orange legs complete the familiar picture. The female mallard is a much less colourful bird of mottled brown and paler underparts. Her bill is orange and the legs are somewhat weaker in colour than those of the drake but the iridescent speculum is common to both sexes. Juveniles and the male in eclipse plumage are similar in general appearance to the female. The mallard has a strong, fairly fast, level flight with rapid wing beats. It is one of the largest duck. The drake is normally silent in flight while the female emits the familiar low "quack".

Wigeon (Anas penelope)

Many wildfowlers would suggest that the wigeon is the duck of the estuary and there can be little doubt that a pack flighting overhead, their characteristic whistle shrilling from a dark sky, is guaranteed to set the blood racing through the veins of a seasoned marsh gunner. Somewhat smaller than a mallard, the wigeon is another duck which provides excellent eating as well as sporting shooting. The male in winter plumage has a chestnut head with a pale yellow forehead and crown, a pinkish-grey breast and mainly grey back and flanks. The white forewing coverts show boldly in flight, as do the very light underparts. The female and juvenile are predominantly rusty brown mottled with dark chestnut and they share the lighter belly of the male. Both sexes have a dark green speculum which is slightly less prominent than that of most dabbling duck. In eclipse, the male takes on the general coloration of the female but retains his white shoulder patches. The short pointed bill is typically grey with a dark tip and the legs are dark grey or black. The wigeon has a rapid flight with the wings often appearing sickle-shaped. It is medium sized and the short bill, light belly and the white shoulders of the male show up clearly in flight. The male has a high pitched whistle while the female has a lower purr.

Teal (Anas crecca)

The European green-winged teal is the smallest duck on the wildfowler's list but the male in full breeding plumage makes up for his small size by his striking good looks. The glossy chestnut head has an iridescent curving green stripe, with narrow cream edging, running from the eye to the back of the neck. The striated body plumage is well known to anglers who dress their own flies and there is a white horizontal stripe above the wing. The prominent green speculum is present in both sexes. The female, juvenile and male in eclipse plumage are very similar with their mottled browns and paler belly. The legs and bill of both sexes are dark grey, tinged with brown. The teal has a very rapid flight with small flocks frequently rising and dipping in unison. The male has a "prip-prip" call whereas the female "quacks" at a slightly higher pitch than a mallard.

Garganey (Anas querquedula) (Protected)

The little garganey is the only duck which is exclusively a summer visitor to Britain and, consequently, is not seen frequently during the shooting season. Slightly larger than a teal, the male in full plumage has a brown head and breast with a sickle-shaped white band from above the eye to the nape of the neck. The body is mottled grey-brown with paler sides and black-edged white scapular feathers. The female, juvenile and male in eclipse are largely grey-brown with darker mottling on the wings. In both sexes the speculum is pale green and cream.

Pintail (Anas acuta)

The handsome pintail must be a strong contender for the distinction of being Europe's most elegant wildfowl species. In breeding plumage the male is resplendent in chocolate head and neck with a white stripe extending upwards from breast to ear. Grey underparts and flanks are set off by beautiful lanceolated scapulars of black, yellow and grey and there is a pale yellow patch in front of the distinctive black tail coverts. The female shares the slender neck and body of the male but is generally a light mottled chestnut with paler underparts. Juveniles are similar to the female but males in eclipse are somewhat greyer and may be distinguished by the bronze-green speculum on the wing. Bill and legs are grey with a bluish tinge. The pintail has a fast flight with very rapid wing beats. The male's "pin" tail shows up prominently in flight but both sexes are long, slender birds with slightly sickle-shaped wings. The male has a lower pitched "prip" than the teal while the female occasionally gives a rather weak mallard-like "quack".

Shoveler (Anas clypeata)

A very distinctive bird, the shoveler displays the ultimate in dabbling equipment - a very broad spatulate bill which gives an immediate clue to the species' feeding habits. The drake in breeding dress has a bottle-green head, white neck and chest, dark chestnut flanks and underparts and dark brownish-grey wing coverts. The colouring of the female is similar to that of other dabbling duck but the shovel bill makes misidentification unlikely. Both sexes have a green speculum and display a blue-grey patch on the forewing. The shoveler has a rapid flight with a rattling sound from the wings. It is medium size and the light blue shoulders are prominent in flight. The large spatulate bill often looks longer than the head and it rarely quacks while flying.

