Waterfowl (Anatidae) is a very diverse family of birds that includes swans, geese and ducks. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica and inhabit a variety of habitats including the high Arctic, the tropics and even the ocean.

They may be some of the most recognizable birds, as many species are commonly seen in city parks and on freshwater beaches. Throughout North America, the most common waterfowl in cities and suburbs are Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis). Both species are highly adaptable and often gather in large numbers in city parks and on freshwater beaches.

Did you know? Although Mallards and Canada Geese are migratory, large flocks remain throughout the year in the mild Pacific Northwest climate, where they can find food and shelter year-round.

A collage of 16 different species of waterfowl

Some of the waterfowl species we’ve rehabilitated at PAWS


Waterfowl are mid-sized to large birds most commonly found on or near water. Most have plump bodies, long necks, short wings, and all have webbed feet. Geese tend to be larger than ducks with shorter bills and swans are even bigger with have long necks and are usually white.

Male ducks are typically more colorful than females during the breeding season. However, geese and swans are not sexually dimorphic; males and females look very similar but may differ in size.


All waterfowl species have large clutches of precocial young who hatch covered in down and that can swim and eat on their own soon after hatching.

Nests are typically on the ground near water, although there are several species that nest in tree cavities such as wood ducks (Aix sponsa). Female ducks are solely responsible for young, whereas goose and swan females get help from their mate.

Most species of waterfowl are migratory.

Did you know? Most waterfowl fly at speeds of 40 to 60 mph.

Canada Goose and gosling

Canada Goose and gosling (baby goose)


Depending on the species, waterfowl eat a variety of food including plants, fish and invertebrates.

Ducks have evolved two different foraging strategies—diving and dabbling. Dabbling ducks like Mallards feed at the surface or tip their rear up to reach underwater. They take flight by springing up directly from the water. Diving ducks like Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) find their food by diving and swimming underwater. Unlike dabbling ducks, they are quite awkward on land as their feet are designed more for swimming than walking. To take flight they usually run across the surface of the water.

Geese and swans are dabblers and forage on land as well as in water.

Did you know? Teals and shovelers are small dabblers who often feed by swimming forward with their bills partially submerged in water.

Mallard duck

Male Mallard

Common Waterfowl Species in Western Washington


Hooded Merganser

Canada Goose

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan in Yellowstone. Photo (c) Jen Mannas, used by permission

Trumpeter Swan. Photo by Jen Mannas

Living with waterfowl

Mallards and Canada Geese are frequently blamed for trampling lawns and for polluting water and grass with accumulated feces. They find abundant sources of food and shelter in parks and along lakes and ponds. They frequently stay in one place for long periods of time. Habitat modification can encourage waterfowl to disperse.

Do not feed ducks and geese
Supplemental feeding attracts large flocks of waterfowl and promotes their dependence on handouts which do not provide proper nutrition for the birds. When left to feed on their own, waterfowl consume and help control aquatic plants such as milfoil and algae.

But when people dump their uneaten food and leftovers such as bread and chips, the rotting food can compromise water quality and promote bacterial infections in animals.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Make them unwelcome

  • If ducks and geese congregate in an area that is small enough to be enclosed, plastic netting or chicken wire fencing will keep them out.
  • Waterfowl are attracted to large expanses of lawn, especially near water. Landscaping with barriers of shrubs, hedges or tightly planted groves of trees will break up the line of flight between the lawn and the adjoining water.
  • To scare waterfowl away, place poles with 2-by-3-inch plastic flags that have been split down the center. Suspend the flags so they will move with the wind. Eyespot balloons and bird-scare tape are available through catalogues and at garden and hardware stores.
  • Waterfowl are sensitive to noise. You can buy a variety of automatic noisemaking devices. Use a combination of many types to frighten birds at the first signs of their activity.


Bird Web. February 7, 2016. Ducks, Geese and Swans

Bowers N. Bowers R & Kaufman K. (2000). Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York, NY: Hillstar Editions L.C.

Ducks Unlimited. February 7, 2016. Amazing Waterfowl Facts

What Bird. February 7, 2016. Mallard