The American Wigeon is first cousin to last column’s Eurasian Wigeon, and very similar but for the colors of the breeding-plumaged males.
Formerly known as a “Baldpate” due to the white or buffy forehead resembling the bald head of a man, the American Wigeon has become one of the favorites of duck hunters. What I notice first about these dabbling ducks are the high-pitched calls you can hear from a distance. Then there are those rich colors of the breeding-plumaged males, just wait until the sun shines on that head! Here are some of the facts for your enjoyment.
Size: Both sexes are about 20 inches in length, with wingspans of approximately 33 inches, and weighing about 2 pounds.
General Description: The American Wigeon is a small duck with a short, bluish-gray bill with a black base and black tip. Its head is speckled grayish-brown, plain in females and in boldly colored patterns in the breeding males. His breeding colors are a reddish-brown body, black under-tail coverts, a white hip-patch, and an iridescent green swoop across the eyes and down the back of the neck. Both sexes have that same iridescent green speculum, or wing patch, that shows during flight, a white bar above, a white patch in the adult under-wings, and white bellies. Females and juveniles are more of the overall pinkish-brown color.
Habitat: The American Wigeon is the duck most likely to be found grazing on vegetation in fields, but they also spend more time than other dabblers in deep water. In the winter and during migration they can be found in both freshwater and saltwater wetlands, and around the edges of the harbor. In summer they prefer large inland marshes.
Behavior: With a short. goose-like bill, this duck can exert more force at the bill tip than other dabblers, and can dislodge and pluck vegetation more efficiently. This allows a better ability and range of feeding, whether from the surface of the water, grazing in open fields, or even stealing food from coots or other ducks. They feed during day or night, but often forage at night during the hunting season.
Diet: Females and young wigeons will eat many aquatic invertebrates, but the majority of the wigeon diet is plant materials, especially young shoots, roots, and seeds. They also eat a lot of waste grains in agricultural fields.
Nesting: Pair bonds are formed before leaving the wintering grounds, with most of the older ducks paired up before the spring migration. They nest later in the season than other dabblers, perhaps because they nest farther north, at the edge of the tundra. Nests are built in heavy cover on dry land, but usually within 100 feet of a body of water. The female builds a shallow depression nest filled with weeds and grasses and lined with down, lays 8 to 11 eggs, and incubates them for 22 to 25 days. The male leaves before the eggs hatch. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching, and can swim and feed themselves, but the female will protect and tend to them until they fledge at 45 to 63 days after hatching.
Migration Status: When the male wigeons leave their mates, they migrate to open lakes where they join other males for their molt, when they are unable to fly. Following the molt, the fall migration gradually begins, lasting from July through December. The fall migration peaks in western Washington from mid-October to early December. Spring migration lasts from mid-February until early May.
Conservation Status: In the 1980’s, American Wigeon numbers plummeted due to drought. By 1997, the population had recovered to nearly what it was before the drop, and is considered stable. The breeding grounds are fairly safe, but the migration stopover and wintering sites are threatened by the loss of wetlands throughout the United States.
When and Where to Find on Grays Harbor: The wintering population of American Wigeons is denser in the Pacific Northwest than anywhere else in their range, so they are common in wetlands around the Harbor in the non-breeding season. I see large numbers of them on the western edge of the Harbor, particularly during hunting season. They seem to know where the boundary is for the hunting areas.