Blue-winged Teal | Life Histories of North American Birds | A.C. Bent
Feather Pic Arthur Cleveland Bent

Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds
A chapter from the electronic book: Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

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Blue-winged Teal
Anas discors

[Published in 1923: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 111-121]

Spring.--Not until spring is well advanced and really hot weather has come in its winter haunts does this tender warm-weather bird decide to leave the sunny glades of Florida and the bayous of Louisiana, where it has spent the winter or early spring, dabbling in the shallow, muddy pools and marshes. The early migrants are probably hardier individuals that have wintered farther north, but the later migrants linger in the Gulf States through April and even into May. Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1899) designates three distinct spring flights, as follows:

The first issue of this, our tenderest, duck arrives in latitude 37 o from March 25 to April 1, staying about six or eight days. The second follows a few days after the first has departed northward, up to and past the boundary line. A short period elapses when they likewise travel north to the southern part of Minnesota and its parallel. The third soon follows, and stays an indefinite period, working up through Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and eastward about the last week in April if the weather permits, the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi, with their tributaries, furnishing the fly ways.

 Mr. P. L. Hatch (1892) thus describes the arrival of this species in Minnesota:

No other species of the ducks is so cautious upon its arrival as the blue-winged teal, a trait by which the old hunter determines its identity at once. In parties of 8 to 10 or a dozen they will circle around, descending again and again only to rise again and go farther up or lower down the stream to repeat the same demonstrations of indecision, many times over, and just as unexpectedly they suddenly drop out of sight between the treeless banks. They are, as a general thing, several days later in their spring arrivals, and as much earlier than the green wings in autumn. This is not true in every migration, for I have once or twice known them to come a little before the other, and several times simultaneously; but in my observations, extending over many years in succession, it has proved a noticeable characteristic in its migrations. They are seldom seen on the large clear lakes; but on small ponds, mud flats, and sluggish steams where various pond weeds and aquatic roots afford in abundance its favorite vegetable food.

Courtship.--The courtship of the blue-winged teal is largely performed on the wing much after the manner of the black duck, a nuptial chase as it were, of which Mr. Ernest E. Thompson (1890) says:

I have frequently remarked that during the breeding season this species may be seen coursing over and around the ponds in threes, and these when shot usually prove a male and two females. After dark they may be identified during these maneuvers by their swift flight and the peculiar chirping, almost a twittering, that they indulge in as they fly.

Nesting.--The breeding range of the blue-winged teal has been materially reduced in area during the past 50 years by the increasing settlement of the Middle West, the encroachments of agriculture on its breeding grounds, and by the constant persecution by gunners of an unsuspicious and desirable game bird. Although it formerly bred abundantly throughout all the Middle and Northern States east of the Rocky Mountains, it is now mainly restricted to the prairie regions of the northern United States and Canada, with only a few scattering pairs left in the eastern and southern portions of its breeding range. We found a few pairs breeding in the East Point marshes in the Magdalen Islands, and only a few are left in eastern Canada and south of the Great Lakes. In North Dakota it was still abundant in 1901; this, with the pintail and shoveller, were the three commonest ducks; almost every little pond hole, creek, or grassy slough contained one or more pairs of blue-winged teal, and we could see the pretty little ducks swimming in pairs, close at hand among the vegetation or springing into the air as we drove past.

Here their nests are generally well concealed in the long prairie grass growing around the borders of the sloughs and small pond holes, almost always on dry ground but not far from the water; they are sometimes located in moist meadows bordering such places, where the grass is long and thick enough to conceal them. I found one nest in an open place where the dead grass had been beaten down quite flat; it was beautifully concealed from view under the grass. They also nest sparingly with the baldpates or lesser scaup ducks on the islands. The nest of the blue-winged teal is well built; a hollow is made in the ground and filled with a thick soft lining of fine grass mixed with down, on which the eggs are laid, and the grass is arched over it for concealment; as incubation advances more down is added until a thick blanket is provided, which the female uses to cover the eggs when she leaves them. The nests are so well concealed that comparatively few are found, considering the abundance of the species.

