Bird Watcher's General Store

American Wigeon
03/12/21


Dear Bird Folks,

When I walk by my local pond, I hear loud “peeping” coming from some ducks on the far side. (Please listen to the attached audio clip.) Why are the ducks peeping instead of quacking?

- Leslie, Orleans, MA

It’s a stereotype, Leslie,

In these days of anti-labeling, you should know that when it comes to quacking, most wild ducks don’t do it. It’s true. Our exposure to domestic ducks, Mallards and, of course, cartoons, has given us the impression that quacking is a total duck thing, but it really isn’t. For example: Instead of quacking, Wood Ducks make whiny sounds, like puppies wanting to go out; Buffleheads sound like they’re choking on crackers; and eiders produce a muffled din, reminding me of old couples playing bridge. Many other duck species tend to simply remain quiet, rarely making any sound, quack or otherwise. However, there is one non-quacker that is actually rather chatty. It’s the American Wigeon and it’s the duck heard on your recording. We’ll talk about its voice in a minute, but first I want to mention what appears to be its unfortunate haircut.

When comes to ducks with bad hair, most people bring up the Red-breasted Merganser (another non-quacker). Long, stiff and irregular head plumes make this duck look like a punk rocker who just got out of bed. But at least it has “hair.” The unlucky drake American Wigeon has a white-feathered “bald” patch running right down the middle of its head, like a victim of a fraternity prank. In fact, the original name for this bird was “baldpate,” but eventually that term was changed when it was deemed too insensitive. There was also another change to this bird’s name, the spelling of wigeon. My older bird books spell wigeon with a “d,” as in widgeon. Don’t ask me why they changed it, but it’s really upsetting my computer’s spellcheck.

In addition to its white patch, the male wigeon has distinctive green marks behind each eye, rusty sides and a black bum. The light blue bill is noticeably stubby, perfect for munching on grass and short plants, the bird’s food of choice. But regardless of the field marks, the best way to identify this bird is from its constant chatting. As I mentioned earlier, many duck species prefer to keep silent, but the American Wigeon is not the quiet type. Long before you can actually see this bird, you are likely to hear the male giving his high-pitched and energetic “whee-whew” call. (Your description of “peeping” is also acceptable. Just don’t call him “bald” or add the letter “d” to his name.)

Although there are a handful of records of American Wigeons breeding here in Massachusetts, those appear to be outliers as the bulk of these birds nest in the wilds of Canada and Alaska. Once the summer is over, they move south and into our ponds and saltwater bays. And whenever you see a flock of American Wigeons, you should also keep an eye out for their foreign cousin, the Eurasian Wigeon. Each year, one or two adventurous birds leave Iceland, fly across the Atlantic and spend their winter here on Cape Cod. Often found with the locals, this European version has a rusty-red head and a cream-colored patch on its head, like it’s trying to go blond. Speaking of the Eurasian Wigeon…

I was sitting at my desk, finishing my response to your question, when my wife walked in holding her iPhone. “What is this duck with the red head?” she asked. “It was with a flock of wigeons.” I looked at her phone, hit my computer’s save button and headed out. A saltwater pond near our house has been busy this winter, providing a safe haven for loons, goldeneyes, gadwalls and recently a large flock of American Wigeons. While searching for the wigeons I had to be cautious, as they are notoriously shy and flush easily. As soon as I spotted the flock, I stopped. Then, using my advanced birding skills, I took one more step to get a better view and the birds instantly took to the air and flew away. Rats! How does my wife get close enough to the birds to take a picture with her crummy phone, yet they all bolted as soon as I even looked at them from a distance? Fortunately, I was able to catch a glimpse of the duck with the red head long enough to confirm it was indeed a visitor from Iceland. But I was still disappointed I didn’t get a better look. Next time I’ll have to ask my wife to lead the way.

I know it’s surprising, Leslie, but with a few exceptions (hen Mallards, Black Ducks and barnyard birds), most other ducks are non-quackers or are quiet altogether. While wigeons don’t quack, they are far from silent. If you ever hear a flock of ducks peeping, you’ll know wigeons are around. Just remember, they are shy birds so don’t expect to get very close…unless you’re with you-know-who.

FYI:

Because of the year-long shutdown, many folks have turned to feeding birds for entertainment. This is a good thing, except the unusually high demand for birdseed has started to outstrip the supply. That means we might have to deal with higher prices and even shortages. This is not good for people like me. But on the bright side, at least I have toilet paper again and it’s hard to overstate how important that is. Using corncobs everyday was getting old.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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