September Animal – Blue-winged teal
This month, Jan and Scott Hygnstrom, both of University of Nebraska - Lincoln Extension, write about one of the first ducks to migrate north in the spring and south in the fall.
The blue-winged teal (Anas discors) is a small duck, about 15 to 16 inches long, that you may see migrating through Nebraska in September. People are amazed at their swift, agile flight. In September, small flocks may buzz ponds and lakes like airplanes in formation, zipping around to check areas for feeding and roosting.
Both male and female blue-winged teal have a blue patch on the shoulder that can be seen when they are flying. The blue patch of the male is larger and associated with an iridescent green patch on the lower wing. Overall their bodies are tan, while females are mottled brown and their wings are less colorful. The photo by Rob Whitney, a member of Ducks Unlimited, shows the blue patch on the wing.
Blue-winged teal nest throughout the US and into Canada. Those that nest in Nebraska breed in late winter and early spring in marshes and nest in grasslands next to wetlands and small ponds. A pair will produce 8 to 10 young. If a female loses a nest, she will renest, but the success rate is lower. The mother cares for the young until they are ready to fly, about 40 days after hatching.
Teal feed on aquatic vegetation such as duckweed, and eat seeds such as smartweed seed. They also feed on aquatic invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, snails, and clams. Blue-winged teal are early migrators. They begin to stage in September, forming flocks of 20 to 200, feeding and preparing to move southward. Cooler weather and northerly winds may start them migrating south.
Meanwhile, teal that nested in North Dakota, Alberta, and farther north are doing the same thing. Their migratory route brings many of them through Nebraska long after ours have moved south. Destinations range from Southern US to South America.The photo of three blue-winged teal is from the Encyclopedia of Life.
The population of blue-winged teal is healthy, with about 7.7 million birds now. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies manage hunting to provide recreation and maintain healthy populations. Our activities can impact them, as they can get tangled in discarded fishing line and suffocate when eating plastic trash. As with many other wildlife species, blue-winged teal suffer the most from habitat loss such as draining wetlands and loss of grasslands. Ideally, 80 to 160 acres of grasslands near a wetland will provide nesting habitat for several teal hens, as well as other birds. Without large tracts, they are forced to nest in thin strips of cover that are easy for predators such as raccoon, foxes, opossums, bull snakes, and coyotes to search. These predators may eat eggs and nestlings, as well as adult hens.
The University of Michigan Animal Diversity Webpage has more information.