In Saskatchewan in 1905 and 1906 the blue-winged teal was one of the most abundant of the ducks; we found 16 nests in all on dates ranging from June 13 to July 9; the nests were on the islands and in the meadows near the lakes, similar in location and construction to those we found in North Dakota. On that wonderful duck island in Crane Lake 10 out of the 61 ducks' nests found were of this species; only the gadwall, of which we found 23 nests, exceeded it in abundance.

Rev. Manley B. Townsend has sent me his notes on a nest which he found in a slough near Crystal Lake, in Nebraska, on June 10, 1910. He writes:

One June day we made a systematic search of the swamp for nests, and were rewarded in richest measure, finding numerous nests. As we picked our cautious way through the swamp we came to a small dry area, some 30 feet back from the open water. Out from under our feet burst a large bird with a startled "quack" and went hurtling off over the pond. It was a female blue-winged teal. There, beneath a tuft of grasses, in a hollow on the ground, was the nest, built of grasses and lined with dark-brown mottled down pulled from the mother's own breast. In the midst of the downy bedclothes rested 10 beautiful, cream-colored eggs--an exquisite casket of jewels destined to develop into living gems far lovelier than any rubies or diamonds ever dug from the earth. The beauty of such a spectacle cannot be adequately described and must be seen to be appreciated. On leaving the nest, the bird is accustomed to nicely cover her treasures with the warm comforters to prevent too rapid evaporation of the heat. We had unexpectedly "jumped" her and she had left in too great a hurry to perform that customary function. Two weeks later we found the nest empty, but the whole family were out there on the pond, bobbing about as buoyant as corks, learning how to make a living and survive in a wonderful but dangerous world.

Several observers have reported nests in close proximity to railroad tracks, which seems to be a favorite location.

Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) has made some extensive studies of the nesting habits of ducks in the Barr Lake region of Colorado; he writes:

By far the most abundant nesting duck throughout the Barr district was the pretty little blue-winged teal. No matter what type of ground our searches carried us over, we were sure to be startled by the occasional flutter of wings, as a dainty little gray-clad mother left her nest like a flash upon our too close approach. We found nests of these birds in the dense cat-tail growth along sloughs; on the soggy, spongy seepage ground under the big dykes; at the edge of beaten paths near the lake shore; by roadsides back from the water; among the dry weeds and sand of the prairie, far from the water's edge; amid the dense rank grass on a tiny island; in alfalfa fields, on grassy flats, and in cavities in and upon muskrat houses.

The nests exhibited a wide diversity in construction. The predominating type was a neat basketlike structure composed of fine soft dead grass, sometimes set well into a dense clump of rank grass on the surface of the ground, and sometimes sunken into a cavity until the top of the nest was flush with the surface of the ground. These nests were usually liberally lined with down; much thicker on the sides and rim of the nest than on the bottom. In fact several were examined which had no down whatever underneath the eggs. The quantity of down varied greatly in different nests, but apparently increased in quantity as incubation advanced.

A less common type of nest was made entirely of bits of dead cat-tail blades deep set into a cavity in the ground. This type of nest was usually found in marshy places, where this material was more available, and in these there was much less of the downy lining. The concealment of these nests was likewise less effective, and taken as a whole this type of nest was altogether inferior. We found a few built in wet places where the foundation of the nest was actually wet, but we did not find a single nest where the eggs were the least bit damp; and the large majority were in perfectly dry locations in close proximity to water.

The concealment of the better built nests, especially those in the center of a tussock of rank grass, was well-nigh perfect; in fact in most cases we were unable to see either the brooding bird or the eggs from a distance of 5 to 6 feet even when we knew the exact location of the nest. Upon leaving the nest during incubation the parent covered the eggs with the downy rim of the nest and the concealment thus afforded was remarkable.

Several radical departures from the characteristic habits were encountered. One bird had built her nest on a little flat amid some short blue grass which afforded her no concealment whatever. As she brooded her eggs she was plainly visible at a distance of 20 yards or more. She allowed me to approach to within 4 or 5 feet and set up my camera for an exposure; and then instead of springing lightly into the air as usual, she ambled awkwardly off the nest, waddled slowly between the legs of my tripod, uttering lazy little quacks of protest, and finally after walking a distance of 30 yards or more took flight.