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

Difficult to distinguish from a mallard when flying in poor light, the gadwall is slightly smaller but very similar in build and in flight pattern. The drake is predominantly grey with a brown tinged back. The female is very mallard-like but shares the white speculum of the male. The bill of the female has conspicuous orange edges which, although not present in the drake when in breeding plumage, are taken on in eclipse.

Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)

All of the species mentioned so far have been dabbling duck of the genus Anas. With the tufted duck we come to the first member of the diving duck genus Aythya which also includes the pochard and the now-protected scaup. The "tuftie" is very common on most waters in Britain and occurs both as a breeding species and as a winter migrant. When in full breeding regalia the male has a black head, chest, back and tail with pure white flanks. The head is shot with purple and the chest often seems to have a greenish tinge. The name of the duck derives from a drooping black crest which is not normally obvious at a distance but which, in fact, is fairly long. The bill is blue-grey with a black tip, the legs are grey and the eye is bright orange. The female's colouring is less contrasting than the male, her upperparts being dark brown and the flanks pale rust. In eclipse the male resembles the female but usually has lighter flanks. Both the male in eclipse and the female have a shorter crest than the breeding male. The tufted duck has a more fluttery flight than the dabbling duck, it is of small to medium size and the male's colour contrast is sometimes fairly clear. It rarely quacks in flight.

Pochard (Aythya ferina)

In full breeding plumage the male pochard is a striking bird displaying a red-brown head, black breast and throat and a slate-grey back. The bill is blue-grey with a black tip and the legs are dark grey. In eclipse the red eye of the male distinguishes it from the dull brown female. The pochard has a strong, fast flight. It is of medium size and the male has a low whistle while the female occasionally gives out a deep-throated "kurr".

Scaup (Aythya marila) (Protected)

Closely related to the tufted duck, the scaup may easily be misidentified by a wildfowler. In breeding plumage the male has a black head, shot with green, a black breast, light grey wings and white flanks and belly. The female is predominantly brown with paler flanks and underparts. Unlike the tufted duck, the scaup is found mainly in sea areas and rarely will be encountered on inland waters.

Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)

The mature male goldeneye has an iridescent green head with a prominent white patch between bill and eye. Its back is black and the neck and underparts white or pale grey. The female has a mainly grey body with a chestnut brown head. As the name suggest, the eyes are golden yellow and the short bill and sloping forehead give the head a triangular look. The flight of the goldeneye is rapid and direct with a noticeable wing rattle. The light underparts show up in flight.

Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) (Protected)

In some localities the shelduck is so numerous that one might wonder why it requires to be protected by law. Fortunately it is so distinctive in appearance that there is never any excuse for mistaking it for any other bird. Both sexes have a black neck and head, a white body and a rich brown yoke at shoulder level. There is a dark stripe down the underparts and the wing primaries are black. The male may be distinguished by the knob at the base of its bright red bill. The shelduck has a strong goose-like flight. It is large in size and its contrasting markings are usually visible, even when flying in poor light. The male occasionally whistles and the female has a short, low "quack".

Eider (Somateria mollissima) (Protected)

The eider is best known for its down which at one time was extremely popular as a bed quilt filling. Like the shelduck, the eider is by no means uncommon and the reasons for affording it protection are dubious. One consolation, however, is that neither species is likely to be particularly palatable on account of their marine habitat and diet. The male eider in full plumage is predominantly white with black forehead, crown and underparts. The rear sides of the head have a greenish tinge and there is a pink hue in the breast feathers. The female is brown with dark barring. The eider has a strong flight, often with a nose-down aspect. It is of large size and heavily built. It frequently flies very close to the ground and has a coarse voice.

