The state of Nebraska is firmly in North America’s prairie pothole region, which provides critical nesting habitat for many waterfowl species and a key migration stopping point for millions of birds twice each year.
You may be familiar with Nebraska’s Platte River Valley as a stop for an estimated (according to the National Audubon Society) half a million sandhill cranes each spring.
In addition to these cranes, dozens of duck species and multiple species of geese fill the skies of the Cornhusker State each year.
For more information about some of the other types of birds you might find in Nebraska, click here.
- Anas platyrhynchos
- Length: 19.7-25.6 inches
- Weight: 35.3-45.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 32.3-37.4 inches
No North American duck list would be complete without the mallard, one of the most common and wide-ranging duck species across the world.
Mallard males are distinguished by their green heads and yellow bills. They have gray bodies, and in flight, their open wings reveal a blue wing patch.
Females have the same blue wing patch, which includes white on the top and bottom. This will help you distinguish a mallard female from some of the other birds on this list. They have mostly brown bodies with orange and gray bills.
Mallards can be found across the state of Nebraska, from marshes and wetlands to parks, backyards, and more.
American Black Duck
- Anas rubripes
- Length: 21.3-23.2 inches
- Weight: 25.4-57.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 34.6-37.4 inches
Both male and female American black ducks look very similar to female mallards, but with darker bodies than the lighter brown mallard.
Male American black ducks have a yellow bill, with a pale head and neck and a dark stripe through the eye area. Females look similar, but with a dull bill.
They have purple wing patches seen easily in flight but rarely seen when stationary.
American black ducks are very infrequently reported in Nebraska, almost exclusively on the southern portions of the Missouri and Platte rivers.
As a species, American black ducks are known to hybridize with mallards.
- Mareca strepera
- Length: 18.1-22.4 inches
- Weight: 17.6-44.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.1 inches
Gadwall females look very similar to mallard females, but with a steeper forehead than the more rounded mallard. They also have bills that are a little bit differently shaped, with more of a slender appearance.
Male gadwall don’t have spectacular color to them, but they’re intricately patterned, with delicate markings from their neckline back toward the tail, where they have patches of black and white. Their face turns paler at the horizontal neckline, with a slightly darker cap and a black bill.
Some gadwall breed in Nebraska, while others are winter or migratory visitors.
Gadwall breed in grasslands, often where there’s little water, as well as shallow wetlands. They winter in ponds, marshes, and rivers.
- Spatula discors
- Length: 14.2-16.1 inches
- Weight: 8.1-19.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 22.1-24.4 inches
Nebraska is prime breeding territory for the blue-winged teal, which breeds in the prairie pothole region of North America.
The blue-winged teal drake has a speckled brown side with a beautiful blue-gray head. Between the eyes and their bill, drakes have a solid white crescent.
Females are patterned in brown, with black bills and a line through their eye on each side.
They breed in grassy habitats and wetlands, distributed across much of Nebraska.
- Spatula cyanoptera
- Length: 15.1-16.9 inches
- Weight: 11.8-14.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.3-22.4 inches
Primarily a species of western North America, cinnamon teals aren’t super common in Nebraska. Sightings are sporadic across the state and are mostly migratory stopovers.
In breeding plumage, males are bright, shiny red, with bright red eyes and black bills. As they molt, they keep a reddish tint, but it’s not as noticeably bright as it is during breeding.
The female looks similar to a female blue-winged teal, with a similar size as well.
Blue-winged teal females have a darker cap and eye marking, with a bill that’s of a similar shape, but slightly shorter than that of the female cinnamon teal. These small differences can be very difficult to pick out while in the field.
- Anas crecca
- Length: 12.2-15.3 inches
- Weight: 4.9-17.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 20.5-23.2 inches
The green-winged teal is the smallest bird on our list, measuring in at as little as a foot long and as light as five ounces.
Males’ chestnut-brown heads are adorned with a pretty green stripe extending from the eye toward the back of the head.
Their bodies are mostly gray, with a distinct white line running vertically near the front.
Females are smaller than other females on the list but similar in pattern. In flight, an emerald-green wing patch reveals itself.
Most Nebraskans are more likely to see a green-winged teal during migration, though sporadic areas of northern Nebraska might also see them spend the breeding season.
According to Birds of Nebraska Online, the highest counts of green-winged teals have been at Harvard Waterfowl Production Area (WPA), Mallard Haven WPA, and Lake McConaughy.
