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Gadwall Life History


MarshesGadwall breed mainly in prairie potholes—small ponds scattered throughout the Great Plains and Canadian prairies. Some also breed on tundra, deltas, and wetlands in boreal forests of the far north. In developed areas with few natural ponds, Gadwall may use stock ponds. They choose well-vegetated wetlands with plenty of emergent plants to feed among and take cover in. Equally important for breeding are adjacent uplands with vegetation to conceal nests and for ducklings to hide in. On migration and in winter, look for Gadwalls in fresh and salt water marshes and well-vegetated reservoirs, beaver ponds, farm ponds, and streams. Back to top


PlantsGadwall eat mostly submerged aquatic vegetation such as algae, grasses, rushes, sedges, pondweed, widgeon grass, and water milfoil, including leaves, stems, roots, and seeds. They also eat snails, midges, water beetles, and other invertebrates. During the breeding season, animal matter can account for nearly 50 percent of an adult Gadwall’s diet, but this proportion drops to only about 5 percent animal matter during winter. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundGadwall pairs form during fall migration. Once they return to their breeding grounds, they select their nest site while flying low over dry, grassy areas. The female makes a closer inspection on foot while the male stands guard near her. They typically choose dense brush or grasses at least a foot tall, usually within 200 yards of open water, and nest on islands when possible for greater safety from predators. In heavily cultivated areas, untilled land for nest sites can be a scarce resource.

Nest Description

The female scrapes out a hollow, then settles into the nest and reaches out to grab twigs and leaves with her bill. She sets these against herself to form the base of a nest cup, then plucks her own down feathers to make an insulating lining. The finished nest is about a foot across with a cup 3 inches deep. It takes 5–7 days to go from looking for a nest site to having a finished nest ready for egg laying.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:7-12 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.9-2.4 in (4.9-6 cm)
Egg Width:1.3-1.7 in (3.4-4.4 cm)
Incubation Period:24-27 days
Nestling Period:1-2 days
Condition at Hatching:Alert, fully covered with down, eyes open, ready to leave the nest in a day or two.
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DabblerGadwall are dabbling ducks—they ride fairly high in the water and they tip forward to graze on submerged plants that they can reach with their outstretched necks. They rarely dive. Gadwall sometimes steal food from American Coots. Like most ducks they often form flocks, and you may see them fidgeting as they swim about each other. These movements are actually a complex series of displays that communicate pair bonds, levels of aggression, and degrees of interest among potential mates. For example, Gadwall may send warnings to each other off by lifting their chin or opening their bill at another bird. A male may seek a female’s attention by ruffling his head feathers, drawing the head close to the body, and then rearing up out of the water and pushing his head forward. Further courtship displays include the male arching his head over his back and then jerking forward while raising his tail and wing coverts; pushing his bill underwater and then quickly tossing water into the air while whistling; and rearing up while raking his bill through the water and whistling. A female may show her interest by arching her head and neck and repeatedly moving it forward and then to the side away from the male. As the pair bond strengthens, the two birds face each other and raise and lower their heads, chins up; or turn their head and place the bill behind the wing, as if preening. Courtship happens in fall and early winter; virtually all females find mates by November. Gadwall are seasonally monogamous. Predators of eggs and young include California and Ring-billed gulls, Northern Harriers, foxes, weasels, mink, coyotes, and badgers.Back to top


Low Concern

Gadwall populations increased by about 1.7% per year between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 4.4 million individuals and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Gadwall are the third most hunted duck species (after Mallard and Green-winged Teal), with some 1.25 million of them harvested in 2020. Duck harvests are carefully managed, and Gadwall numbers are still strong, in part because of the conservation of both wetlands and adjacent upland nesting habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, as well as the efforts of private conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited.

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Leschack, C. R., S. K. McKinght and Gary R. Hepp. (1997). Gadwall (Mareca strepera), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Raftovich, R. V., K. K. Fleming, S. C. Chandler, and C. M. Cain (2021). Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest during the 2019–20 and 2020-21 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 (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. 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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