Dabbling and Diving Ducks – What’s The Difference?

by Linda F

Published February 20, 2024

I’ll start by telling you I didn’t know about diving and dabbling ducks. I love watching my ducks wiggle their heads as they search puddles or soft, squishy ground for food. From what I‘ve learned, I’m fairly certain that I’ve only had dabbler ducks which are also known as puddle ducks. With the behavior I witness daily, it’s a fitting name. After learning about this, I can see how the groupings make sense. Let me share so we can learn together.

Diver Ducks

When ducks are on the water, those that sit lower into the water are divers. This group feeds primarily on fish and crustaceans. They may also be known as sea ducks because they often prefer deep rivers or lakes along with coastal bays and inlets. They have compact bodies and smaller wings than the dabbler group. Pulling their feathers close to their bodies allows them to sit lower in the water by forcing air trapped between the feathers to be pushed out. These ducks have large powerful feet and legs that are set further back than the dabbler group which helps to push them into the water and allows them to swim with speed using head and tail to steer while diving. They generally dive for 10-20 seconds at a time and bob up to the top when done.  Because of the smaller wing size, these ducks need speed to take off. They will use their feet across the water as they quickly flap their wings until they have gained enough speed for flight, much like an airplane uses a runway to take off. When landing, they also require some distance and will tend to slide into a spot as they slow down. Diving ducks are generally unable to move on land as easily as dabbling ducks.

Some of the diver ducks include Scaups, Ring-necked, Canvasbacks, White Faced Whistling, Fulvous Whistling, and Redheads.

Redhead Duck Meyer Hatchery
Fulvous whistling duck juvenile pair Meyer Hatchery
White Faced Whistling Duck Yearling Pair Meyer Hatchery

Dabbler Ducks

Dabbler ducks prefer shallow water, like marshes and flooded fields. They sit higher on the water and have smaller feet than divers and their legs are more forward, toward the center of the body, when compared to a diver duck. They have large wings allowing them to take off with ease, are able to fly slowly, and land in a small or targeted space.  These ducks tend to feed from shallow areas by tipping their head and neck forward. Sometimes you will simply see a duck butt sticking out of the water as one searches below the surface for food, seeds, plants, insects, worms, and grains. This group is capable of limited diving as a means of predator escape but does not dive for routine foraging.

Black Muscovy Ducks with carnucles Meyer Hatchery
Mallard Pair Meyer Hatchery
Indian Runner Ducks - Meyer Hatchery

In conclusion, almost all breeds of domestic ducks have heritages linked to Mallards with Muscovies being the known exception. Mallards are one of the most familiar ducks amongst the dabblers. One can see how domestic ducks will generally and easily fit into the dabbler category with this heritage.  However, we should not expect to see all our domesticated ducks flying as many are heavy, dual-purpose breeds, so even though dabbling ducks can fly, this is not always true for domesticated ducks.

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