Bird Lore: Cinnamon Teal

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The Cinnamon Teal is a marsh duck that is found only in the Western Hemisphere, from the southern latitudes of Canada to South America. In the United States it is found in the West. It can be seen annually in Edmonds, usually at the Edmonds marsh during migration in spring or fall. This teal breeds across the state of Washington in permanent and seasonal freshwater wetlands.

Most of the population vacates its breeding range in winter for the American Southwest and Mexico. Small numbers of Cinnamon Teal, however, can be found in the Puget Sound counties in winter. I took the third photo of three females on wetland ice several winters ago between Everett and Mill Creek.

Diet is mostly seeds of smartweeds, sedges, grasses, and pondweeds. The Cinnamon Teal also consumes insects, snails, and small crustaceans. One study showed migrating teals eating mostly plant materials in fall and animal matter (mostly insects) in spring. It forages in shallow water by swimming forward with its bill partially submerged. This allows it to strain food from the water. One feeding bird may follow another to take advantage of food stirred up by the paddling actions of the first bird.

It is common for several males to court one female. They do so with ritualized mock feeding and preening displays. Short display flights can develop into pursuit, with the males chasing the female. Once a pair has formed, the female will select a nest site, usually close to water and concealed by sedges, weeds, and salt grass. The nest, lined with down, is a shallow depression of dead grass and weeds. The nest is so well concealed that the female only approaches it through tunnels in the vegetation.

The female incubates her 9-12 eggs for about three weeks. She leads the young to water soon after they hatch. The young birds find their own food but they are not able to fly until seven weeks after hatching. If danger threatens the young, the female will use a broken-wing act to distract a predator. Unlike most duck species, the male Cinnamon Teal is sometimes seen accompanying the female and young brood on the water.

The oldest Cinnamon Teal of record was a female, 10 years and six months of age when shot in California in 2010. She had been banded in that state in 2001. A group of Cinnamon Teal are collectively referred to as a seasoning of teal.

For conservation purposes, the Cinnamon Teal is a bird to be watched. Information on its population is spotty, but it appears to have declined between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. It is listed as a common bird in steep decline, one that continues to be hunted across its range. This species may be affected by pesticides and other contaminants in waters that it uses. As a bird of marshes and wetlands, the Cinnamon Teal is also vulnerable to the continued practice of draining wetlands and to silt runoff in existing wetlands.

You can listen to a male calling repeatedly here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/284309. There are few recordings of the Cinnamon Teal available. While this one contains vocalizations of six other species, the continuous calls of the Cinnamon Teal are obvious.

— 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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