The Beautiful Blue-Winged Teal
One of the smallest ducks in North America travels such great distance between breeding and wintering grounds, as much as 7,000 miles.
In 1840, John James Audubon said that the flight of these birds was extremely rapid, and he felt that they pass through the air as quickly as a passenger pigeon.
In 1899, Dr. Yorke wrote that they travel at approximately 130 mph, exceeded only by the Green-Winged Teal.
These birds have a fast take-off from the water and fly rapidly, often turning and twisting in small compact flocks. The Blue-Winged Teal is a fast duck, but its reputation has always flown much faster than the bird itself.
When Nature Calls...
These ducks are generally silent, but while in flight, they may twitter. I have heard a quiet quack from the female and the male whistle-peeps.
These are one of the last ducks to leave the south and show up on the breeding grounds. By the time they are ready to breed, they are already paired due to their lateness in arrival. They will perform their courtship rituals while they migrate northward. The ritual takes place both on the water and in flight. The flight is more of a pursuit than a courtship and most generally involves three ducks: one female and two males. This is a flight of agility and great stamina, where these ducks will twist and turn like acrobats on the trapeze, which makes them so famous.
On the water, the female can be the instigator by emitting a quiet, “errrrrr,” call. The interested male will then do a chin-raising and perhaps a soft whistle, while either swimming with her or toward her. Then he will up-end himself to feed, showing her his brightly colored legs, and with birds, color is very important. Then they will give each other head bobs before they mate.
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Nests are difficult to find, as they have roofs, under a clump of grass. The female selects the location and incubates, and the male will abandon her then. Incubation is roughly three weeks, and when she seeks food, the female will cover her eggs with down and grass. The reason is twofold: she is keeping them warm and hiding them from the wrong eyes. The young won’t leave the nest for a day to a day and a half, due to the reserves that they were born with. When they do leave, they will grab at tiny insects that are slow enough and are attracted by shiny objects. They soon learn what they can and can’t eat. The young resemble the female, as does the male before he acquires his breeding plumage.
The ducklings fledge in about 6 weeks. This teal has a normal flight speed of 50 mph, but that can increase or decrease due to winds for and against them. Speeds are obtained by clocking them with a car, or if a naturalist is sophisticated enough now, there is radar. Although the Blue-Winged Teal is fast, it cannot hold a candle to a Northern Pintail, a Mallard or a Canvasback. They are heavier and stronger.
Diet and Predators
For migration, the blue wings travel north around March 1, returns south around the end of August, and the trip could take a couple of months.
These ducks prefer fresh water over salt, and favor smaller bodies of water like lagoons and smaller lakes, as protection is afforded by marsh grasses. They don’t appear to be a watchful bird, as I can get fairly close photos of them. Plant material is of the greatest interest to these ducks, with a smaller emphasis on tiny crustaceans, tadpoles, worms, and insects.
Many eggs don’t hatch, as raccoons, squirrels, blackbirds, foxes, etc., eat the eggs. Hawks and eagles are common predators, and naturally, disease and accident contribute to their demise.
The oldest Blue-Winged Teal on record was 23 years and 3 months.
The Blue-Winged Teal is second to the Mallard as the most prolific in North America.