DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 14 – Talking Blue-winged Ducks

Hosts Chris Jennings and Dr. Mike Brasher talk about blue-winged ducks – blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, and northern shovelers

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl, from hunting insights to science-based discussions about ducks, geese, and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you. The DU Podcast with your host, Chris Jennings.

Chris Jennings: I've got Dr. Mike Brasher here, and recently ... Well, I say "recently." It's been a couple of years now. Mike wrote an Understanding Waterfowl column for Ducks Unlimited Magazine called Blue-Winged Ducks. And I remember when this column kind of came through routing. I immediately, as along with, I'm sure, other people did, immediately thought about blue-winged teal only and never even dawned on me that the category of blue-winged ducks encompasses seven different worldwide species. But in North America, you've got shovelers, blue-wings, and cinnamon teal. The reality is, people don't even think about that, but you kind of brought up the point that there's some new information regarding the blue-winged ducks.

Mike Brasher: There is a little bit of new information. I think it came out a little bit last year, and it kind of relates to this whole idea of relatedness, phylogenetic relatedness of species. Ornithologists and biologistsin general have a system of classifying organisms would be plant and animals. And they classify those based on their relatedness, one to another. And I don't want to get too deep into our science backgrounds, but you have genus and species as the most basic level of the scientific names. And organisms are classified based on their relatedness into these taxonomic levels of classification. And not surprisingly, the blue-winged ducks are closely related. And previously ... I guess I should back up and say there are several recognized authorities for sort of setting out these taxonomic classifications. And for birds, at least in North America, it's the American Ornithological Union. I think it's now the American Ornithologists Society. So they have this checklist of birds, and occasionally, they'll entertain proposals to change the scientific naming, scientific nomenclature of certain species. And so a couple of years ago, there was a proposal to change the genus name for some of these blue-winged ducks. They were previously in the same genus as mallards and pintails and wigeon, and that was the Anas genus. And more recently here, though, the proposal was made to ... There's probably a longer history here that I don't fully understand all of this. You can probably go back hundreds of years ... not hundreds of years, but decades about all these proposals and alternative classifications. But a couple of years ago, it was sort of made official by this authority that the blue-winged ducks, to be general here, were classified in a new genus, and that is Spatula, S-P-A-T-U-L-A.

Chris Jennings: Spatula. Makes sense for the spoonbill.

Mike Brasher: It's reminiscent of the shape of that bill. And so the shoveler has it retained its specific name, and the blue-winged teal did as well and the cinnamon teal. But now they all have the genus of Spatula, and so that reflects some new understanding of their relatedness. A lot of it's informed by genetic analysis and all that kind of stuff right now. So yeah, that was sort of some neat information that came out. And along the way, over the years, some people had proposed that and had argued for that. And then finally, there emerged enough scientific evidence to convince the powers that be, if you will, to rename scientifically those birds, interestingly the same applied for gadwall and wigeon. Their scientific name, their genus, was changed from Anas to Mareca.

Chris Jennings: Mareca. Yeah, that's a cool little fun fact for everyone.

Mike Brasher: So yeah, a little bit of detailed phylogenetic information there for those that care.

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Chris Jennings: This is just a kind of quick question for me and kind of give the listeners a little bit of understanding. So you've got your blue-wings, your northern shovelers, and your cinnamon teal. Now, they are all prairie-breeding birds, correct?

Mike Brasher: Well, northern shovelers and blue-winged teal definitely are. Well, northern shovelers ... Let me say it like this. They will nest in the prairies. They definitely do nest in the prairies. Blue-winged teal are a bit more opportunistic of those three, and by opportunistic, I mean, they will ... If they find suitable nesting conditions in Texas, Northern Texas, they'll nest there. And some years, there's reports of substantial numbers of blue-winged teals nesting in Louisiana, coastal Louisiana, and coastal Texas. But their densities are definitely greatest in the prairies. Their northern extent is confined to the prairies, maybe a little bit into the southern boreal forest, but by and large, they restrict the prairies. Now, northern shovelers predominantly nest in the prairies, but they will extend up into Alaska as well. They're the most widely distributed across North America. Cinnamon teal are a bit different. They rarely get into the prairies. They are more of an inner-mountain West and a California Central Valley bird, so you're not likely to see those east of the Rockies. It's a pretty rare occurrence for you to make that observation.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. Okay. Yeah, no, I've heard of a couple of guys harvesting cinnamons in Texas.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, that's always a good thing.

Chris Jennings: Very rare, but usually everything else is ...

Mike Brasher: Interestingly, this time of year ... We're kind of in the fall here, October, September, October ... when these blue-wings, blue-winged teal as well as cinnamon teal, are in still in their basic plumage ... They've not really put on their alternate plumage yet ... it's virtually impossible to tell a blue-winged teal from a cinnamon teal. And even in females, regardless of what time of year it is, their plumage is so similar, it's virtually impossible to tell if you're looking at a female blue-winged teal or a female cinnamon teal. The best indicator is whether you're west of the Rockies or east of the Rockies. And I think there are some minor differences based on measurement, measurement of some very detailed feather characteristics.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I noticed that on my wing survey. It came back blue-wing/cinnamonbecause it is almost impossible to distinguish.

Mike Brasher: Virtually impossible, which is really interesting that their wings are so similar, yet I don't think their body plumage, at least on the males, could be more different. You have bright red cinnamon plumage on the males on the cinnamon and blue-wings are just totally not.
Chris Jennings: Well, cool.
Mike Brasher: It's pretty fascinating how that turns out to be the case there for those.
Chris Jennings: Absolutely. All fascinating information, andnow everyone knows that we've had a slight change in the genus.
Mike Brasher: The nomenclature, that's right.
Chris Jennings: The nomenclature has changed. As far as the average duck Hunter goes, you can sit back, and you can refer to the Spatula genus.
Mike Brasher: Spatula.
Chris Jennings: Spatula. Is it just Spatula? I was trying to make it fancy.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. It is pretty interesting. When you go across the country, there will be people that pronounce all these words so differently, the scientific name. Whenever I hear somebody pronouncing scientific name differently than the way I pronounce it, I'm like, "Did I learn that incorrectly, or did they learn it incorrectly?" There's all sorts of variation in the pronunciation. I don't know what's correct or not.

Chris Jennings: Yeah, I'll tell you what I know is correct is spoonbill and Hollywood.

Mike Brasher: You can't go wrong with that.Chris Jennings:That's right. All right, Mike. I appreciate the update. Thanks a lot.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU Podcast. Be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.