While plowing our way through a dense cat-tail swamp in water above our knees we frightened a teal from a nest in a muskrat house. A careful search finally revealed the eggs fully a foot back from the entrance of a deep cavity in the side of the house. To our surprise the nest contained four eggs of the teal and five eggs of some big duck, all of which were incubated.

Another queer nest was found, which was a shallow depression on the side of a dilapidated muskrat house, which had been originally built between a fence post and its diagonal brace. The lower barbed wire of the fence prevented the top of the house from collapsing, while the side weathered away, leaving a cavity well protected by the overhanging top. In this cavity without a sign of lining or a bit of concealment lay the 10 conspicuous white eggs. They could be readily seen from a distance of 20 yards.

The down in the blue-winged teal's nest is larger and lighter colored than in that of the green-winged teal; it varies in color from "hair brown" to "drab," and it has large whitish centers.

Eggs.--The blue-winged teal lays from 6 to 15 eggs, but the numbers most commonly found in full sets are 10, 11, and 12. All ducks are more or less careless about laying in each other's nests. This seems to occur less frequently with the teals than with the larger species, but the nest mentioned above by Mr. Rockwell (1911), containing "four eggs of the teal and five eggs of some big duck," shows that the little teal is sometimes imposed upon.

The eggs of the blue-winged teal vary in shape from ovate to elliptical ovate; the shell is very smooth, but only slightly glossy. In color they are dull white, light-cream color, creamy white, or pale olive white. They are not distinguishable from those of other teals; but if the female is flushed from the nest, she can be distinguished from the green-winged teal by the blue wing-coverts, but not so easily from the cinnamon teal.

The measurements of 93 eggs in various collections average 46.6 by 33.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 49.5 by 35, 47.2 by 36.2, 43.5 by 32, and 45.6 by 31.3 millimeters.

Young.--As the male deserts the female soon after the eggs are laid, incubation is performed solely by her. Incubation does not begin until after the last egg is laid, one egg having been laid each day until the set is complete. The period of incubation is from 21 to 23 days. The young hatch almost simultaneously, or at least within a few hours; they remain in the nest until they have dried off and are strong enough to walk, when they are led to the nearest water and taught by their devoted mother to feed. Their food at this age consists mainly of soft insects, worms, and other small, tender, animal food, but they soon learn to forage for themselves and pick up a variety of vegetable foods as well. The young are guarded with tender care by one of the most devoted of mothers; when surprised with her brood of young she resorts to all the arts and strategies known to anxious bird mothers to draw the intruder away from her brood or to distract his attention, utterly regardless of her own safety, while the young have time to hide or escape to a place of safety. The young are experts at hiding, even in open situations, where they squat flat on the ground and vanish; but they usually run or swim in among tall grass or reeds, where it is almost useless to look for them. All through the remainder of the summer, until they are able to fly, she remains with them teaching them where to find the choicest foods and how to escape from their numerous enemies; they learn to know her warning calls, when to run and when to hide, and by the end of the summer they are ready to gather into flocks for the fall migration.

Plumages.--In the downy young the colors of the upper parts vary from "mummy brown" to "Dresden brown," darker on the crown and rump, lighter elsewhere, the down being much darker basally; the under parts are "maize yellow," shaded locally with "buff yellow," due to the darker tips of the down; the sides of the head are "yellow ochre" or pale "buckthorn brown" in young birds, but these colors soon fade and all the colors grow paler as the young bird increases in size. The color pattern of the head consists of a dark-brown central crown bordered on each side by a broad superciliary stripe of yellow ochre, below which is a narrow postocular stripe, a loral patch, and an auricular spot of dusky. On the back the brown is broken by four large spots of yellowish, one on each side of the rump and one on each scapular region. Young blue-winged teal closely resemble young shovellers, but the latter are paler colored, with all the brown areas more extensive, with less of the rich buff and yellow tints and with longer and more broadly tipped bills.

