Common Names: Bluewing, summer teal, white-faced teal, smiler
The blue-winged teal is one of the most numerous dabbling ducks in North America. Its small size and fast, erratic flying pattern make it a challenging hunt for waterfowlers.
True to its name, the blue-winged teal can be identified by the large gray-blue patch seen on the upper wing while it is in flight. Both the cinnamon teal and northern shoveler also show a blue wing. It can be difficult to distinguish between a cinnamon and blue-winged teal in flight, but shovelers are easy to identify with their larger size and spoon-shaped bill.
In full nuptial plumage, drake blue-winged teal are easy to identify with their white facial crescent bordering their bill and steel-blue head. Their under parts are cinnamon-colored and heavily speckled with black. The blue-wing patch has a white border on the rear separating it from a metallic green speculum. When not in mating plumage, the male closely resembles the female except for a darker bill, darker head and a white crescent in front of the bill.
Female blue-winged teal are colored in mottled brown. They have an indistinct whitish patch at the base of the bill, a dark line through the eye and white patches above and below the eye. Their wings are a duller blue then the males, with a less distinct white border and the green speculum is darker and duller. It can be difficult to distinguish female blue-wings from cinnamon teal. However, cinnamon teal hens are a warmer brown, with a plainer face with indistinct or no dark eye line and a longer, more “spoon” shaped bill.
During the breeding season, blue-winged teal can be found across the prairie grasslands of central North America, in areas with shallow ponds that have abundant invertebrates—an important food source during this time. Hens prefer to nest in grass vegetation, avoiding brushy cover if possible.
In the winter months, blue-winged teal travel farther south than any other duck in North America, and many end up in northern South America. Blue-wings can be found in a variety of habitats, including mangrove swamps, freshwater or brackish estuarine lagoons and shallow wetlands.
A blue-winged teal’s diet varies, depending on where are and the season. During spring migration studies show blue wings eat seeds, snails and insects. When breeding, there is a high demand for energy so their diet is full of protein—aquatic insects, snails, crustaceans and fingernail clams and some seeds. During the fall migration and over winter, blue-winged teal eat more plant material (seeds, millet seeds, corn and cultivated rice).
Just like other dabbling ducks that breed in northern areas, blue-winged teal form pair bonds either before they leave the wintering grounds or on the migration north. Blue-wings are mid-season nesters (May), which is later than northern pintails and mallards, but earlier then Gadwall and American wigeon.
Hens select nest sites in upland habitats, usually well above the nearest water. Once the hen has found a site she likes, she scrapes a bowl-shaped depression with her feet and pulls in dried grass found near the nest bowl. She does not carry grass in from elsewhere. When returning to her nest, blue-wing hens land a short distance away and walk in so predators aren’t attracted to their nest.
Blue-wings lay one egg per day. They begin incubating about half-way through egg-laying period. Blue-wings lay an average of 6 to 14 small cream-colored eggs. The eggs hatch in 19 to 29 days after they’re laid. When ducklings break through the shell membrane, they utter peeps as they peck at the outside shell, probably in response to calls from the mother. Hatching takes about 4 hours, after which the hen broods the ducklings until they are dry, sometimes keeping them at the nest for as long as 24 hours. The hen then leads her brood to a nearby wetland; they do not return to the nest. Hens will stay with their brood at around 40 days of age—just before they are ready to fly.
Conservation and Management
Blue-winged teal don’t make up a large portion of many hunters bags in North America as they migrate south early in the year, and many winter south of the U.S. border. No specific steps are taken under the North American Waterfowl Management Program (NAWMP) for the benefit of the blue-winged Teal. Conservation efforts aimed at protecting, restoring and enhancing waterfowl habitat potentially affect the blue-winged population. While habitat loss in Canada and the U.S. is well documented, steps have been taken over the years to manage it. In addition, little is known about the habitat status of South and Central America, where many teal winter.
Sources of Information
Bellrose, F.C. 1976. Ducks, geese and swans of North America, 2nd edition. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
Bennett, L.J. 1970. The blue-winged teal: It’s ecology and management. Iowa State University Press, Iowa.
Johnsgard, P.A. 1978. Ducks, geese and swans of the world. University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.
Rohwer, F.C., W.P. Johnson, and E.R. Loos. 2002. Blue-winged teal (Anas discors). In The Birds of North America, No. 625 (A. Poole and F. Gill ed.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.