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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Understanding Waterfowl: Ways of the Wigeon

These fascinating ducks have many characteristics and behaviors that set them apart
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Wigeon are among the first waterfowl to migrate south each year, with some particularly early migrants departing in late August. Wigeon use every flyway during migration, but are most abundant in the Pacific Flyway. They gather in large numbers on fall staging areas for varying durations before finally settling on their wintering grounds. For example, when wigeon first arrive in the Pacific Northwest in September and October, the birds often congregate on bays and estuaries along the coast, where aquatic plants are a reliable food source. As tidal fluctuations increase and heavy rains fill interior floodplain wetlands later in the fall, many wigeon migrate inland. Here the birds find an abundance of food in seasonal wetlands and on adjacent uplands. 
BIRDS OF THE BOREAL American wigeon are among several species of waterfowl that breed largely in North America's boreal forest. This immense region's countless glacial lakes, bogs, beaver ponds and other wetlands produce almost as many waterfowl as the prairies, earning the boreal forest the well-deserved nickname "the other Duck Factory." In addition to wigeon, this region raises the majority of North America's lesser scaup, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, and scoters, as well as significant proportions of this continent's mallards, pintails, and canvasbacks. Boreal wetlands also provide essential migration and molting habitat for ducks and geese that breed on the prairies and in the Arctic. 

Ducks Unlimited has long recognized the boreal forest's importance to waterfowl and was among the first conservation organizations to work to conserve key wetland habitats in the region. In 1989, DU began mapping extensive wetland systems in central Alaska to assist efforts to conserve them. DU subsequently expanded its conservation work in the boreal forest of Canada, launching its Western Boreal Program in 1997. Through this initiative, DU works with a broad coalition of partners dedicated to conserving boreal wetlands and wildlife, including The Pew Charitable Trusts, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, and many other groups. In 2010, the Forest Products Association of Canada signed an agreement ensuring that more than 170 million acres of boreal forest will be managed according to high environmental standards, which will help protect many of the region's most important wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Unlike many other dabbling ducks that mainly consume seeds and grain during fall and winter, wigeon prefer to forage on the stems and leaves of aquatic and upland vegetation. In fact, large flocks of wigeon can often be observed in uplands grazing on grasses and forbs. Wigeon have a short, thick bill that is well designed for grazing. Their legs and feet are also positioned farther forward on their body than in many other ducks. This adaptation is good for walking—and even running—on dry land, but makes diving difficult. Perhaps this is why wigeon regularly congregate with rafts of feeding coots and diving ducks in deeper waters. They are even known to steal strands of vegetation from the bills of these diving birds, giving rise to the wigeon nicknames "robber duck" and "poacher duck."

Nearly half of the continental wigeon population can be found in the Pacific Flyway during winter. Major wintering areas in the West include Washington's Puget Sound, Oregon's Willamette Valley, and the Central Valley of California. Continentally significant numbers of wigeon also winter on the southern high plains of Texas and New Mexico, in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Harvest statistics reflect their migration and wintering distribution. The largest wigeon harvest occurs in the Pacific Flyway, with an average annual harvest of 370,000 birds since 2000; followed by the Central (190,000), the Mississippi (150,000), and the Atlantic (30,000). 
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