Identify my duck

I’m pretty convinced that my new female duck is not Honey, the one I tended last year—along with her four ducklings. Yet it still amazes me that the new duck came to me immediately when I gave my three-note call, almost as if it had remembered.

Now some readers have said that a duck’s bill can change color over time, but this would have to be a big change. Honey had a unique mottled pattern on her bill, whereas my new duck (still unnamed) doesn’t. Still, some naturalists and birders have said there’s a certain resemblance.

To move this issue forward, I’m posting pictures of the bills of Honey compared to my new duck (called “New Duck”). Birders: you tell me.

Honey, left side of bill

Honey: right side of bill:

Honey, front view of bill:

New duck: left side of bill:

New duck, right side of bill:

New duck: front view of bill:


The new duck has much more yellow on the front of the bill, and lacks the stippling on the sides of the beak that Honey had. I don’t think they’re they same duck. Could this be Honey’s one female offspring? I have only one highly cropped view of her single female offspring, which doesn’t tell us much:

So, birders, you tell me: same duck or different duck?

Lagnaippe: Water reflections from Botany Pond, this morning.

Okay, time for the ducks’ second feeding.



  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    No way, bro. But as your boy Mr. Stills says, love the one you’re with.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      That is very good – I was just going to say ducklemma.

  2. GBJames
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    It is clear that PCC[E] has found his purpose in life!

  3. Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Same pond. Responds to your whistle. Has conditioned you to feed it. Same duck.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      That’s basically my take, too. But I could be wrong.

    • Posted March 18, 2018 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. We have little info on stability of bill colors, but the behavior seems pretty diagnostic.

      • Dominic
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 7:11 am | Permalink


    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      There is a somewhat useful sounding obvious controlled experiment. Find another female duck who is obviously *not* the one, and see how she reacts to whistling.

  4. Liz
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    It looks like if Honey’s bill “filled in” with black all the way like the new duck’s black is, it would be connected to that front black point on the bill. The new duck’s bill has a thick strip of yellow separating that. Honey’s black coloring on the bill would have had to receded to be the new duck. I do not know anything about the coloring of bills in ducks. It could be. The offspring looks like the bill is too black to be the new duck unless the coloring also receded in that duck.

    • eric
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      I found this: “female ducks, once they reach egg-laying age, develop freckles on their bills, while male ducks have bare bills throughout their lives.”

      Honey already had freckles when PCC started feeding her last season. However, if darker coloring (via freckles) is something female ducks can develop over time, then IMO it very well could be the same duck.

      • eric
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        Two other comments:
        (1) I maintain that if this duck was simply in the pond with Honey last year, she could easily have learned “this human feeds after whistling,” and that could be the explanation.

        (2) It’s possible that Jerry has found an undiscovered area of science. While I found some references that assumed adult duck bills retained the same width and length once they matured, I really didn’t find anything about pigment change or cell replacement rate or anything like that. Jerry’s ‘is it the same duck’ question may turn out to be a good subject for someone’s Ph.D. thesis. 🙂

        • Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          Diane G. found something at the Cornell U. website, about bills changing color. Her comment is under (one of) Jerry’s previous ducky post.

  5. Bill Turner
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Be interested to see a photo that included New Duck’s feet. Honey’s had some very distinctive markings (see the front of bill view) that might be able to be used for identification.

    • Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I was thinking, at first. But it might be difficult to differentiate black markings from soil on the feet, in that photo.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    You need to get some samples for DNA testing. Or, should have?

    • Diki
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes a duck fur trap the critter swims towards, a food source with some velcro like material to capture feather samples. I have read before that some species of female bird although apparently mating for life actually have cheating feet and have a brood from numerous partners. Voila, a paternity test as well for the chicks! Come on Jerry, there’s work to be done…

  7. Posted March 18, 2018 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I can’t tell; but, if it’s a different one, you are The Duck Whisperer. I love the pond photo!

  8. Liz
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    There really is a lot of yellow on the new duck’s bill. Can anyone confirm the new duck isn’t a male Mexican mallard?

    • Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      I’d think the mallard drake following her around the pond should know.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I dunno, buddy o’ mine got fooled like that in a Copenhagen nightclub one time.

  9. FB
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I’d try the three-note call in another pond and see what happens.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      Do you know the notes? Mebbe Jerry’ll let you barrow his charts.

      • FB
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

        I meant I would if I were Dr. Coyne. A video with good quality sound might be helpful. Maybe some readers can help with the experiment. If only works with one duck…

  10. Posted March 18, 2018 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know how this works in ducks, but an individual gull’s bill colour and mottling regularly changes over the course of a year. Seasonal hormonal changes and differences in food choice cause these changes. So identifying an individual by bill markings/colour is not possible. Even if you know what the bill looks like in all seasons, a bad food year can still throw this diagnostic off.