The young develop more rapidly than those of the larger ducks, as they are late breeders and early fall migrants. The first feathers to appear on the downy young are the mottled feathers of the sides, below and above the wings; these come when the young bird is hardly one-third grown, sometimes by the end of June. The growth of the feathers spreads over the breast first, then over the back and head, the down disappearing late on the rump and last on the hind neck; by the end of July the young teal is nearly fully grown and the whole of the spotted juvenal plumage has been acquired except the wing quills which are still in their sheaths. During August the wings and tail are acquired and before the end of that month the young birds can fly. Before the wings are grown the sexes are practically indistinguishable and both resemble the adult female except that they are lighter colored below and often nearly immaculate white on the belly.

During the fall and winter the young teal makes slow progress toward maturity; the blue lesser wing coverts and the green speculum are acquired as soon as the wings are grown, but they are duller than in adults; other changes come slowly until spring, when the first nuptial plumage is assumed, hardly distinguishable from the adult nuptial plumage, but the colors are all duller and the long blue-edged scapulars are not yet developed.

The first eclipse plumage is assumed in July and August; and at this first complete postnuptial molt the young bird becomes indistinguishable from the adult, when about 14 months old.

The eclipse plumage in the adult involves the change of all the contour feathers and the scapulars; it does not begin until July, is complete in August, when the flight feathers are molted, and lasts through September. In this plumage the male closely resembles the female, but can always be recognized by the wings, in which no marked seasonable change takes place. Adults are slow in shedding the eclipse plumage, individuals varying greatly in this respect. The full body plumage is seldom acquired before the middle of winter and sometimes not until March, so that the gradual changes taking place might be regarded as a prolonged prenuptial molt.

Hybrids among the teals are not common, but Mr. William G. Smith (1887) records a specimen which he took in Colorado, "the whole body color of the cinnamon teal, with the head the color, and snow-white cheek marks distinctly, of the bluewing."

Mr. Frederic H. Kennard (1919) has described, under the subspecific name albinucha, a supposed southern race of the blue-winged teal, the sole distinguishing character being a continuation of the white crescents over the eyes in thin superciliary lines down to the nape, where they join to form a white nuchal patch. It does not seem to have been proven that all southern breeding teal are so marked, and I have seen several northern breeding teal partially so marked. Mr. Stanley C. Arthur (1920) records a case where a bird in captivity lost this marking after molting into a new spring plumage. This marking may prove to be merely a high stage of plumage, assumed by the most vigorous birds. Mr. Arthur's bird died soon after assuming the normal spring plumage, which may mean that waning vitality was the cause of its losing its white adornment.

Food.--The blue-winged teal is decidedly a surface feeder; it feeds in shallow, muddy pond holes overgrown with aquatic vegetation, about the reedy shores of lakes and sloughs, and even in wet meadows, particularly along the banks of grassy ditches and creeks, where it is usually concealed from view; its food is usually obtained on the surface or within reach of its submerged head and neck, but occasionally its tail is tipped up and its body half immersed. Its food consists largely of tender aquatic plants.

In the fall it visits the grain fields occasionally and eats some wheat and barley. It eats wild rice wherever it can find it and, on its winter feeding grounds, it lives and feasts in the extensive rice fields. Its animal food includes tadpoles, worms, snails, and other small mollusks, water insects, and larvae. Dr. J. C. Phillips (1911) found that the stomachs of birds shot in Massachusetts contained "many young snails, various insects, and seeds of bur reed, pondweeds, smartweed, and various sedges and grasses. Animal matter, 88 per cent; vegetable, 12 per cent; mineral, 8 per cent."

Mr. Douglas C. Mabbott (1920) sums up the food of the blue-winged teal as follows:

About seven-tenths (70.53 per cent) of the blue-winged teal's food consists of vegetable matter. Of this about three-fourths is included in four families of plants. Sedges (Cyperaceae), with 18.79 per cent; pondweeds (Naiadaceae), 12.6; grasses (Gramineae), 12.26; and the smartweeds (Polygonaceae), 8.22. The remainder of the plant food is made up of algae, 2.95 per cent; water lilies (Nymphaeaceae), 1.37; rice and corn, 0.98; water milfoils (Haloragidacae), 0.71, bur reeds (Sparganiaceae), 0.38; madder family (Rubiaceae), 0.35; and miscellaneous 11.92 per cent.

