Blue-winged teal begin returning to many states as they head north in April. Out of the country since their early fall passage in September, the drakes are now dressed for success sporting their sharp breeding plumage.
This small dabbler is known for its twisting, turning flight and for its strafing runs low over the marshes. Its small size and rapid wing beats give the illusion of high speeds.
The pale blue patches on the forewing give this lovely bird its name. It’s the third most common duck in North America, the only continent in which it breeds. Blue-winged teal are among the first ducks to migrate each fall and one off the last to head north in the spring. It migrates the longest distances of any of our ducks, wintering as far south as Peru.
Among the last to attain its nuptial (breeding) plumage, the male blue-winged teal lacks its distinctive white facial crescent in the autumn, but regains it in late December or January. In this plumage, the male also has a steel-blue head and tan chest and sides dotted with deep brown spots.
Females resemble other hen dabblers, though they are appreciably smaller and are virtually indistinguishable from hen cinnamon teal. Blue-winged teal have bills nearly as long as their heads. The drake’s is dark blue-black. The hen’s is gray with black spots. Their legs are pale yellow. Males have an iridescent green speculum that is separated from the blue wing shoulder with a white stripe. This stripe is lacking on the hen, and her speculum is almost black.
Blue-winged teal are more vocal than most ducks. The hen’s quacking is more rapid, high-pitched and softer than a hen mallard. The drake has a low whistle peep.
Blue-winged teal breed primarily in the grasslands of the Prairie Pothole Region and north into the Canadian parklands. They also nest in significant numbers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska, and the intermountain region of the U.S. and Canadian west.
Nesting records also indicate that bluewings will nest in southern and mid-latitude states if water conditions are good. When habitat conditions are particularly good, blue-winged teal breed by the hundreds in marshes and fresh water ponds along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. The varying response of blue-winged teal to unusual water conditions far south of their primary breeding grounds is amazing. Although some other species exhibit similar behavior, none do it to such a grand scale as the blue-winged teal.
Blue-winged teal numbers reached 5.9 million birds in 2006. This was 28 percent greater than the 2005 estimate of 4.6 million birds, and was 30 percent above the long-term average.
Blue-winged teal breeding population estimates, 95% confidence intervals, and North American Waterfowl Management Plan population goal (dashed line) for selected species in the traditional survey area (strata 1-18, 20-50, 75-77).