Sea Duck and Sawbills

The more common sea duck will occasionally be seen by the coastal wildfowler but all are protected and none are likely to be misidentified as a quarry species. The common scoter (Melanitta nigra) male is the only duck to have completely black plumage. Its bill is grey and orange with a dark grey knob at the base. The female is dark rust brown with fawn cheeks. The velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) is somewhat rarer in Britain than the common scoter. The male may be distinguished by a white spot behind the eye and a white wing patch. The female is brown but lacks the extensive pale cheeks of the common scoter. The male long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is the only duck to have three plumage phases in its annual cycle. In early summer it is predominantly brown with a white patch on the face and white flanks and underparts. In this phase the characteristic long pointed tail is present. In eclipse it loses the tail and becomes gradually duller in coloration. The tail feathers are regrown in winter and the head, scapulars and flanks are white, the eye surrounds are grey and the ear and breast are brown. In contrast, the female spends the entire year in dull brown with white sides to the neck and head. She also lacks the long tail feathers of the male.

The goosander (Mergus merganser) and the red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) have long serrated bills which give an immediate clue to the diet of those duck, the major part of which consists of small fish. The goosander is the larger of the two but both are unusual in that the males have white and black bodies and green-black heads while the bodies of the females are grey and their heads are red-brown. Both species are protected.

Greylag Goose (Anser anser)

One of the larger grey geese, the greylag is the stock from which most British farmyard geese are descended (unlike eastern Europe where the bean goose gave rise to most farm stock). Both sexes are brownish grey with paler grey forewings and white barred tail coverts. The bill is orange in the western race and the legs are flesh coloured. The heavy head and bill are more obvious in flight than with other geese and the pale grey shoulders and white rump show up clearly. It has a low "aung-aung" call similar to farmyard geese.

Pinkfooted Goose (Anser branchyrhynchus)

Somewhat smaller and daintier than the greylag, the pinkfoot is characterised by a chocolate brown head and neck. The body is paler brown with bluish-grey tinges in the wing coverts and darker grey in the tail. The rump, as with all grey geese, is white. The bill of the pinkfoot is smaller and neater than that of the greylag, being pink coloured with variable black markings at base and tip. As the name suggests, the legs and feet are pink. In flight the dark neck and head are obvious and, when compared to a greylag, its slender shape and neat head are clear. It has the familiar "wink-wink-wink" call.

Whitefronted Goose (Anser albifrons) (Protected in Scotland)

The Greenland whitefront is a dark goose, mainly grey-brown with black traverse barring across the lower breast and belly. Adults have a distinctive white forehead. The bill and legs are bright orange. Birds of the European race tend to have an overall lighter plumage and a pink bill. It is of medium to large size and in flight can be seen to have a darker, more slender head than the greylag. It gives out a high pitched "hank-hank-hank" call.

Bean Goose (Anser fabalis) (Protected)

The bean goose is a very large bird with dark brown neck and head and dull brown underparts. The breast is light brown, there are pale edgings to the wing coverts and the bill is orange with black markings. In flight, with no clues as to scale, it would be forgivable (but illegal) to mistake a bean goose for a pinkfoot. Fortunately this error is only likely to be made in Norfolk or near the Solway.

Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) (Protected)

Both sexes have a black crown, neck and breast with white cheeks. The back is grey and the underparts are off-white. In flight it is a smallish goose with the white face and black breast clear. It rarely flies in formation, preferring loose flocks. The voices of a flock of barnacles sounds like the "yipping" of a pack of small dogs.

Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) (Protected)

There are two distinct sub-species of brent geese; the light-bellied race breeds in Greenland and Spitzbergen and winters in Ireland and at Lindisfarne while the dark-bellied Siberian population migrates to the Low Countries and south-east England in winter. This latter race has increased dramatically in recent years and a change in habits has taken place with the flocks partially forsaking the salt marsh and adapting to feeding on agricultural land. Both races have a black head, breast and neck and a dark grey-brown back. There is a light patch on each side of the neck and, as the names suggest, the Atlantic population has a lighter belly than the Siberian race. In flight the brent has fast wingbeats and frequently flies in tight packs. It is often silent and is more likely to be mistaken for a mallard than for any other goose.

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Introduced from North America, the Canada goose is now fairly common in some parts of Britain and, if truly wild, can be a worthy quarry for the wildfowler. The head and neck are black with a white patch circling from cheek to chin. The back is brown and the breast and belly greyish brown with variable traverse barring. In flight the Canada is a large, heavy goose and its "honk-honk" call gives it the nickname "honker" in America.

This file is an extract from "Fowler in the Wild" by Eric Begbie. It may be reproduced, in whole or in part, by magazines or other publications with the prior permission of the author.