Animal matter constitutes 29.47 per cent of the total food of the blue-winged teal, which is more than three times the percentage of animal food eaten by the green-wing. Over half of this (16.82 per cent) is mollusks, the remainder being made up of insects, 10.41 per cent, crustaceans, 1.93, and miscellaneous, 0.31 per cent.

Behavior.--From the water the blue-winged teal springs into the air with surprising agility, and when under way is one of the swiftest of the ducks in flight; it has been credited with attaining a speed of 90, 100, or even 130 miles an hour, but probably these speeds are all overestimated, as there is very little accurate data on which to base an estimate. Doctor Yorke (1899) says: "They travel at the rate of about 130 miles an hour, exceeded only by the green-winged teal." This seems incredible.

Audubon (1840) says:

The flight of the blue-winged teal is extremely rapid and well sustained. Indeed, I have thought that, when traveling, it passes through the air with a speed equal to that of the passenger pigeon. When flying in flocks in clear sunny weather, the blue of their wings glistens like polished steel, so as to give them the most lively appearance, and while they are wheeling over the places in which they intend to alight, their wings being alternately thrown in the shade and exposed to the bright light, the glowing and varied luster thus produced, at whatever distance they may be, draws your eyes involuntarily toward them. When advancing against a stiff breeze, they alternately show their upper and lower surfaces, and you are struck by the vivid steel blue of their mantle, which resembles the dancing light of a piece of glass suddenly reflected on a distant object. I have never observed them traveling in company with other ducks, but I have seen them at times passing over the sea at a considerable distance from land. Before alighting, and almost under any circumstances, and in any locality, these teals pass and repass several times over the place, as if to assure themselves of the absence of danger, or, should there be cause of apprehension, to watch until it is over. They swim buoyantly, and generally in a close body, at times nearly touching each other.

Nuttall (1834) says that "when they alight," they "drop down suddenly among the reeds in the manner of the snipe or woodcock."

About the vocal powers of this teal there is very little to be said. Dawson (1903) has covered the ground very well in the following words:

In addition to the whistling of the wings, the teals have a soft lisping note, only remotely related to the typical anatidine "quack," and is uttered either in apprehension or encouragement.

While feeding and at other times these teal are usually silent; the lisping or peeping of the male are more often heard when the birds are in flight than at other times and are probably used as signals, as to dangers or the presence of food. The female has a faint quacking note.

On their breeding grounds blue-winged teal are associated with various other species, notably shovellers, pintails, gadwalls, and mallards. On their migrations they usually fly in flocks by themselves, but often resort to the same feeding grounds as other surface-feeding ducks. Doctor Yorke (1899) says:

They mix a great deal with the coots, eagerly devouring the seeds of the teal moss, which the former by diving tear up by the roots, and the long sprays covered with seeds float upon the surface of the water.

In Florida and Louisiana they seem to associate with the larger shore birds, feeding with them in the shallow lagoons. They are always gentle and harmless towards other species. Their only enemies are the predatory birds and animals, among which the human hunter is the most destructive.

Fall.--As soon as the young are able to fly, or even before that, they begin gathering into flocks preparing for the fall migration, which begins with the first early frosts in August and is mainly accomplished during September, for these delicate birds are very sensitive to the approach of autumn and are the earliest ducks to migrate. Doctor Yorke (1899) has described this movement very well; he writes:

About the early part of August the local ducks of each State begin to work northward; during September they flock together and form the first flight, passing over the same grounds. The collecting or flocking together of the local birds, which form the first fall issue, presents an interesting sight. For nearly two days the ducks will be noticed as getting very uneasy, whipping about without the regularity which had hitherto been customary upon their feeding, playing, and roosting grounds. On the day of their departure, after feeding, they will flock to some large common playground; where, instead of quietly resting, as usual, they assume a stage of activity. About 3 in the afternoon, instead of drifting back to their feeding grounds as usual in little flocks, singles, and pairs, they form flocks and sweep up and around the open water and alight again. The flocks soon increase in size and after two or three circles around the open water, each time rising higher and higher, they proceed south in well-defined and distinct flocks, each under a leader, and soon vanish in the distance, never returning that fall. Three or four days of no shooting occurs, except upon those which were too weak or incapacitated for a long flight, before the second issue arrives, which stays a few days. A cold snap brings down the third, the weather determining the length of their stay. The second and third depart at night or late in the evening, but evince no disposition to assemble as the first. They are the second of our warm-weather birds to leave, closely following the wood ducks.

