A Teal Tale

While they are often lumped together, each of North America's teal species stands apart

© GARYKRAMER.NET

by Chris Madson

Thomas Morton must have been an avid waterfowler. In his memoir, he wrote at length about the abundant waterfowl hunting opportunities in and around the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of teal, he wrote that "there are of two sorts: Green-winged and Blue-winged. A dainty bird, I have been much delighted with a roast of these for a second course: I had plenty in the rivers and ponds about my house." Such was waterfowling in Massachusetts circa 1628.

Among the many fascinating observations Morton made about hunting in that time and place, his casual distinction between two species of teal is particularly interesting. The greenwing was a bird he must have encountered in England. Known in the old country as the "common teal," the Eurasian subspecies was well known to hunters for millennia before it was first described for science by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner in 1555.

The bluewing, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal, endemic to the New World, a bird that should have struck Morton as something unusual and worth an additional remark. The species gained official scientific recognition from the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in 1767. In his classification, Linnaeus depended on a report from Mark Catesby, the pioneering American ornithologist, who, in 1731, gave a detailed description of the plumage of a bluewing drake and hen.

These were the two teal of the eastern United States, familiar to any serious hunter or student of natural history from the 17th century onward. Far to the west, there was another teal, spectacular in its plumage and reclusive in its choice of breeding grounds. Lewis and Clark traveled through the northern edge of the bird's range on their way to the Pacific and back, but, while they discovered the tundra swan, the white-fronted goose, and the ring-necked duck, they failed to notice the cinnamon teal, in spite of the drake's magnificent plumage. In 1834, the young Pennsylvania naturalist John Townsend traveled to Oregon with the Wyeth expedition and spent the next two years at Fort Vancouver on the Oregon coast, collecting hundreds of species of birds, including 28 that were new to science—but the cinnamon teal wasn't one of them.

Credit for discovery of the species fell to a man who never got within 2,000 miles of the cinnamon teal's native range. He was Louis Vieillot, a French businessman with a deep interest in birds. Vieillot spent several years in Haiti at the end of the 18th century, where he apparently bought the skin of an unknown bird from a merchant captain who said he had gotten it on the Rio de la Plata near Buenos Aires, Argentina. When Vieillot moved back to France, he took the skin with him, classifying it as a new species in 1816. Twelve years later, Captain Philip King of the British Royal Navy collected another specimen in the Straits of Magellan.

It turned out that the cinnamon teal was mostly a bird of South America. Of the five subspecies generally recognized today, four are found south of the Panama Canal. The fifth breeds along the streams and in the marshes of the Rocky Mountain West from British Columbia as far south as the highlands of central Mexico and winters from southern California to the Yucat√°n. The first report of this northern subspecies came from Louisiana in 1849, and, in the 20 years after that, naturalists began finding cinnamon teal across the West, especially in major wetland complexes like those around Utah's Great Salt Lake and in California's Central Valley.

So the three American teal made their way into the scientific literature and the public's attention at very different times. Taxonomists have always thought blue-winged and cinnamon teal were closely related, and recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA confirms that kinship, along with a surprisingly close relationship with the northern shoveler. Both species have been moved from the genus Anas to the genus Spatula, joining the shoveler.

The greenwing is a more distant cousin. Specialists continue to wrangle over whether Eurasian and American green-winged teal should be considered separate species, but it's long been clear that greenwings are markedly different from bluewings and cinnamon teal. Greenwings remain in the genus Anas, along with most of the rest of North America's dabbling ducks and, according to the DNA work, are more closely related to mallards and pintails than to other teal.

What we see over the decoys bears out some of these differences. Greenwings are the smallest ducks in North America, and the science of bioenergetics says they should be in Mexico at the first sign of frost. But they remain farther north than the other teal, often hanging out with the greenheads, waiting for the first southern breeze to start back north. They also go farther north to raise their broods, flying deep into the Boreal Forest and even to the arctic tundra to nest.

In spite of their shared bloodlines, blue-winged and cinnamon teal have their own differences. Cinnamon teal don't migrate nearly as far as bluewings, nor do they fly as far north to breed. This difference in choice of nurseries may account for the difference in the abundance of the two species. With an estimated breeding population of 5.4 million birds, blue-winged teal were second only to the mallard in abundance in 2019, the last year in which comprehensive surveys were conducted on the breeding grounds.

Data about the size and status of the cinnamon teal population is limited. Most of the birds nest outside the area covered by traditional surveys; they disperse over a huge area in the winter; and hens and young of the year are almost impossible to distinguish from blue-winged teal. Forty years ago, the legendary researcher and author Frank Bellrose estimated that there were between 260,000 and 300,000 cinnamon teal on the continent during the breeding season, one of the smallest population estimates for any North American duck. The US Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey suggests that cinnamon teal have been declining at a rate of almost 1 percent per year since the survey began in 1966.

It would be easy to think of teal all in a lump, those little ducks that buzz just over the tops of the cattails like swarms of bumblebees, zip into the decoys and land before you can mount the gun, stare at you innocently as you try to get them to flush, and then leave just about as fast as they arrived. Zero to 60 in three wingbeats, leaving you muttering to yourself: "I need to get out in front of them more." As if that's possible. The dog fixing you with that reproachful stare as you reload. Teal.

As with so many things in life, the reality of North America's three teal species is quite a bit more complicated than the simplified view. Old World teal, New World teal. Early teal, late teal. Eastern teal, western teal. Common teal, not-so-common teal. And, as with so many things in life, the nuances often prove to be the most interesting parts of the story. Bluewings, greenwings, and cinnamon teal—may they all prosper. 


Chris Madson trained in wildlife biology and spent 35 years with state wildlife agencies before pursuing a full-time career in freelance writing. He makes his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.