A small and speedy duck with whistling wings that is part of the dabbling duck group and one of the earliest migrators.
The blue-winged teal (Spatula discors; syn=Anas discors) is a fascinating member of the dabbling duck group. They are very fast flying and prefer to spend most of the winter near the equator, perhaps more so than any other dabbler. With whistling wings and their ability to quickly appear and vanish in the blink of an eye, there’s a lot to admire about this little bird. Read on for more information about their life history, habitats and hunting tips.
Description and Life History of the Blue-Winged Teal
The blue-winged teal is a small duck overall, measuring only about 15 inches long and weighing less than a pound (NatureServe 2019). While breeding males and females do look different, non-breeding males often look very similar to the females. They have the same general body shape as a mallard, but in a compact size. Breeding drakes have a bluish/slate gray head with a white patch between their black bill and eye (All About Birds 2019). Most of the remainder of their bodies are medium brown with lots of dark speckles or mottles. While flying, their wings expose the green secondary feathers and light blue and white shoulder from which they get their name (All About Birds 2019). Their legs and feet are light orange. Hens and non-breeding drakes (in eclipse plumage) are pretty uniformly mottled brown and tan, with a slightly darker brown crown and eyeline highlighting their eyes (All About Birds 2019). Their bills are also black, but their legs and feet are often a muted orange or light brown.
After wintering in Central or South America, blue-winged teal are very reluctant to travel north to breed. They are often some of the last ducks to arrive in spring, and some of the first ones to migrate back south in the fall. Pair formation may occur over the winter or during migration. Nesting usually occurs in May throughout the United States, but may not occur until June in Canada (National Audubon Society 2019). Hens choose the nest site by flying over hayfields, grasslands or sedge meadows, and line the nest depression with vegetation and downy feathers. Often, the grasses and sedges are pulled over the nest to conceal it from aerial predators (NatureServe 2019). Hens will usually lay about 6 to 15 creamy white eggs and incubate them for 23 to 27 days (All About Birds 2019; NatureServe 2019). Within a day of hatching, the hen will lead the ducklings to water and tend them, though they can feed themselves. Often, blue-winged teal hens will leave their brood before the ducklings are able to fly (National Audubon Society 2019). Ring-necked pheasants often lay eggs in teal nests, due to an overlap in habitat types, a practice known as nest or brood parasitism.
As mentioned above, the blue-winged teal is a dabbling duck which feeds by floating in the water and dipping its head underwater. They feed on plant material (e.g., algae, pondweeds, duckweed), seeds (e.g., sedges, grasses, pondweeds, smartweeds, water lilies), and crops (e.g., rice, millet) (National Audubon Society 2019; NatureServe 2019; All About Birds 2019). They will also eat aquatic animals, including midge larvae, crustaceans, clams, and snails. Ducklings and hens laying eggs seem to consume mostly animal matter for their high protein content.
The biggest threat of predation for the blue-winged teal is usually to eggs, ducklings and incubating females. Mink, fox, raccoons, skunks, hawks and owls all commonly prey on this species at some point throughout its lifetime (Minnesota DNR 2019). The blue-winged teal likely has the highest annual mortality rate among dabbling ducks, approaching 65 percent (NatureServe 2019). This could be attributed to their over-ocean migration to South America, lost nests to predators, or duckling mortality after hatching.
Range and Habitat of the Blue-Winged Teal
The blue-winged teal primarily spends its summer and breeds throughout the Midwest and prairie pothole region of North America, but they do occur through central and northwest Canada, as well. They begin migrating south in August or September, which makes them one of the earliest migrant waterfowl species. The wintering population spreads out along the Gulf Coast to as far south as South America (NatureServe 2019). Many flocks have been observed flying over open ocean to Costa Rica and further south from there, which is a very impressive journey for a small duck.
The blue-winged teal is primarily an inhabitant of shallow freshwater systems, but it can occur in brackish marshes as well (National Audubon Society 2019). During their summer molting period, they are flightless and rely on prairie potholes and shallow ponds for security from predators. Marshes, small lakes, rivers, sloughs, and ponds are all good habitat for the blue-winged teal during the summer (NatureServe 2019). Much like the Northern pintail, they also nest in sedge-dominated and grassland habitats adjacent to water sources, which may include prairies, fields and meadows. During the winter south of the border, they will utilize brackish estuaries, mangroves and swamps (National Audubon Society 2019).
Conservation Issues for the Blue-Winged Teal
The blue-winged teal is listed as globally secure and of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List (NatureServe 2019). Their population swings widely between about 2.8 million and 7.4 million birds, likely due to habitat and drought conditions and high annual mortality (All About Birds 2019). The 2018 population dropped 18 percent from 2017 levels (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2018). Grassland nesting habitat adjacent to water sources – especially in the prairie pothole region – are critical for healthy populations. Consequently, conversion of grasslands to farmland and poorly timed haying operations (e.g., nest destruction) are large threats for the species. Because blue-winged teal migrate so early, they may be largely absent from northern breeding areas at the beginning of waterfowl seasons. That said, hunters still manage to shoot up to 500,000 birds in the U.S. each year (All About Birds 2019). Since this species spends so much time on wintering grounds in South America, they are vulnerable to habitat quality and management practices there as well.
Hunting Opportunities for the Blue-Winged Teal
As mentioned above, blue-winged teal often migrate early, which could make hunting them in certain parts of the country much more difficult. But you do have a few opportunities.
Equipment and Bag Limits
To effectively hunt teal, you really only need a shotgun, some good camouflage clothing, a blind of some sort (natural materials or man-made), and some decoys. Depending on how deep the water is, waders, a canoe, or a hunting dog are helpful to retrieve the ducks. A 12- or 20- gauge shotgun both work well for these small ducks, but you have a little more flexibility for mixed-bag hunts if you use the 12-gauge. Save the 20-gauge for close shooting on small water situations.
Since the blue-winged teal is a migratory waterfowl species, you will need a federal duck stamp in addition to a hunting license (usually small game). The current daily bag limit for blue-winged teal is six birds, and the limit normally includes any of the other teal species (i.e., green-winged or cinnamon).
Blue-Winged Teal Hunting Techniques
Blue-winged teal are pretty tiny and extremely fast, which can make hunting them pretty challenging. But if you scout ahead of time and set up in the right spots, you can have an exciting hunt. Anywhere shallow water contains feeding opportunities, you should be able to see some teal. Flooded crop fields, marshes with open water and shallow bays of lakes are good options. If possible, get out ahead of your hunt at daybreak to see where the ducks are moving. Blue-wings tend to feed and move aggressively right before daybreak until about an hour after, so you might have a short window of opportunity.
Most teal usually respond well to decoys. For many situations, you can do well using about a dozen decoys. Since drakes in eclipse plumage and hens both resemble mallard hens, you can get by using your mallard hen decoys to make them dual purpose. It usually doesn’t deter the teal. Try a greeting call if ducks are keeping their distance from your decoys. If you notice they are coming in and veering away, try a loud comeback call. But if they’re coming right into your set without any calling, keep silent – more often than not, that will spook them off. When they set their wings and are aimed your way, get ready for some fast and exciting shooting. With any luck, you will bag a few blue-wings to try on the grill.
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.