The colorful male American wigeon (Mareca americana) has earned for himself the nickname of “Baldpate” with good cause. His gray cheeks and big green eye stripe contrast sharply with his white crown. Overall, however, he is a rosy brown color, almost pink. His flanks are white, setting off his black tail.
The female wigeon is brown overall, with a gray cast on the head and neck and a rustier look on the sides.
In both sexes, note the bluish bill tipped with black. Other key characteristics that the male and female share in common appear in flight, including a green speculum, a white shoulder patch on the upper side of the wing, a white belly, and a dark, pointed tail.
Best Field Marks
- White crown of male.
- Blue bill
- White patch on forewing, visible in flight.
- White “wingpits,” visible in flight.
The male American wigeon is known for his continual whistling, a high-pitched whew-whew or whew-whew-whew. This is believed to be useful in courting, maintaining a bond with a mate, and keeping contact with a flock in flight. The whistles are slower in breeding season and faster in the winter. Courting males also growl softly.
The female gives a guttural quack.
Distribution & Occurrence
The American wigeon is readily found across Kansas, especially from September through May. It will frequent just about any body of water, but it prefers those with both woods and an open place to forage. It will temporarily depart in the winter if the water freezes over.
This duck tends to be more of a casual resident in the summer, as it typically breeds in Canada and the northernmost states. However, Cheyenne Bottoms has proven to be an attractive nesting site for this species.
Few ducks are as wary as American wigeons. They refuse to approach anything suspicious and will take flight on the slightest provocation. If only moving a short distance, they tend to fly in loose, irregular flocks. In longer flights, they typically move in a long light alongside each other, rather than following a leader.
The diet of the American wigeon is varied, consisting of snails and insects during the breeding season and relying almost exclusively on vegetation the rest of the year. This wigeon is extremely flexible in its methods of finding food. On the water, it may pick up plant matter floating on the surface, or it may find a flock of diving ducks and steal their dinners as they come up to the surface. On land, the wigeon is quite comfortable walking along the shore or in fields, sometimes with geese, searching for grass and grain. The American wigeon is considered a pest by some farmers because of its habit of devouring lettuce and alfalfa.
American wigeons court during the winter. The males are extremely aggressive in their pursuit of a mate, repeatedly growling, raising their wings, and jumping out of the water. Pairs breed in April and May, then separate. The female makes a shallow depression lined with plants and down to serve as a nest. She tends her eggs alone, laying seven to nine and sitting on them for 23 to 25 days. The ducklings grow their feathers after five to six weeks.
Most birdwatchers do not actively work to attract American wigeons. Hunters must decoy them with care, keeping in mind their suspicious nature. However, these ducks may respond to a soft whistle.
Breeding male wigeons are easy to tell apart. Look for the Eurasian wigeon’s reddish head and gray sides. He has a crown that may be confusing at first glance, but pay attention to the color. The crown of the Eurasian species is buff, not white like that of the Baldpate. Female wigeons are, unfortunately, nearly impossible to tell apart. Try to get a glimpse of the “wingpits” when the ducks are in flight. The Eurasian wigeon’s “wingpits” are dark, while the American wigeon’s are white.
If the duck has an orange bill, it is a female gadwall. Also note the location of the white on the upper surface of the wing. The gadwall’s white patch is on the trailing edge, not the shoulder.
Female Northern Pintail
The wings are a good clue in this case, as well. The upper surface of a female pintail’s wing is completely dark with no shoulder patch. If the duck is sitting on the water, get a look at its head. A female wigeon will usually show some contrast between the grayer head and the redder neck and body, while the female pintail only displays a whiter throat and neck. Size can be deceptive, but the pintail is larger than the wigeon.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.