Livingston Ripley
Waterfowl Conservancy

Protecting waterfowl and their habitats through research, education and conservation action




Livingston Ripley
Waterfowl Conservancy

Protecting waterfowl and their habitats through research, education and conservation action


Why waterfowl?


You may be curious why the Conservancy chooses to focus on this particular group of birds.  Beyond our historical roots in waterfowl aviculture and conservation, the human relationship with ducks, geese, and swans has been long and complex. 

Waterfowl are:


The beauty of waterfowl is enjoyed by millions of birdwatchers, hunters, artists and photographers of all ages and backgrounds.

  • They are colorful and flashy.  Look no further than the Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata) or North American Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) for excellent examples of avian beauty.

  • They are active and vocal.  They are not skulkers and the majority of species can be found away from dense cover, making them relatively easy to locate and observe.

  • Their calls have been revered by countless cultures as special music for the spirit. Noted ornithologist and artist Roger Tory Peterson once wrote:“Few men have souls so dead that they will not bother to look up when they hear the barking of wild geese.”
  • Waterfowl respond well to people, even approaching them to interact and be fed.  They tame easily and are calm and content in captivity.






Fascinatingly diverse:
 The waterfowl family Anatidae contains over 140 species in 49 genera, and the family tree is a complicated one.  There are dozens of sub-species, well documented hybridization, and unresolved relationships among species.

The relationships among waterfowl have been explored through their skeletal structure, courtship behavior, growth rates, body proteins and DNA.  Several species, like the Ringed Teal (Callonetta leucophrys) and the Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) have jumped entire branches of the family tree between taxonomic revisions. 

Australia is particularly full of waterfowl oddities, including the Cereopsis Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae), Pink-eared Duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus), Freckled Duck (Stictonetta naevosa) and the Musk Duck (Biziura lobata).   All four of these species are so unique that scientists have a hard time identifying their relationships with other waterfowl.

Strong with impressive endurance:  
The feats of waterfowl impress us.  The highest flying bird in the world is the Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus).  The Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) can dive to over 200 feet.  Brant Geese (Branta bernicla) nest as close as 450 miles from the North Pole. A Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) was clocked flying at 100 miles per hour!

Many species of waterfowl partake in long-distance migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic each year.  In the world’s arid regions, waterfowl are nomadic; flying great distances in search of suitable temporary wetland habitats.

Biological indicators and flagship species:
Waterfowl are excellent indicators of overall wetland ecosystem health.  They are sensitive to changes in the abundance and chemistry of water, along with the health of aquatic vegetation and invertebrates.  A healthy “wetland soup” of invertebrates, algae and organic matter is the basis for a healthy ecosystem in which waterfowl are one of the largest creatures in the food web.  

Because of their ecological ties to wetlands, the conservation of waterfowl habitat benefits hundreds of other plant and animal species.  Waterfowl are particularly charismatic wetland inhabitants and act as a flagship species for entire wetland ecosystems.

Vulnerable to change:

Waterfowl populations are at risk due to their diverse habitat requirements during their breeding, migration and non-breeding cycles.  Removing or altering wetlands on the landscape can be devastating to local populations and force migratory species to push on in the search for habitat. The impacts of climate change and human development pose a serious threat to waterfowl all over the world.  Habitat loss and modification have caused the near extinction of the Madagascar Pochard (Aythya innotata), White-winged Wood Duck (Cairina scutulata) Brazilian Merganser (Mergus octosetaceus), and Laysan Teal (Anas laysanensis).

Beyond changes in habitat, humans pose other threats to waterfowl.  Unregulated or illegal hunting has contributed to the decline of the Baer’s Pochard (Aythya baeri), Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), and the Meller’s Duck (Anas melleri).  Introduced predators took their toll on Hawaiian Geese (Branta sandvicensis), New Zealand Blue Duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos), and the South Georgia Pintail (Anas georgica georgica).  Arctic nesting and marine species like the Long-tailed Duck, Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri) and Steller’s Eider (Polysticta stelleri) are especially at risk to Arctic oil exploration and the inevitable spills that come with it.

Competition and hybridization with introduced waterfowl is also a cause for concern.  The White-headed Duck (Oxyura leucocephala) competes for habitat and mates with feral North American Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis). The Hawaiian Duck (Anas wyvilliana) is being inundated with hybrid blood from released Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).  Mallards also compete and hybridize with their cousins the Yellow-billed Duck (Anas undulata), Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa), American Black Duck (Anas rubripes), Spot-billed Duck (Anas poecilorhyncha) and Meller’s Duck wherever Mallards are allowed to invade.