- Mareca americana
- Length: 16.5-23.2 inches
- Weight: 19.1-46.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.1 inches
The male American wigeon has a green stripe similarly colored and shaped to that of the male green-winged teal, but the rest of the body looks quite different.
The wigeon’s body is brown as opposed to the teal’s gray while lacking the vertical stripe along its sides and the chestnut head. American wigeons’ heads are capped in white.
American wigeons have gray heads with dark colors surrounding the eye. Their bodies are a light brown, with more patterning toward the top than their sides.
Wigeons are a rare but not non-existent breeder in the state, mostly in northwestern Nebraska. They are most likely to be spotted during migration, as they breed through the northwestern corner of North America.
Wet agricultural fields and wetlands may produce a wigeon sighting during the right time of year.
- Mareca penelope
- Length: 17.72-22.83 inches
- Weight: 14.63-34.22 ounces
- Wingspan: 29.53-33.86 inches
(Measurements courtesy of the University of Michigan’s BioKids)
Eurasian wigeons are, as their name suggests, native to Europe and Asia, but some of them make the long journey across the ocean each migration season to spend their winters in America.
Although sightings are extremely rare from eBird users, most reports are along areas loosely following the Platte and Missouri rivers.
In breeding plumage, Eurasian wigeon males have chestnut heads with pale caps. Like American wigeons, they have light gray bills tipped in black. Their bodies are gray with some brown near the chest and a white wing patch that runs horizontally when on the ground. Eclipse males start to resemble females more.
Females look similar to American wigeon females but with a more reddish-brown side than the tan of the American female.
- Anas acuta
- Length: 20.1-29.9 inches
- Weight: 17.6-51.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 34 inches
Northern pintails’ habitat of choice is often the prairie potholes region of North America.
This makes certain areas of Nebraska prime pintail habitat during the breeding season. Look for them in shallow, flooded agricultural fields or shallow marshes and wetlands.
Males in breeding plumage have chocolate brown heads, with white necks and bellies that extend back toward a wispy tail.
Their colors fade in eclipse plumage, especially those crisp whites, grays, and browns. Their necks are comparably longer than other ducks, which can help you distinguish females as well.
Females are patterned similarly to other ducks on this list, but with longer necks. Their faces are relatively plain, with a cap that’s just slightly darker than the rest of the face, starting at the eyeline.
The female pintail has a longer tail than many other ducks on this list, but it’s not as extreme as the male.
In the U.S., pintail populations have remained relatively stable, while Canadian numbers have dropped pretty sharply, according to Ducks Unlimited.
Across the continent, breeding populations of pintails have fallen from about 6 million to about 3 million since the 70s, DU reports.
- Spatula clypeata
- Length: 17.3-20.1 inches
- Weight: 14.1-28.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 27.2-33.1 inches
The northern shoveler’s bulky bill leaves little doubt about what species of bird you’re looking at.
The shoveler’s bill is long (about 2.5 inches, according to All About Birds), but its wide shape gives the shoveler its signature look. That bill also has about 110 lamellae, or “fine projections” that work to filter out food from the water, All About Birds says.
Male northern shovelers have green heads and yellow eyes. Their large bills are black. Their bodies are mostly white with chestnut and black toward their backs.
Females are mostly brown like many others you’ll see, but their large orange bills are unlike any other duck in Nebraska (or anywhere else in North America, for that matter).
Shovelers are mostly migratory visitors in southern and eastern Nebraska, but they do breed in north-central and northwestern Nebraska.
They mostly frequent shallow wetlands. While far from the only place to see them, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one place where they’re reported in big numbers by eBird users during breeding months.
- Aix sponsa
- Length: 18.5-21.3 inches
- Weight: 16-30.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 26-28.7 inches
The wood duck is the only member of the Aix genus native to North America.
Males are unique birds, with crisp lines that separate their different colors. Sharp white and black lines separate the black and green on their faces, as well as the deep browns on their chests and tans on their sides.
Their green heads end in a distinctive crest. Females have a crest as well, though they don’t have quite the colors that males do, with muted gray heads. They have a white ring around each eye and patches of deep blue along their wings.
Wood duck sightings are sporadic across Nebraska. As cavity nesters, wood ducks require dead trees or snags to nest, along with water and food to survive. Look for them along wooded lakes and river sections.
