A small duck with a short bill and round head, the American Wigeon has a reddish-brown body, and a speckled grayish head that is plain in females and boldly patterned in males. Its bill is blue-gray with a narrow black border at the base, and its feet are dark gray. Apparent in flight, the speculum, or wing-patch, is dark iridescent-green, looking black at times, with white on the forewing. The male has distinctive, black undertail coverts, a white forehead, and iridescent green band sweeping back from the eye. Females, juveniles, and eclipse-plumage males lack these markings. Males are usually in eclipse plumage in the post-breeding, pre-migration period from July to September. Extremely wary, the American Wigeon is often difficult to get a good look at, as most are quick to take flight when approached; however the loud distinctive whistle it gives is usually a clear indicator.
Breeding Wigeon tend to choose sluggish rivers, marshes and shallow ponds with exposed shorelines and submergent vegetation, adjacent to dry meadows. When raising broods, American Wigeon prefer more open water, unlike most other dabbling species. Migrating Wigeon rely on small and large lakes, quiet rivers, flooded fields and protected freshwater inlets where food is plentiful. Winter habitat includes freshwater lakes, rivers, marshes and sheltered estuaries and bays.
The American Wigeon population experienced a major, drought-induced decline in the early 1980s, cutting the population almost in half. By 1997, the population had steadily recovered to near-former levels and is considered stable. The breeding grounds are fairly stable for this far-north breeder, although migration stopover and wintering sites are threatened by the loss of wetlands that has occurred throughout the United States.
This dabbling duck is migratory and winters farther south than its breeding range, in Texas, Louisiana, and other areas of the Gulf Coast. It is a rare but regular vagrant to western Europe. It is highly gregarious outside of the breeding season and will form large flocks.
The American Wigeon’s preferred foods are leaves and roots of submergent vegetation. As a dabbling duck, they are poor divers, making it difficult for them to obtain this food, so they do the next best thing: steal from those that can. Wigeon are often seen with diving species such as canvasbacks, redheads, scaup and coots, and they have also been known to steal from geese and even muskrats. They wait until these species dive to collect submergent vegetation, and then steal what they lose or sometimes snatch it straight from their mouths. As a result, the Wigeon has been nicknamed “the poacher.” During the breeding and brood season, the American Wigeon’s diet also consists of aquatic invertebrates, such as insects and mollusks; during migration, it will graze on upland grasses, clovers and some agricultural crops.
This species has a large range, with an estimated global Extent of Occurrence of 7,600,000 km². It has a large global population estimated to be 2,700,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2002). Global population trends have not been quantified, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern. [conservation status from birdlife.org]
American Wigeoans are one of the earliest waterfowl to reach their wintering grounds, by this time male and female Wigeon have already formed pair bonds, with pair formation usually complete by February. Males have several courtship displays, such as swimming with heads thrust forward and wings pointed upwards, as well as facing the females with wings pointed upwards and dipping their bills into the water. An unseemly courting ritual is “the burp,” in which the male emits high-pitched vocalization while stiffening his upper head feathers and his body in an erect posture, either ahead, behind, or beside a female. Like most ducks, American Wigeon are considered to be monogamous. Therefore, males usually stay with their mates through spring migration, nest selection, nest building and egg laying, leaving her alone at the end of incubation to group with other males and non-breeding females to molt.
Because it is a secretive duck and often nests in relatively remote landscapes, less is known about the American Wigeon’s breeding habits. Nests are typically located on dry ground, up to 400m from the shoreline, where the nest can be carefully concealed in tall vegetation. Sometimes the female will nest in ground scrapes, lining the nest with leaf litter and covering the eggs with down when leaving to forage. The female will lay 9-12 eggs on average, and incubation occurs over approximately 25 days. Soon after her eggs have hatched, the female removes the precocial ducklings from the nest to the preferred brood habitat (mentioned above). Some species will allow other ducklings to join their broods; the female Wigeon, however, will aggressively prevent this, even with other Wigeon ducklings. To protect her brood from predators, the female will often use a distraction display, such as feigning wing injury, to distract the predator while her ducklings either dive or seek cover in surrounding vegetation, then fly off once the ducklings are concealed. Ducklings do not rely on their mother and feed themselves, relying on mostly insects for several weeks; eventually dabbling and consuming mostly aquatic vegetation. Females typically leave their young either before they fledge (approximately 6 weeks), or, if the female remains at the brood site to molt, after fledge.
Winters mostly along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America and Iceland S to Panama; also on Bermudas and Hawaii. Occurs in very small numbers on eastern side of N Atlantic, where regular in Britain. Vagrants have also reached NE Siberia and Japan.
- spanwidth min.: 76 cm
- spanwidth max.: 89 cm
- size min.: 48 cm
- size max.: 56 cm
- incubation min.: 23 days
- incubation max.: 25 days
- fledging min.: 36 days
- fledging max.: 48 days
- broods 2
- eggs min.: 6
- eggs max.: 12
- Conservation Status