American Wigeon

Mareca americana

american wigeon

American Wigeon, photographed at Green Cay Nature Center, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in April 2017.

In his summer finest, the American wigeon male has a jaunty look, almost swashbuckling in appearance, with two brilliant green eyepatches and a broad white strip down the middle of his head.

In winter, the brilliant green is gone but the white remains, becoming this duck's most distinguishing feature, the one that has earned it the nickname, baldpate, as in bald head.

American wigeons, scientifically known as Mareca americana, are winter visitors to Florida, as they are to much of the United States. Most spend summers in the north central U.S. into the Rocky Mountains, into the central Canadian provinces, the Yukon and Northwest Territories and into Alaska. There's a smaller population that will nest in the Great Lakes Region and along the St. Lawrence River. They'll winter in roughly the southern half of the U.S. and fairly far north along both coasts. Their wintering grounds extend south into Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and to Venezuela on the Atlantic side of South America and Bolivia on the Pacific. They're also found in far eastern Russia and are vagrants to other parts of Asia as well as Europe and even Africa. Worth noting here: the American wigeon has a cousin, the Eurasian wigeon, that occasionally finds its way to this side of the Atlantic. The two birds are somewhat similar, but the Eurasian version has a red head and neck.

Males after mating will fly sometimes great distances to find large, open marshes where they will molt and grow new feathers before heading south for the winter. They are unable to fly during this time, which can last as long as five weeks.

During the summer, American wigeons will take to wetlands, marshes, shallow lakes and ponds with plenty of plants and bugs for forage. They'll nest nearby in fields with tall grass or brush that offer concealment. In winter, they'll take to similarly wet habitats, including bays, flooded fields, estuaries and mudflats, again where food is plentiful. They'll also visit parks and golf courses, where they'll graze on the grass. Mating begins during winter; males and females will pair up and fly north together. Females select the nest site, which could be as much as a half-mile from water. The nest itself is a small depression lined with reeds, grass and feathers. She'll lay a clutch of three to 13 eggs, which will require three to four weeks of incubation before hatching. By this time, dad has gone off to molt; mom handles all of the sitting duty, and shortly after her offspring hatch, she'll trundle them off to the nearest water. The young wigeons can feed themselves, but will stay with mom until after they're ready to fly, about 45 to 63 days after hatching.

American wigeons have a short, blue-gray bill with a dark tip and base; males' heads are gray, with the two green eyepatches, white crown, cinnamon flanks, white rumps and black tails. There's also a variation called the storm wigeon, where the white crest extends to cover most of the face other than the eyepatches. Females have the same bill, but the head entirely gray, darker, almost smuggy around the eyes. Their flanks are light brown and they're mottled above.

American wigeons are members of Anatidae, the family of ducks and geese.

Green Cay Nature Center

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.