Chesapeake Bay Waterfowl - Birds of the Eastern Shore

Waterfowling on the Chesapeake, 1819-1936
Fowl Weather Friends
Bay Buddies / By Kathleen Gaskell - Bay Journal

Winter on the Chesapeake Bay means waterfowl: Canada geese migrating from the area around Hudson Bay, tundra swans from the Alaskan Arctic or even year-round residents, such as the American black duck or mallard.

Once shot by the thousands for their meat, today’s birds are more likely to be stalked by hunters armed with binoculars and cameras.

Ducks, geese and swans make up the waterfowl family, Anatidae. All have webbed feet. Ducks and swans are mostly aquatic; geese tend to be more terrestrial.

A waterfowl’s upper bill features a sharp, hard tip that helps the bird crop plants. Most have flat bills that are used as strainers when they eat. The exceptions are the merganser ducks, which have long, serrate cylindrical bills, and the snow goose, which has an arched, narrow bill.

The largest waterfowl are the swans, which include the tundra swan, with an average body length of 4.5 feet and wingspan of almost 7 feet, and the mute swan.

Swans’ necks are much are longer than other waterfowl allowing them to reach the Bay’s submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) at much greater depths than other waterfowl. Geese and swans also eat grains and grasses in fields.

Geese in the watershed include both resident and migratory Canada geese; the snow goose which is white, and its color morph, the blue goose, which has a white head and gray-brown body. The brant has a black head, a shorter neck than most geese, and is fond of the Bay’s eelgrass.

Ducks in the Chesapeake region are divided into dabbling ducks, diving duck and sea ducks.

Dabbling ducks are found primarily in freshwater habitats and mostly eat seeds, grasses and SAV. They have small feet located near the front of their bodies that allow them to bob their heads and necks under shallow water to feed off the bottom. They also skim food from the water’s surface. Dabbling ducks are also distinguished for being able to take off vertically.

Local dabbling ducks include the American black duck, green-winged and blue-winged teals, mallard, northern pintail and American wigeon, which gets its name from it fondness for the Bay’s widgeon grass. The wood duck, which shares many of the characteristics of dabbling ducks, is classified as a “perching duck” because of its ability to perch in trees.

A diving duck’s large feet and short legs are near the rear of its body and are used to propel the bird underwater in search of SAV or aquatic invertebrates. Diving ducks must run along the water’s surface to take off.

The Bay’s diving ducks include the canvasback, redhead, greater and lesser scaups, and ruddy duck. The latter is sometimes classified as a stiff-tailed diver because its long, often erect, tail which plays a role in courtship displays.

Sea ducks live primarily at sea and dive much deeper than other ducks in search of molluscs and invertebrates and fish. Like diving ducks, they must run along the surface to take off, with the exception of the bufflehead and hooded merganser, which can take off vertically, like dabbling ducks.

Sea ducks include the oldsquaw, common goldeneye, bufflehead, white-winged scoter and hooded and red-breasted mergansers.

The Bay is also home to ducklike birds. The common loon is a large bird with a daggerlike bill used to capture fish and aquatic invertebrates. Its webbed feet, located far back on its body, act like propellers, helping it to dive to depths as great as 200 feet.

Grebes are small, ducklike birds with very small tails and bills like a chicken’s beak. They have lobed feet with flattened claws that help them swim both at the surface and underwater. Young grebes are able to swim at birth, yet are often seen riding on their parents’ backs. Grebes eat fish and aquatic invertebrates.

The pie-billed grebe is found in shallow bays, rivers and marshes, while the horned grebe is found in lower rivers and open bays.

The waterfowl listed here are found on the Bay or near the headwaters of its tributaries at some point during the year. Can you find them in the puzzle? Words appear horizontally, vertically, diagonally and backward. Italicized words in parentheses do not appear in the puzzle.


American Black
American Wigeon
Blue-Winged Teal
Common Goldeneye
Greater Scaup
Green-Winged Teal
Hooded Merganser
Red-Breasted Merganser
Lesser Scaup
Northern Pintail
Ruddy (Duck)
White-Winged Scoter
Wood (Duck)


Blue Goose
Canada Goose
Snow (Goose)


Tundra Swan
Mute (Swan)

Ducklike Birds

Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Pie-Billed Grebe

Related Terms

Dimorphism (Two distinct forms of one species. This is often present in ducks, in which the males are brightly colored, while the females are drab.)
Fish (Source of food)
Lobed (Grebe feet)
Rafts (Large offshore flocks of waterfowl)
SAV (Source of food)
Vee (Flight formation)
Visit (During migrations)
Webbed (Feet)

Kathleen A. Gaskell, the layout & design editor for the Bay Journal, has been involved with several environmental programs for children.

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Fowl Weather Friends
Article from Bay Journal
Jan, Feb 2003

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