Bird Lore: Blue-winged Teal

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The Blue-winged Teal can be seen occasionally during spring at the Edmonds marsh. It migrates through and continues on to its inland breeding grounds. This species breeds across Canada and the interior of the U.S., including Eastern Washington. It’s a small duck to be on the lookout for at the marsh, fun to spot because it is uncommon in Edmonds. All three teal species are quite a bit smaller than the Mallards and Gadwalls typically seen in the marsh.

The third photo shows two males that passed through the marsh in early June 2014. They may have been nonbreeders. Birds of any species that fail to breed can wander a bit, showing up when unexpected. It is quite difficult to distinguish an adult female Blue-winged Teal from an adult female Cinnamon Teal. With a close view, the narrow patches of white at the base of her bill can be seen, as in the fourth, fifth, and sixth photos. These are absent on the female Cinnamon Teal. The surest way to confirm which species is to see a female in close association with a male Blue-winged Teal.

As a dabbling duck, the Blue-winged Teal is drawn to freshwater ponds and marshes, particularly in open country. It also frequents brackish marshes near coasts. In migration it can be found on any shallow waters, inland or coastal. That is why a few pass through the Edmonds marsh in spring migration. In winter the Blue-winged Teal can be found along the Gulf Coast and as far north on the Eastern Seaboard as Norfolk, VA. This species also winters more extensively in South America than any of the other dabbling ducks. Flocks in migration can sometimes be seen over the ocean, many miles offshore.

The Blue-winged Teal has a diet similar to that of all dabbling ducks. It eats mostly plant materials, favoring seeds of various grasses, sedges and pondweeds. Snails, crustaceans, insects and other animal matter may be important to its diet in some seasons. Unlike other dabblers such as the Mallard, the Blue-winged Teal rarely upends itself for foraging. It usually gleans items from the surface of shallow water or swims forward with its head partly submerged.

Since pair formation mostly takes place in early winter, Western Washingtonians rarely see courtship displays. The male has various displays but the one that would be hilarious to see is when he submerges his head and front of his body, raises his tail and waves his feet in the air. This species selects a nest site on the ground on a prairie, hayfield or coastal meadow, sometimes several hundred yards from the nearest water. The nest is a shallow depression of grass or weeds and lined with down. It is well concealed by surrounding vegetation.

The female lays 9-13 eggs. Where Ring-necked Pheasants are present, such as in North Dakota, they will sometimes lay eggs in a teal nest. The female incubates her eggs for 23-24 days. Hatchlings leave the nest within their first day of life. They find their own food even though the female tends them for their first few weeks. The young are capable of flight at 38-49 days, but broods of young birds are often left alone before they are old enough to fly.

The Blue-winged Teal is one of the latest ducks to migrate northward in spring and is one of the first to head southward in fall. The oldest Blue-winged Teal of record was a male that was at least 23 years and three months of age. He had been banded in Saskatchewan and found in Cuba. There are a number of collective nouns for a group of any teals, including coil, dopping, knob, paddling, and spring of teals.

Conservation status of the Blue-winged Teal is that of low concern. The population remains fairly stable, fluctuating between 2.8 and 7.4 million birds, primarily in response to water conditions. In drought years the population declines. It is the second most abundant duck in North America, following the Mallard. It is not subject to hunting pressure because most of the population is gone before waterfowl hunting seasons open. The USDA Conservation Reserve Program funds farmers to keep some of their fields fallow. That has led to a 1.8 million acre increase in nesting habitat in the prairie pothole breeding range of the Blue-winged Teal. As are other ducks, the Blue-winged Teal is vulnerable to the loss or degradation of wetlands and to consumption of lead shot where it is still allowed. It is also vulnerable to pesticide contamination, and particularly to DDT, which is still used in South American countries where this teal winters.

The Blue-winged Teal is more vocal than most duck species. Its high-pitched peeping and nasal quacking are heard commonly in spring and to a lesser extent in fall. The interactions of several pairs on the water in early June can be heard here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/184982. Female flight calls can be heard here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/173312.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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