The blue-winged teal (Spatula discors) is one of the smallest dabbling ducks in America. The male’s pattern is unforgettable. His dark head is marked by a striking white crescent at the base of the bill. His body is spotted in an exotic leopard pattern. The spots end in a white patch, then a black undertail. In flight, notice the male’s dark belly.
When molting in late summer, the male blue-winged teal looks almost identical to the female.
The female blue-winged tail looks more or less like any other female duck—brown. But notice her subtle face pattern. A thin, dark line runs through the eye, standing out in sharper contrast than is seen in many other ducks. Another area of contrast is found where her light-colored face meets up with her dark bill.
The topside of the extended wing of both sexes presents unique field marks. The shoulder displays a particularly large patch of light blue, which may appear almost white depending on the lighting. The speculum is a long bar of metallic green, which may look dark in poor lighting. (Note that some females do not show a speculum.) The shoulder patch and the speculum are separated by a thin band of white. These ducks fly swiftly with steady wing beats.
Best Field Marks
- White crescent on the face of the male.
- Blue shoulder patch, best seen in flight.
The male blue-winged teal gives a high-pitched peep or whistle, usually in flight. The female quacks monotonously.
Distribution & Occurrence
This teal is one of the most abundant ducks in Kansas, found across most of the state. It migrates through in April, heading to its breeding grounds to the north. While traveling, it will occupy nearly any body of water, no matter how small or stagnant—in fact, shallow, muddy ponds are its favorite habitats.
In favorably wet years, blue-winged teal stay to breed and nest in the state, particularly the Smoky Hills, the Arkansas River Lowlands, and the southern High Plains. While they frequently nest at large wetlands such as Cheyenne Bottoms, they will also use anything from irrigation ponds to flooded depressions in the ground.
The summer population of blue-winged teal typically leaves Kansas in two waves in October. They often spend the winter in northern South America, but the occasional duck will stay in eastern Kansas every few years.
The blue-winged teal is a tame and sociable duck. When not breeding, it congregates in large flocks, tending to keep toward the shoreline. These flocks are noted for their ability to take to the air rapidly and perform complex maneuvers in tight formation.
In keeping with its fondness for shorelines and muddy waters, the blue-winged teal prefers to forage in shallow waters or on mud flats. While it may tip up to eat, it generally pulls its food directly from the surface of the water or ground. A small portion of its diet is made up of insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, particularly snails. The rest is plant matter, including grain foraged from fields.
Blue-winged teal can be very feisty during the breeding season, many males aggressively courting the same female until she selects one as her mate. Courting activities include repeated head pumping and exaggerated feeding displays. These ducks form one pair per season, but the pair only remains together until incubation begins. The ducks will find new mates the following year.
The female builds the nest, just a shallow depression lined with plants and down. She may lay anywhere from 6 to 15 eggs. The eggs range from white to pale olive in color. In Kansas, laying takes place between mid-May and mid-July. Incubation lasts about three to four weeks. Once the ducklings hatch, they are able to follow the female around almost immediately. They are old enough to fly at 35 to 49 days.
If you have a small, shallow, somewhat murky body of water on your property, you may be fortunate enough to see blue-winged teal on occasion. Building a duck pond is sufficient to attract any that are passing through during the migration season.
Hunters find that these ducks decoy very readily. Small teal decoys are typically used, but decoys resembling female mallards work, as well. While calling is frequently unnecessary, an airborne flock of teal will respond to a quiet, lisping call.
Female Green-Winged Teal
Female teal can be extremely difficult to tell apart. The most reliable field mark is the shoulder patch, visible in flight. The green-winged teal’s shoulder patch is green, just as its name suggests. Other helpful clues are the green-winged teal’s bulkier build and slower, more deliberate flight.
Female Cinnamon Teal
Up to another teal challenge? This one is trickier, because both teal have blue shoulder patches. Pay attention to the duck’s face. The female cinnamon teal’s bill looks almost absurdly long for her face, while her pattern is much less distinct than that of the blue-winged teal. The eye line is much less visible in the cinnamon teal. Also, her body has a reddish (cinnamon) cast.
Female Northern Shoveler
Some birdwatchers confuse female teal with female shovelers. One look at the bill will settle the matter. The teal’s bill is dark, while the shoveler’s bill is mottled orange. The giveaway, however, is the distinctive shovel shape of the shoveler’s bill.
Definitions for the technical terms in this post.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.