American Wigeon Life History


Habitat Lakes and Ponds

During the breeding season American Wigeons use wetlands, ponds, lakes, marshes, and rivers, but females nest on dry ground in nearby grasslands and fields. Outside of the breeding season, they forage and rest in wetlands, rivers, lakes, impoundments, estuaries, bays, flooded fields, and tidal flats that typically have plentiful vegetation both above and below the water surface. In urban and suburban areas, they also frequent parks, pastures, and golf courses to graze on grass.

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Food Plants

American Wigeons eat primarily plants—both aquatic and terrestrial. This including stems and leaves of aquatic plants such as wigeon grass, cattail, sedge, duckweed, and water milfoil; as well as upland plants and seeds of grass, clover, rice, wheat, and barley. They nibble vegetation from the water's surface or tip up to reach underwater vegetation. On land they pluck plants and seeds from fields and lawns with their short bill. During the breeding season they eat more insects and aquatic invertebrates such as midges, horseflies, caddisflies, damselflies, beetles, mollusks, and crustaceans than at other times of the year. Females in particular eat more insects because they need the extra protein for egg laying.

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Nest Placement

Nest Ground

Female American Wigeons select a nest site on dry ground, often far from water (40–1,000 feet), in fields and grasslands with tall grasses or low shrubs.

Nest Description

Females make a small depression on the ground and line it with grasses, reeds, cattails, and down feathers. Females continue to add material to the nest during laying and incubation. The completed nest is about 8 inches across.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-13 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.0-2.2 in (5.1-5.5 cm)
Egg Width:1.5-1.5 in (3.7-3.8 cm)
Incubation Period:22-28 days
Egg Description:Creamy white.
Condition at Hatching:Covered in down and able to leave the nest soon after hatching.
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Behavior Dabbler

American Wigeons seem at home on land and water, waddling through fields and swimming effortlessly through the water. Compared to other dabbling ducks such as Gadwalls, Mallards, and Green-winged Teals, American Wigeons spend more time swimming and cover more ground between foraging periods. When startled, they erupt in flight from the water's surface at a moment's notice, flying erratically and rapidly. Males aggressively compete for females on the wintering grounds, frequently chasing females and fighting off rival males with bill snaps and threatening postures. Courtship displays include tail wagging; thrusting the head, neck, and chest upward; shaking the body; lifting and arching the wings up over the back; head dipping; and wing shaking. Throughout courtship displays males also give a slow high-pitched whistle. Once paired, they stay together until the female is partway through incubation, after which the male usually leaves and prepares to molt. Males leave the breeding grounds first, followed by females and immatures. They migrate mostly during the day, forming small flocks during spring migration and larger flocks (often more than 100 birds) during fall migration. On the wintering grounds they congregate in large groups often mixing with Gadwalls, Mallards, other ducks, and American Coots.

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Conservation Low Concern

American Wigeons are common, but their populations declined by 2% per year between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, resulting in a cumulative decline of 65% over the 49-year period. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 1.4 million. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, which means it is not on the Partners in Flight Watch List and is a species of low conservation concern. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carefully manages duck hunting and limits the number of individuals hunters can take every year based on population size. Hunters took on average 647,835 American Wigeon per year from 2012-2016. Fluctuations in American Wigeon populations are likely driven by weather and land use changes. In wet years, reproduction is usually higher than in drought years. Drought, especially in the prairie pothole region, reduces the amount of nesting habitat, pushing them to nest farther north. Loss and degradation of wetland habitat on the breeding and wintering grounds due to agricultural conversion can also affect survival.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love (2016). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2016.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Mini, Anne E., Erin R. Harrington, Emily Rucker, Bruce D. Dugger and Thomas B. Mowbray. (2014). American Wigeon (Mareca americana), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. A. Wilkins. (2014). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler and K. A. Wilkins. (2015). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. A. Wilkins. (2016). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Raftovich, R. V., S. C. Chandler, and K. K. Fleming. (2017). Migratory bird hunting activity during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 hunting seasons. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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