Michigan’s weird winter ducks and how to spot them

By Lucas Henkel

January 10, 2024

Whether you’re a budding bird enthusiast or an ornithologist, here’s how you can tell the difference between each of Michigan’s weird winter ducks.

If you live near a body of water that doesn’t completely freeze over during the winter, you’ve probably seen—or at least heard—a variety of Michigan’s winter waterfowl.

While other birds head south for the winter, these quirky fowl quickly seize the opportunity to feast on the sudden surplus of tasty aquatic plants and pests.


Michigan’s weird winter ducks and how to spot them

Photo Courtesy of Mick Thompson/Michigan DNR

Known as a “dabbling duck”, the gadwall forages mainly while swimming. They mostly feed on aquatic plants that they can snatch on the water’s surface. Their nests are usually near the water, on dry land, and are surrounded by dense weeds.

While other ducks may show off patches of color, gadwalls prefer a more subdued look. Gadwalls are intricately patterned with gray, brown, and black feathers that make it easier to blend in with their surroundings.


Michigan’s weird winter ducks and how to spot them

Photo Courtesy of Grayson Smith/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Named after their odd, puffy, round-shaped “buffalo heads,” the bufflehead can be found swimming in pairs or small groups on lakes, slow-moving rivers, and ponds around Michigan. These small but mighty ducks will dive underwater—sometimes simultaneously—to feast on aquatic insects, mollusks, and plant material.

The ducks usually build nests in holes made by woodpeckers, but they’re happy to call any open tree cavity home.


Michigan’s weird winter ducks and how to spot them

Photo Courtesy of Briton Parker/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

While ducks often lay eggs in the nests of others, the redhead takes invading personal space to another level. These ducks will regularly parasitize—or take over—each other’s nests, which can be found in dense marshes. However, they’ll also invade the nests of at least 10 other duck species—including the gadwall. Awkward.

Male redheads can be spotted by their cinnamon-brown colored heads. Redheads like to deep dive into a body of water to eat aquatic plants and insects.

To learn more about these winter waterfowl and other Michigan birds, check out the MI Birds program. Not sure where to go to birdwatch? Check out our list of some of the best places in Michigan to go bird watching this winter.


  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.



Local News

Related Stories
Share This