American Wigeons Inhabit Water, Fields

Rick Lewis When male and female American wigeons breed, they build nests as slight indentations in tall grass or under low shrubbery. They line the nests with grass and down pulled from the female’s breast.
Rick Lewis

American Wigeons Inhabit Water, Fields

Marjorie Powell

The American wigeon is one of the many ducks that winter in the waters around Alameda and that are now preparing to migrate to the breeding location with. They start leaving in late March and early April, and the first American wigeons will return in August to spend all or a portion of the winter on our coast and in our fields.

American wigeons are brownish ducks — the male has a green slash through and behind its eye and a smidgeon of white on its forehead, while the female has a grey head with a smudge of black around its eye — a friend once told me that if you see a smidgeon of white or a smudge of black, think American wigeon.

They can be found in Alameda in the waters around the shoreline, and in grassy fields and fairways, so look for them at Crab Cove and Washington Park, Ballena Bay, along the shore near the Encinal boat ramp, at Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary and the shoreline east of there, and at the golf course in Corica Park.

Plant eaters, American wigeons have short, narrow bills that allow them to pull the tops off both aquatic and land plants, which is why they like grasslands such as fields and golf courses. In the water, they tip up to grab the tops of aquatic plants, so they are known as dabbling ducks, rather than diving ducks. They may steal aquatic food from American Coots, which dive and can get plants that don’t grow as tall.

American wigeons select their mates in their wintering location before they migrate and breed in the California central valley, the northern prairies, as well as Canada and Alaska. Their nests are slight indentations lined with grasses and down pulled from the female’s breast, in tall grass or under low shrubbery.

The female lays anywhere from three to 12 creamy white eggs and sits on them for almost four weeks, leaving the nest for short times to feed on plants but also insects and crustations for protein.

During the first two weeks or so that the female is sitting on the eggs, the male swims nearby and alerts the female to any approaching danger. When the eggs hatch, the chicks are covered with down, with their eyes open. The chicks leave the nest in about a day and start feeding themselves. The chicks can fly in five to seven weeks after they hatch.

After the chicks hatch, the females lose their feathers and spend about 35 flightless days with the chicks as both females and chicks grow new feathers. The females may leave the nesting area and the chicks shortly before the chicks can fly. The male leaves the nesting area before or just as the eggs are hatching and flies to a larger lake, often further north than the nesting area.

There he joins many other male American wigeons who lose their feathers and spend about 35 flightless days as they grow new feathers. This year’s chicks that survive through the winter will be ready to nest next year.

American wigeons are hunted in the fall; during hunting season these daytime feeders feed at dusk and into the night. The greatest risk to the wigeons is the use of pesticides and herbicides because they eat plants. Also, because aquatic plants absorb mercury from water, they are at risk from high levels of mercury in the water.

Look for American wigeons now along our shorelines and grasslands before they leave to breed.

Marjorie Powell is a member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.