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A large group of dabbler ducks

Ducks can be split into two broad groups: dabblers and divers. We have covered diving ducks in a separate blog – 21st February 2021 – A Day of Ducks – Divers

Dabbling ducks, feed predominantly at the surface, sometimes even grazing on land. We have six common species of dabbling ducks in the UK. Females of all species are brown and streaky, cryptically coloured, and best distinguished by shape and size and being close to a more distinguishable drake (male).

Dabbling ducks have two dominant feeding styles:

Surface Feeding

This involves skimming along the surface of the water with the neck stretched out and the bill parallel to the water. The bill is quickly “chewing” or “nibbling” at the water with little bites, and the duck may sweep its head from side to side at the same time to cover more surface area.

Tipping Up

This type of feeding is true dabbling, tipping up with the duck’s bottom out of the water and pointing the tail straight up as the head and neck are below the water to nibble through mud or algae. When tipped up, the duck may wag or spread its feet and legs to keep balanced, or the tail may slowly wave or wag to counterbalance the underwater head movements. Underwater, the duck is stretching to reach either the bottom or may be feeding along submerged plants. This type of feeding is very characteristic and common among all dabblers.

See below for identification of the more identifiable dabbling drakes.


  • Medium-large, ‘vanilla’ duck
  • Glossy green head, yellowish bill
  • White collar and red-brown breast
  • Blue-purple speculum (patch on secondary wing feathers)
  • Curly tail feathers (best seen in flight)


  • Medium-small, small-billed duck
  • Brick red head with yellow stripe down the middle
  • Pinkish breast, grey body, tail end black
  • Large white patch in wing, greenish speculum (best seen in flight)
  • White belly is striking, in flight


  • Medium, front heavy duck
  • Glossy green head, huge black spade shaped bill
  • White breast, red-brown belly
  • Green speculum
  • Blue forewings (best seen in flight)


  • Medium-large, slim, long-necked, elegant duck
  • Chocolate-brown head
  • White breast and belly
  • Plain wings with subtle brownish speculum
  • Long, thin, pointed tail


  • Medium, ‘vanilla’ duck
  • Grey-looking head, dark bill
  • Greyish tail, black undertail coverts, vermiculated body
  • White square speculum on trailing wing edge (best seen in flight)
  • White belly is striking, in flight


  • Smallest UK duck, much smaller than other dabblers
  • Red-brown head, broad, yellow-lined iridescent green stripe on cheeks
  • Vermiculated body (looking grey)
  • Tail end, yellow and black