Ducks That Dive
- Aythya americana
- Length: 16.5-21.3 inches
- Weight: 22.2-52.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 29.5-31.1 inches
Redhead males have cinnamon heads, as the name suggests. Their light gray bills have black tips. Their black chests and gray sides are very evident in mating plumage.
In eclipse plumage, those blacks and grays will dull considerably. Their heads retain a cinnamon-red, though that color may dull somewhat as well.
Females are almost all brown. Their sides are a bit lighter than their topsides, and they reveal a light gray wing patch when in flight.
Redheads are another breeding resident of northern Nebraska, but the rest of the state also has a good chance of spotting redheads as they migrate to and from wintering grounds in large groups.
At times, they may be seen by the thousands as they migrate, so look for them on large open lakes and stretches of water during the winter. In summer, they breed in prairie marshes and shallow wetlands.
- Aythya valisineria
- Length: 18-9-22.1 inches
- Weight: 30.4-56 ounces
- Wingspan: 31.1-35 inches
Canvasback males have similar patterns to redheads. Their red heads meet a black chest of relatively the same size as redheads, and where redheads are gray on their backs and sides, canvasbacks are white.
Canvasbacks’ heads slope gently down to a black bill that keeps going at a similar slant. The back of a redhead’s head is more rounded, with a forehead that slopes sharply down toward its bill.
Canvasback females have the same sharply-slanted head shape to distinguish them from female redheads. Their sides are light compared to the brown redheads’ sides.
Small sections of western Nebraska see canvasbacks during breeding months, but they’re a migratory visitor in the majority of the Cornhusker State.
In migration, they’re often in large groups like redheads, often intermingling with other ducks. Breeding canvasbacks can be found in lakes, wetlands, and ponds.
- Aythya marila
- Length: 15.3-22.1 inches
- Weight: 25.6-48 ounces
- Wingspan: 28.4-31.1 inches
Greater scaup males have black heads that are iridescent green in good lighting, white sides, white and intricately gray patterned back, and a black neck and chest.
Females are brown. They have yellow eyes with gray bills. Between the two is a large white circle surrounding the bill.
Greater scaup breed in Alaska and the Northwest Territories and travel south for the winter. When used in reference to the Northwest Territories and Alaska, “south” can mean as far north as Canada. It also includes Nebraska, in some cases.
However, greater scaup are a very rare sight in Nebraska. They’re more common along big waterways like the Great Lakes.
- Aythya affinis
- Length: 15.3-18.1 inches
- Weight: 16-38.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 26.8-30.7 inches
Lesser scaup and greater scaup can be difficult to tell apart while in the field. Like canvasbacks and redheads, one difference between the two is in the slope of their heads.
Lesser scaup males have a steep forehead and back of the head. Greater scaup have rounded backs of their heads. The two species are very similar in terms of pattern. Lesser scaup generally have more color on their white sides than greater scaup do, but from afar, this isn’t always super easy to see.
The National Audubon Society provides a good guide to the small details that separate these birds.
While still rare, users of eBird do report more sightings of lesser scaup than greater scaup, with sightings around the Platte River and surrounding areas among the most common.
- Aythya collaris
- Length: 15.3-18.1 inches
- Weight: 17.3-32.1 ounces
- Wingspan: 24.4-24.8 inches
In breeding plumage, the black and gray colors of the ring-necked drake are very crisp, making them striking birds.
The ring-necked’s gray bill is surrounded by a white border, thicker in two rings around the base and just before a black tip.
These rings, as well as the crisp colors of the breeding male, may fade as the bird transitions to non-breeding plumage.
Females may resemble scaup, as they have a white ring around the bill, but it’s usually less defined than a lesser scaup’s. The ring-necked duck has a gray bill tipped in black with a white band just ahead of the tip.
Ring-necked ducks breed further north than Nebraska and winter further south, so they’re a migratory visitor to the Cornhusker state.
Like lesser scaup, the Platte River and areas along its route provide birders with some of the most common places to see ring-necked ducks.
- Bucephala clangula
- Length: 15.8-20.1 inches
- Weight: 21.2-45.9 ounces
- Wingspan: 30.3-32.7 inches
The common goldeneye is far from the only duck with yellow eyes, meaning you’ll need to look for other distinguishing features to identify one.
The male has a white circle next to its black bill, slightly below the eye. White barring is present where their black backs meet a white side.