    I remember lots of pictures of Honey from the summer and fall, but do you have pictures of her from the early spring last year? When were these photos taken? Perhaps New Duck’s bill markings will change as we move into summer?

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      I’m confused but fascinated, and I wouldn’t venture to make a guess at this juncture. The argument that “darwinwins” advances is compelling, but it doesn’t explain the distinct difference in bill coloration.

      I’m finding info stating that the bill color of male mallards changes during breeding season, but no definitive info on females, though on one message board (and I’m wary of unsourced info on message boards) states that mallards’ bills can change color depending on what they’re eating, as you observe about birds’ bills in general.

      I also read that female mallards develop spots on their bills when they become sexually mature; then I read that some females develop spots, which doesn’t rule out the spots being due to sexual maturation, but is confusing because it could simply mean some random females develop spots because of another reason — genetic or whatever.

      In my searches I came across this interesting paper “Carotenoid-based bill colour as an indicator of immunocompetence
      and sperm performance in male mallards,” v, re male mallard bills and why females like ’em yellow, which I’ve just begun to read.

      • Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

        Interesting paper! I’m going to take a look at that too.

        Purely anecdotally, there’s a male mallard who lives on the lagoon near my apartment with a bluish bill (I believe he might be a descendent of a Northern Pintail x Mallard crossing). I’ve watched him for 3 years now and noticed that his bill colour definitely changes with the seasons. In the fall/winter, the bill is very pale, almost grey. But in the breeding season, it becomes almost as blue as a Northern Pintail’s.

        • Jenny Haniver
          Posted March 18, 2018 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          From what you report and from what little I can find re these changes of bill color, particularly with mallards, and also taking that paper into consideration, I’d say that the changes in bill color shouldn’t be considered an insignificant matter; and mallards are practically ubiquitous.

          One thing can be said with certainty — whatever the identity of the female, her swain has a bright yellow bill. She’s chosen well.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Here’s what Birds of North America says about mallard bill color/pattern changes:

      Bill broad, about as long as the head, and higher than broad at the base. Middle part of culmen slightly concave but wide, flat, broadly rounded tip is convex. Culmen and tip dull black. Hatchling bill flesh-colored and spotted black with a dull-black tip. Juvenile male bill color blend of pale olive and yellowish, sometimes with very dark patch on upper mandible. Juvenile female bill color blend of dusky olive and yellowish; may have dark blotches on upper mandible. In male Definitive Alternate plumage, bill almost entirely yellow with greenish cast, while in female Definitive Alternate plumage, bill ranges from brownish olive to orange, usually with blackish blotches focused on midsection of upper mandible. Bill of male Definitive Basic plumage a duller yellow olive, usually without black patches, while bill of female Definitive Basic plumage yellowish brown or brownish orange.

      While that’s a pretty general description, it does confirm that the bill changes color and pattern from molt to molt (i.e., within the same year).

  11. Roger
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Typo alert! “I don’t think they’re they same duck.”

  12. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the six bills
    Top row is known Honey

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. It is very helpful for ease of comparison, even though given what I wrote above, I can opine only that they’re distinctly different bills. But does that mean they’re distinctly different ducks? How to account for the fact that she comes when called (unless it’s Honey’s daughter)?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

        The second row of bills: Excludes IVA / GST / VAT / HST / Trumpian Border-Adjustment Tax

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

        “How to account for the fact that she comes when called…?”

        She showed up in a small pond in a busy campus in Chicago. Perhaps that means it’s an “urban” mallard that expects to be fed when people appear…

    • Scott
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      I suggest posting this pic as a new blog article, along with a poll:

      o Same duck
      o Different ducks
      o Daffy duck

      Then trust the wisdom of the crowds.

      • Marta
        Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        That’s a great idea, actually. Maybe use the consolidated bill pictures someone kindly constructed up thread.

        I think it’s the same duck, personally.

  13. Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    That’s my thinking too. Need more data!
    Here’s a long shot too – comparison of the male companions in ‘old’ and ‘new’ photos.

    Bill colour can change with age, but I’m wondering if they might change more quickly and visibly with the quality of nutrition. Honey-esque’s bill might change over the summer with Jerry’s kind tending. We might possibly have a better idea then.

    • Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Ooops. This is meant as a reply to comment #5 by Bill Turner.

  14. Taz
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Even if it’s not Honey, it could still be a duck fed before.