While some species of waterfowl decline, others have taken to man’s modified habitats with ease.  Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) have become a familiar resident (and occasional pest) in the suburban and urban areas of North America as well as the United Kingdom.  Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) and Ross’ Geese (Anser rossi) continue to grow in numbers in North America despite control efforts.  Mute Swans (Cynus olor) can be found living alongside humans in eastern North America and northern Europe.   Despite their successes, none of the species can compete with the versatility of the Mallard. This remarkably adaptable duck has invaded eastern North America, the Hawaiian Islands, southern Africa, and Australasia, while in domesticated forms it can be found just about anywhere humans live. 

The seasonal appearance and inevitable disappearance of migratory waterfowl leave us wanting to know more.   Where do the go?  Which route do they take?  How long does it take them?  With the use of banding, auxiliary markers (like neck collars); radio transmitters and satellite tracking, scientists have made major inroads to answering these very questions. 

  • Pacific Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) make a 60 to 95 hour migration from the Alaskan peninsula, across the Pacific Ocean to wintering grounds on the Pacific coast of Canada, North America and Mexico. Their flight can be as far as 3,000 miles! 

  • The wintering grounds of the world’s population of Spectacled Eiders were only discovered in the mid-1990s.  These cold-hardy birds winter in pockets of open water in the otherwise frozen Bering Sea.

  • Noted Conservationist and Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold wrote: “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw is the spring.”

Culturally significant: 

Waterfowl are important players in religion, literature, animal domestication, animal behavior, aviculture, and even popular culture.

  • The Mallard, Muscovy (Cairina moschata), Graylag and the Swan Goose (Anser cygnoides) have all been domesticated and provide humans around the world with meat, eggs and feathers.  Mute Swans and Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) have been partially domesticated with feral birds found in North America and Europe.
  • Over 90% of the waterfowl species have been kept and bred in captivity. Almost every zoo in the world maintains some sort of waterfowl exhibit or keeps ducks or geese in a display.  Private aviculturists frequently keep waterfowl too, with the practice being particularly prevalent in North America and Europe.  The attractiveness and calmness of captive waterfowl play an important role in educating the general public about the need to conserve wetlands for their wild relatives.

  • Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz studied Graylag Geese (Anser anser) and learned much about animal behavior, including the process of imprinting.
  • Waterfowl, primarily geese and swans, were important figures in Greek and Roman mythology.   These birds also play roles in Indian, Native American, Aboriginal, Buddhist, Anglo-Saxon and Norse legends.

  • Waterfowl appear in phrases of the English language.  “Like water off a ducks back”, “lame duck”,  “wild goose chase”,  “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”,  “like a duck to water”,  “swansong”, “goose-bumps”,  “goose-step”, and  “ to kill the goose that lays the golden egg” are among the most popular.

  • Children’s books like Make Way for Ducklings, The Ugly Duckling, Ping, and Mother Goose are timeless favorites.  Babies bathe with rubber ducks, pre-schoolers play “Duck, Duck, Goose” and older kids play “Duck Hunt” on their game consoles. 

  • Waterfowl are still famous film, comic and cartoon characters. Disney’s Donald and Daisy Duck, along with their Warner Brother’s counterpart Daffy Duck are still popular children’s characters.   “Darkwing Duck” and “Duck Tales” television cartoon shows entertained children when they arrived home from school. Gary Larson’s The Far Side comics often contained ducks.

  •  Turn on the TV and watch the Oregon or Anaheim Ducks game, occasionally interrupted by commercials for the “Toilet Duck” and “Duck Tape”. The Aflac duck, of the domestic breed White Pekin, has been a recent addition to waterfowl in pop culture.
  • Charles Darwin was fascinated by the unusual shape and stance of the domestic Runner Duck and was inspired to document the inheritance of characteristics influenced during domestication.

 Waterfowl are big and easily noticeable. They are visible on the landscape and are large enough to be considered a meal.  Harvest for food, both regulated and unregulated, occurs wherever waterfowl and humans meet.


Economically valuable: 
Hunting waterfowl for sport is big business in the Americas, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.  In the United States alone, in 2011, there were approximately 2.6 million migratory bird hunters who spent $6.5 billion dollars on hunting related travel, equipment and other items.    Through the Pittman-Robertson act, waterfowl hunters contribute over $7.5 million dollars a year to waterfowl research and habitat conservation.

Whole industries have been built around waterfowl hunting.  From “duck guns” and decoys to clothing, ammunition, duck calls, boats and even dogs!  The well-known Labrador retriever and poodle were selected for their ability to retrieve downed waterfowl, and many continue to do so to this day.

Waterfowl watchers also spend a lot of money.  In 2011, American wildlife watchers specifically focusing on waterfowl totaled an estimated 13.3 million people.   Travel, binoculars and other equipment costs for these waterfowl enthusiasts were approximately $550 billion dollars.

Weekly Avian Update


55 Duck Pond Road, P.O. Box 210, Litchfield, Connecticut 06759


Phone: 860.567.2062 / Fax: 860.567.4369/