Females have brown heads without the white facial patch of the males. Their black bills are tipped in light orange. Their bodies are mostly gray with some white mixed in, such as around the neckline.
Goldeneyes are winter and migratory visitors to Nebraska. They breed through Canada and some far northern stretches of the United States.
The Platte River provides birders with many of the yearly goldeneye sightings in the state, according to eBird, but anywhere with enough open water could provide a sight of these expert diving ducks, including lakes and ponds.
- Bucephala albeola
- Length: 12.6-15.8 inches
- Weight: 9.6-22.4 ounces
- Wingspan: 21.6 inches
One of the smaller ducks on this list, both bufflehead sexes are fairly easy to identify.
Males have heads of iridescent blue and purple that are interrupted by a big white patch that occupies the back half of the head. Their backs are black with white sides, but it’s that large head patch that stands out above all.
The females and immature males have a white smudge toward the middle of their brown faces.
According to Birds of Nebraska Online, there is just a single confirmed report of buffleheads breeding in Nebraska, but many will spend some time in the state on their way to and from northern breeding grounds.
Small ponds and lakes, including those around cities like Lincoln and Omaha, produce sightings each year from eBird users.
- Oxyura jamaicensis
- Length: 13.8-16.9 inches
- Weight: 10.6-30 ounces
- Wingspan: 22.1-24.4 inches
The Cornhusker State is prime breeding territory for ruddy ducks, one of the most unique ducks out there.
In the breeding season, adult males have baby blue bills. Their heads are black on top and white on the bottom, with chestnut brown bodies and long black tails that stick upright out of the water.
Their strong bills fade from baby blue to a deep black outside of breeding, with brown bodies. Their heads stay darker on top and lighter on the bottom, with a tan nape, a similar pattern to their breeding plumage.
Females are brown all over, with a black bill. Their cap is darker than the rest of the face, and they have a dark streak running parallel to their dark cap.
According to Birds of Nebraska Online, reports of ducks wintering or staying later into the winter have increased since the turn of the century. Birds of Nebraska reports that ruddy ducks are found in their highest densities in the western sandhills, as well as irregularly in the rainwater basin.
- Mergus merganser
- Length: 21.3-27.9 inches
- Weight: 31.8-76.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 33.9 inches
The first of three mergansers native to North America on our list is the common merganser.
Common mergansers are larger than most ducks on this list but not quite as big as a loon, although they have a long, sleek body shape that compares to that of a loon.
Males have sharply colored white bodies and black backs, but for most of the year, their green heads against a contrasting red bill set them apart. Females also have a red bill, but with a cinnamon-red head that crests at the back. They also have a distinct white patch near the chin area.
Females have gray and white bodies. Males have a period of non-breeding plumage just after summer that looks similar to that of females.
The most common place for you to see common mergansers is along Nebraska’s rivers during the winter and as they migrate.
- Mergus serrator
- Length: 20.1-25.2 inches
- Weight: 28.2-47.6 ounces
- Wingspan: 26-29.1 inches
Less common than the common merganser in Nebraska is the red-breasted merganser, an infrequent sighting for much of the state.
Males have green heads with long feathers sticking out of the back of their heads, a white neck, and a brown-red chest that is separated from the head by a thick white ring. Females are a darker gray for the body and neck, with red-brown heads. Both females and males have long red bills.
Females look somewhat similar to female common mergansers, but they don’t have as much white on the chest and neck, and they don’t have a white chin patch like common mergansers do.
Red-breasted mergansers are rare in Nebraska, but in recent years, they have been reported consistently in the spring and winter around Lake McConaughy and the Kingsley Dam by eBird users.
- Lophodytes cucullatus
- Length: 15-8-19.3 inches
- Weight: 16-31 ounces
- Wingspan: 23.6-26 inches
Our list concludes with the hooded merganser, the smallest of North America’s three merganser species.
Both male and female hooded mergansers have a large head crest that can either display as an enlarged, rounded head or slump back and take the shape of a more traditional crest.
Males’ heads are black with a white pie slice taken out of the back when the crest is in full display. Males’ bodies have bright white chests and chestnut-brown sides, with black on top. They have black bills.
Females are mostly brown, with a red tint to their crest.
Hooded mergansers are usually only spring and fall visitors to the Cornhusker State. Look for these relatively small ducks diving and resurfacing anywhere there are open bodies of water for them to feed on food, including fish and crayfish.