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Fascinating Facts About American Wigeons: Plumage Migration and Behavior

The American Wigeon, scientifically known as Mareca americana, is a duck species that frequents freshwater habitats in North America. Their striking plumage and unique migration habits make them a favorite among birdwatchers.

In this article, we’ll delve into the identification of the American Wigeon, their different plumages, and their molts.


The American Wigeon is a medium-sized duck, with a body length ranging from 18 to 23 inches. Males are larger than females, weighing between 1.5 to 2.5 pounds compared to females that weigh between 1 to 2 pounds.

American Wigeons have a distinctive coloration, and their plumage is key to identifying them. Field


Male American Wigeons have a rust-colored head with a white crown and forehead.

Their neck, breast, and sides are gray, and they have a white belly and undertail. Wingtips are black with a white band, and their iridescent green patches on the back are visible when they are flying.

Females have a brownish-gray head with a mottled brown body, and a bluish-gray bill with a black tip.

Similar Species

The American Wigeon is similar in appearance to the Eurasian Wigeon, especially during the winter when their plumage is similar. The difference is in the bill, with the Eurasian Wigeon having a pinkish beak while the American Wigeon has a bluish-gray one.

The Eurasian Wigeon is also only occasionally seen in North America.


American Wigeons have two distinct plumages, breeding plumage and nonbreeding plumage.

Breeding Plumage

In breeding plumage, male American Wigeons have a rust-colored head and neck, with a white crown and forehead and striking green iridescent patches on their head. They also have white wing patches above their black wingtips.

Nonbreeding Plumage

In their nonbreeding plumage, males lose their rust-colored head and neck, and they have a gray-brown head with a white cap. Females lose their brown mottling and become a uniform brownish-gray.


Like most ducks, the American Wigeon has an annual molt, which is a process of feather replacement. Molting is vital for maintaining an optimal plumage that ensures the bird’s survival.

Molting occurs twice a year, once after breeding and once before migration.



After breeding, American Wigeons go through their first molt, called the post-breeding molt. During this period, males lose their green iridescent feathers, while females replace their body feathers.

Before Migration

Before migrating, American Wigeons go through their second molt, called prebasic molt. Male American Wigeons will regain their green iridescent feathers, and females will replace both their body feathers and flight feathers.

This molt prepares them for migration.


The American Wigeon is a beautiful and interesting bird to observe, with distinct plumage and unique migration habits. By understanding their identification, different plumages, and molting process, birdwatchers can better appreciate their beauty and immerse themselves in the world of American Wigeons.

Systematics History

The systematic history of the American Wigeon, Mareca americana, dates back to the early 19th century. It was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758, who initially classified it as a member of the genus Anas.

However, in 1810, William Elford Leach recognized its distinctiveness and separated it into a new genus, Mareca, which included only the American Wigeon and the Gadwall.

Geographic Variation

The American Wigeon is a widespread species that inhabits much of North America. Although it is not a high arctic breeder, it can be found in northern regions of Alaska and Canada.

American Wigeons are migratory birds that breed in northern areas and winter in southern regions.


There are three recognized subspecies of the American Wigeon, each exhibiting slight differences in plumage, size, and distribution. 1.

Mareca americana americana: This is the nominate subspecies, and it breeds from Alaska to the Great Plains of the United States. 2.

Mareca americana obscura: This subspecies breeds in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and winters in coastal areas of California. 3.

Mareca americana rubida: This subspecies breeds in western Alaska and winters in California and Mexico.

Related Species

The American Wigeon is closely related to several other dabbling duck species, including the Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, and Green-winged Teal. These species are known to hybridize, and it is not uncommon to find mixed flocks that include American and Eurasian Wigeons.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The American Wigeon was once believed to have a far larger range than it does today. During the Pleistocene epoch, which ended almost 12,000 years ago, the American Wigeon’s range was much larger, and it was widespread across North and Central America.

However, as the climate changed, the birds preferred water sources became scarce, leading to a decline in population and a reduction in its range. Consequently, the American Wigeon’s current range is far smaller than it was historically.

Populations largely depend on the availability of freshwater wetlands, and as these habitats are destroyed or altered, the bird’s populations are negatively affected. As such, conservation efforts that focus on the protection and restoration of freshwater habitats are of paramount importance in maintaining stable populations of the American Wigeon.


The American Wigeon has a fascinating systematic history, with three subspecies and close relationships with other dabbling duck species. Its range has decreased significantly over time, largely due to human-induced habitat destruction.

Conservation efforts are vital to ensure the American Wigeon’s protection and survival in its current habitat. The bird continues to captivate birdwatchers with its striking plumage and unique migration habits.


The American Wigeon is a freshwater bird species that prefers shallow marshes, ponds, and lakes. The breeding habitat of the American Wigeon is typically located in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where the ponds and shallow lakes offer the ideal environment for them to nest and raise their young.

During the winter months, they move to more coastal lowlands, where they can find salt and freshwater marshes, as well as sheltered bays, where they can forage.

Movements and Migration

American Wigeons move twice a year, once during breeding and once during migration. During breeding, they move to their preferred breeding habitat, which is typically located in northern regions.

These regions offer an ideal environment for building and defending nests, as well as enough food to raise their young. Migration, on the other hand, typically occurs at the onset of winter when the availability of food sources in their breeding habitat becomes scarce.

As a result, they begin their annual migration southwards to coastal lowlands, usually entering the United States and Mexico in early September. During migration, American Wigeons form large flocks, and they often congregate with other duck species.

These groups forage together, providing an extra layer of protection against predators. American Wigeons display unique migration patterns compared to other dabbling duck species.

