Photo courtesy Charles Martinez
This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the gadwall.
Calling this bird drab, as many references do, ignores the intricate feather patterns of the male in breeding plumage. Lacking the bright colors of many, he is called the “gray duck” by waterfowl hunters and from a distance this is his appearance. A close look reveals the wavy black lines called vermiculation over his gray feathers and his rust-brown-colored shoulders, which confer an elegant look.
A female is very difficult to distinguish from a mallard female. The female gadwall’s darker bill with orange only along the sides sets them apart. Breeding pairs form in the fall and, by November, most females will be with their mates, making identification easier.
Though males leave to molt once incubation of eggs begins, the pair will get back together in fall and mate again the following year.
Gadwall are dabbling ducks which mainly feed on the leaves, stems, roots and seeds of submerged aquatic vegetation. Like American wigeon, they often steal plants brought to the surface from deeper-diving coots. During the breeding season, they also eat aquatic invertebrates including snails and beetles.
These ducks occur widely across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Europe and in Asia. In North America, they are more common in the west, where they typically nest in fields and meadows near water, primarily in regions of the prairie. Pairs that breed in northern areas where lakes freeze move south for the winter.
Gadwall are a game bird who have benefited from habitat restoration and wetlands conservation. Although they are the third most-hunted duck species, their numbers have dramatically increased since the 1980s.
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