Game--The little blue-winged teal is a favorite of the sportsmen; it comes at the beginning of the season, when he is eager to try his skill at one of the swiftest of ducks; it decoys readily, especially to live decoys; it flies in large, compact flocks, which offer tempting shots as they twist and turn or swing and wheel in unison; it is unsuspicious of its hidden foe, is easily killed with small shot and makes a fine table bird. We used to look for it about the full of the moon in September and could always count on finding plenty of birds in the shallow ponds, marshes, and grassy creeks, but, unfortunately, it has been steadily decreasing since the early eighties and is now quite scarce in Massachusetts. In the good old days, when these birds were abundant, they were an easy mark for the youthful gunner, as they huddled together in a compact flock on the water, and a large number could be killed at a single discharge of the old muzzle-loader.

Dr. L. C. Sanford (1903) writes of shooting blue-winged teal as follows:

In late August we find them fully fledged, frequenting the marshes of the West where the wild rice grows. They are relentlessly hunted from time of first arrival. During the hours that are sacred to the duck marsh, the time after dawn and toward dusk, they are found. At first many are killed by pushing through the grass as they jump up in front of the skiff or on their line of flight between the ponds. At the approach of evening the first line appears over the tops of the rush grass, flying low and with a speed possessed only by a teal. Another minute and they have passed; the rush of their wings told how closely they came; but no one but an old hand could have stopped one. The next flock follow, the gunner rises in time, and they sheer off, crowding together in an attempt to turn; but a well-placed shot drops several birds. So they come on until dark, when the soft whistling overhead tells of ducks still looking for a spot to feed and spend the night in peace.

Mr. Dwight W. Huntington (1903) pays the following tribute to their speed:

After some days' shooting at the sharp-tailed grouse, I went one day to a famous duck pass in North Dakota, when the teal were flying from the Devils Lake to a smaller one to breakfast. As soon as I had made my blind, they began to come singly and in pairs, sometimes three or four together or a small flock, and although they came in quick succession and the shooting was fast enough to heat the gun, I believe it was an hour or more before I killed a bird. I was almost in despair, when I fired at a passing flock, holding the gun a yard or more before the leading birds, and at the report a single teal, some distance behind the others, fell dead upon the beach. I at once began shooting long distances ahead of the passing ducks, and before long I had a large bag of birds.

A few day afterwards an officer from the garrison near by, a good shot in the upland fields and woods, went with me to my duck pass to shoot at teal. We made our blinds some two gun shots apart and began to shoot. The birds came rapidly as before, and my friend gave them two barrels as they passed, but was entirely out of ammunition before he killed a bird. His orderly came to my blind for shells, and with them I sent the message to shoot three times as far ahead as he had been doing, and he was soon killing birds.

Winter.--They are still abundant in some parts of the South, where they make their winter home in the great rice fields and extensive marshes, feeding on the ripened grains that fall upon the water, feasting and growing fat. Here they are safe enough as long as they paddle about and remain hidden in the innermost recesses of the rice fields and inaccessible swampy pools; but the sportsmen soon learn their haunts and habits, build their blinds near their favorite feeding grounds or fly ways and shoot them as they fly about in search of food and shelter. Constant persecution has thus materially reduced their numbers, but since such extensive sanctuaries have been established in Louisiana, it is to be hoped that they will have a safe haven of rest, in the fall at least; this may also result in larger numbers sojourning there for the winter, rather than passing on farther south, as the majority of this species now does.

Blue-winged Teal* Anas discors

*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1923. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 126 (Part 1): 111-121. United States Government Printing Office