They tend to follow a route known as the “Pacific Flyway,” which stretches across North America’s Pacific coast. The majority of their migration route runs along the western coastline of North America, and they winter in southern California, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and even over to Florida.

The American Wigeon moves only as far as they need to find the proper wintering habitat, and some do not even leave their original breeding grounds. However, most birds must travel hundreds of miles to locate suitable wintering habitats.

Due to its migration patterns, the American Wigeon is vulnerable to habitat destruction and pollution caused by human activities. Protection and restoration of wetlands in both northern breeding habitats and southern wintering grounds are crucial for the survival of these birds.


The American Wigeon is a remarkable bird species with unique movement patterns and migratory habits. The changes in the landscape and habitat have resulted in variations in mating patterns and abilities to navigate the landscapes.

Their survival and continued breeding success depend on the adequate availability of freshwater habitats in breeding and wintering grounds. The American Wigeon offers an excellent indicator of wetland health and quality, and the conservation of its habitat is crucial if we are to protect the bird.

Diet and Foraging


Like most dabbling ducks, the American Wigeon feeds in shallow water by dabbling and grazing on submerged vegetation, such as pondweeds, widgeon grass, and coontails. They also eat seeds and grains from various plants, including millet, rice, and wheat.


American Wigeons have a highly varied diet that changes according to seasonal changes. During the breeding season, they feed mostly on invertebrates and aquatic plants.

During winter, however, their food sources change to include mostly plant material, including stems, roots, and seeds, which account for almost 90% of their winter diet.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

American Wigeons are homeothermic, which means that they regulate their body temperature internally despite the external temperature. They have a higher metabolic rate than most other birds, which allows them to maintain a stable internal body temperature while living in cold environments.

Sound and Vocal Behavior


American Wigeons have a broad range of vocalizations, which they use to communicate their intentions and to warn each other about potential threats. The calls vary from honks and grunts to whistles and trills and can be heard throughout the day and night, both during migration and in breeding habitats.

During the breeding season, males produce a unique call, a whistling sound that resembles the letter “wee,” which is thought to attract females. This vocalization is a series of descending whistles with the final note being shorter than the rest.

The females, in turn, produce a series of quacks, which are louder and less musical than the males’ whistles. During migration, American Wigeons remain relatively quiet, reserving their vocalizations for use when defending territories or communicating with other birds.

However, during the winter months, they tend to be more vocal, and their calls can be heard even at night.


The American Wigeon is a highly adaptable bird species with an extensive range of feeding habits. They have a varied diet that changes with seasonal changes and metabolism that allows them to maintain a stable internal temperature.

Vocalization is an essential way of communication among American Wigeons, and their calls exhibit diversity and variation depending on the situation. Overall, the American Wigeon is a fascinating bird species with unique abilities and intriguing behaviors that make it a favorite among birdwatchers.



American Wigeons are primarily waterfowl, and their primary mode of locomotion is swimming. They use their powerful webbed feet to propel themselves through the water and can also take off from the water’s surface by flapping their wings and running along the water’s surface.


American Wigeons are fastidious about their personal hygiene and undertake regular preening to maintain the condition of their plumage. They spread a glandular oil from their uropygial gland over their plumage during preening, which helps maintain the integrity of their feathers and keeps them waterproof.

Agonistic Behavior

American Wigeons are territorial birds and exhibit a range of agonistic behavior. They primarily employ vocalizations and body language to communicate with other birds.

During the breeding season, males will defend their chosen territories, fighting off other males with physical displays, including head-bobbing, fluffing feathers, and charging.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, males engage in the typical mating behaviors of a dabbling duck species. Males establish territories and attempt to attract females by displaying their colorful breeding plumage, performing courtship displays, and competing with other males.


American Wigeons breed in the Arctic regions of North America, most commonly in the northern boreal forests of Canada. They typically build their nests close to water sources or in dense grasses, where they can lay and incubate their eggs.

During the breeding season, male American Wigeons establish territories which they aggressively defend against other males. Courtship rituals involve males swimming around females, bobbing their heads, and whistling.

If a female chooses the male, she will lay a clutch of six to eight eggs in the nest and incubate them for 23 to 25 days, after which the ducklings will hatch.

Demography and Populations

The population of American Wigeons is estimated to be in the range of 2 to 3 million birds, and the species generally appears to be in good health over its range. The American Wigeon is considered to be a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Like many bird species, the American Wigeon is vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation. Prolonged drought and ecological changes have caused wetland habitats to shrink, and can have a negative impact on breeding success and population viability.

Conservation efforts should be made to preserve breeding habitats in northern regions and also the wintering sites in southern regions. Maintaining their various habitats and wetlands is crucial for the sustainability of this species.


American Wigeons exhibit fascinating behaviors, including their unique mating rituals, territorialism, and preening behaviors. They require vast wetland habitats to breed and feed and their populations can be negatively impacted by habitat loss and degradation.

Conservation efforts and heightened protection of their existing habitats are necessary to ensure their continued presence and survival on the planet. In conclusion, American Wigeons are a fascinating species of dabbling ducks with unique behaviors, striking plumage, and varied feeding habits.

This species depends absolutely on healthy wetland habitats for their survival and breeding success. The American Wigeon populations are at risk due to habitat loss, ecological shifts, and human activity.

Their conservation is vital in maintaining healthy wetlands, watersheds, and ecosystems where they reside. Citizen participation and habitat restoration projects, along with ongoing scientific monitoring and tracking, are necessary to ensure these magnificent birds thrive for generations to come.

Protecting American Wigeons requires a strong commitment from society, organizations, and governments, not just at the local level but also globally, to maintain their populations and preserve their critical habitats.

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