American wigeons are small ducks that are equally at home on land and in the water. Loud, gregarious and distinctive, more than 2.5 million wigeons live in North America.

Physical Description

Compact ducks, male wigeons have rusty brown feathers with dramatic green eye patches. They have white caps on their heads, leading to their nickname: “baldpate.” When in flight, the male shows off stark white markings on his stomach, under his wings, and on his backside. Females have more subtle plumage, with warm brown feathers all over and a dark smoky eye. Both males and females have short, pale beaks. 

Size

Smaller than mallards, American wigeons are 17 to 23 inches (42 to 59 centimeters) long. Their wingspans are about 30 to 36 inches (76 to 91 centimeters). 

Native Habitat

In summer, they spend most of their time in marshes, near lakes and along coast lines. Unlike most dabbling ducks, which favor shallow water, American wigeons spend a lot of their time grazing on land or in open waters. In the winter, they prefer shorelines with nearby grasslands or marshes. 

Lifespan

The oldest recorded American wigeon lived for 21 years. They typically live for 2-3 years in the wild.

Communication

Wigeon flocks are known to be quite noisy. Males make a breezy three-note whistle, like a soft kazoo, and females have a low growly quack. Female wigeons defend their nests from predators by flying far away from the nest, pretending to be injured by flapping their wings and squawking loudly. 

Food/Eating Habits

Wigeons eat mainly plants and other vegetation, either in or out of the water. While feeding in ponds, lakes and salt water, they nibble on aquatic plants like the upper parts of wigeon grass (named for them), duck sedge, duckweed and cattails.

Their short, sturdy bills help them pluck plants forcefully, allowing them to graze on land easier than other ducks do. They eat grasses and seeds.

In the breeding season, they eat more protein, including insects and small aquatic invertebrates like caddisflies, damselflies, midges, beetles, mollusks and crawdads.

Sleep Habits

They sleep at night and are most active in the early morning and at sunset. They sleep mostly on water.

Social Structure

In the winter, they form big flocks with other waterfowl, including mallards, coots and other kinds of ducks. As spring gets closer, males begin competing for females, chasing them and threatening other males. Courtship displays include posturing and whistles. After mating, wigeons take a few weeks to molt before beginning their annual fall migration. 

Reproduction and Development

Males and females pair up in the wintering grounds, but nesting doesn’t happen until they reach the summer breeding grounds. The female builds the nest on dry ground, usually within 1,000 feet of the water’s edge. Nests are small hollows lined with soft materials including grass, cattails, reeds and feathers. The mother wigeon lays a clutch of anywhere between three and 13 cream-colored eggs and incubates them for three to four weeks. The male stays with the female for about half of the eggs’ incubation. 

Conservation Efforts

American wigeons are a federally protected migratory game bird. Duck harvest is managed by state, federal and provincial governments within the flyway system. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan helps maintain and restore wigeon and other waterfowl populations through habitat protection, restoration and enhancement.

Help this Species

  • Organize or attend a stream, river, lake or other waterway cleanup in your area to preserve aquatic habitats for local species.
  • Protect local waterways by using fewer pesticides when caring for your garden or lawn. Using fertilizers sparingly, keeping storm drains free of litter and picking up after your pet can also improve watershed health.
  • Save water by switching to low-energy appliances, fixing leaks and turning off faucets when they aren't in use.

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