Wings Over The Prairie

photo of Northern Shoveler © Lang ElliottWe’ve all seen waterfowl flying overhead, but few of us are aware of how much sound they make with their wings.

In 1994, Ted Mack and I embarked on a six-month recording expedition. Our first project was to document the spring migration of waterfowl as they moved northward through the prairie states. For nearly two months, we worked numerous lakes and potholes in shortgrass prairie from Nebraska to North Dakota and Manitoba. One of our favorite spots was Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in west-central Nebraska. During one of his visits to the refuge, Ted discovered a long and narrow pothole that appeared to be a primary flight path for waterfowl moving between large marshy wetlands at each end. He noticed that duck after duck would fly the length of the pothole, often only ten or fifteen feet above the surface of the water. During a lull in activity, Ted quickly placed his soundscape microphone along the shoreline and then retreated to his pickup truck a few hundred feet away. There he smiled with pleasure as ducks not only flew over the mic, but also landed and swam right in front of it. Here are some highlights from his session, featuring the wing sounds of a variety of species, including Common Goldeneye, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, and Northern Shoveler:

Wing noises of various species of waterfowl flying over and landing in a prairie pothole. 8 am, 23 March 1994, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in western Nebraska. Recording by Ted Mack.

Can you believe the incredible whooshes made by the ducks in flight? I was shocked when I first heard these sounds. Sure, I had heard the musical twittering of beating wings and some measure of swishiness, but never anything so powerfully loud as what Ted has documented. Good job Ted!!

Let me help you identify some of the sounds. The musical wing twitter or whistle that is prominent about a third of the way through is made by the Common Goldeneye (also called “The Whistler”). Listen also for the loud musical peeps of Green-winged Teal, heard right after the Goldeneye. The odd nasal notes heard at various points are made by Lesser Scaup—a small group was swimming not far from the microphone. About halfway through, listen for a male Ring-necked Pheasant that cackles and then shakes his wings. About two-thirds the way through, a Northern Shoveler takes flight and makes calls that sound like chux, chux, chux.

So whatya think of these amazing sounds? Please leave a comment and let me know.


  1. The very first wing swoosh I heard, during the very first time I listened to this recording, I thought it was a car driving by. This isn’t the first time I’ve listened to this recording.

    In addition to all the ducks mentioned (Green-Winged Teal, Common Goldeneye, Northern Shoveler, Lesser Scaup), I also hear Gadwalls, a Killdeer in the beginning of the recording, Western Meadowlarks, and a Red-Winged Blackbird. I hear the pheasant too, and through headphones his wings shaking sounds wonderful. Also thought I heard a single call from a Redhead, but I really think that was just me.

    One very good question Lang: In the bird song CD for the book “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” is that you that says most of the bird names throughout the CD? Even better question, the birds that you mentioned, did you record the sounds for each species?

  2. How apropos! I was reading the end of a Scott Weidensaul book today, as he relayed tales of Eskimo Curlews and the flight sounds that their wings made. This was very good sonically.

  3. Such amazingly “mechanical” sounds, at first I thought, “too bad, that jet pass…” And whoever came in at about 2:00 sounded so like a helicopter! Incoming sounds more resemble “mechanical” to me, but I recognized the take-offs as bird-made. What a fun recording, as well as instructive. This would be great in a classroom!

  4. I have really never took the time to listen to ducks in flight….this is awesome! Every winter the Goldeneyes flock by the hundreds in front of the Mio dam on the AuSable river and they sound like a jet when they come into land.

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