  15. Bruce Lyon
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Based on Michael Fisher’s compilation these do look like different beaks. So if beak patterns generally (not just spotting but dark vs yellow areas) are conserved across years than these would not be the same female. HOWEVER, just to add some fun to the mix, either the female this year is changing over time or there is more than one female involved this year and the ducks are conspiring to mess with Jerry’s mind. Look back at the second photo Jerry posted on March 10 (Houston we have ducks)and note that that female had some black markings along the edge of her beak on the right side. The new female does not have those markings.

  16. Bruce Lyon
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Counter to some of the comments above about black blotches indicating maturity, the species account on the Cornell Birds of North America (typically the definitive source of info on our birds), says that black spots are found on younger birds:

    “Juvenile female bill color blend of dusky olive and yellowish; may have dark blotches on upper mandible.” So it looks like Honey had retained a juvenile bill last year. And, we might expect to see her ditch those spots this year.


  17. Posted March 18, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”
    chances are, you is not…

    Based on the bills Michael Fisher put up, the markings are to dissimilar.
    The daughter? I find that more of a possibly.

  18. Posted March 18, 2018 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    try falsification 🙂

    1: compare the bills of random ducks that are not honey, to establish how different bills can be. Is this a good way to identify ducks to begin with?

    2: call ducks that are not honey, to see how they respond. Do ducks generally behave the way you observe with “your” ducks?

    • Posted March 18, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I agree with these approaches. Though it’d be best to have a chronological series of images of the bill of one duck, to confirm whether color patterns change over time.

  19. Posted March 18, 2018 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Most of the duck’s bill looks like Honey’s bill filled in with black, except for the yellow stripe across the front. It depends on how much the bill can change. If we don’t know anything about that, we can’t tell how likely the duck is Honey.

    TL;DR: The bill test is only a good test if bills are good indicators of ducks.

  20. ladyatheist
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    I think the gray of Honey’s “mottling” could be where melanin has incompletely filled in, and that over time the gray part could now be black.

    But… the yellow strip on top of “Sugar” (If you won’t name her, I will!) seems to indicate she’s a different duck.

  21. Posted March 18, 2018 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    what hideous looking ducks, looks more like rats !

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      The wit of a 12 year old? But the overlong sentences on your pompous blog put you as older.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your aesthetic opinion.

      Personally, I can’t imagine a more quintessentially duck-like duck than a mallard…It’s even one of few species that actually quack (females only).

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      Freemind, you’re a rude person who doesn’t deserve to comment here. Go write on your anonymous website, and hope that some find day, SOMEONE might notice it—or even make a comment.

    • Posted March 19, 2018 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      You must have weird looking rats in your art of the World.

    • Marta
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Why would you take the time and make the effort to write something like that?

  22. Diane G.
    Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Cornell’s Birds of North America has this to say about mallards returning (or not) to previous nesting spots.

    Fidelity To Breeding Site And Winter Home Range

    Natal and breeding philopatry strongly biased toward females (see reviews in Rohwer and Anderson 1988, Anderson et al. 1992). Assume males disperse to breed because few males return to breeding areas. Females return to natal or previous breeding area and males accompany their mates from wintering grounds to breeding grounds.

    Females return to same sites where they had bred previously for up to 4 yr (Sowls 1955, Gollop 1959). Estimated homing rates to previous breeding areas by hens vary from 5 to 58% (Anderson et al. 1992: Table 11.1). Hens that nest successfully return to previous breeding sites at higher rate than unsuccessful ones (Lokemoen et al. 1990a). With resighting probability of 0.65 ± 0.05 SE for marked females, return rates are 43% for adults and 32% for juveniles (Arnold and Clark 1996). Several studies failed to document any male philopatry, but migrational homing of both members of 1 pair has been documented (Dwyer et al. 1973).

    Many locations known to be traditional wintering sites (Bellrose 1980). Some Mallards return to wintering areas in Mississippi Alluvial Valley (Nichols et al. 1983b), but more data needed to confirm individual fidelity.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 18, 2018 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

      & sub

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:20 am | Permalink

      This is intriguing, as is the information concerning bill color in female mallards that you provide in a previous comment. For me, the conundrum is compounded and I’m still confounded.

  23. rickflick
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    In my opinion a new name is required.

  24. grasshopper
    Posted March 19, 2018 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    I have tippled a little this day, but that’s not a duck (apologies to Crocodile Dundee) This is a duck, –>

  25. Posted March 19, 2018 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Looking at Michael’s post that shows all the bills so well, the shapes seem really different–the ridges around the edges, the shape of the nostrils. I would agree that it’s certainly possible that this duck observed her mother’s behavior, and the fact that she’s there makes it more likely she was hatched there.

    If it walks like Honey and quacks like Honey, well, it’s not necessarily Honey :-). We need to get you some digiscoping gear Jerry so you can study your birds even more closely.

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