by Frank Keim
For gleaming colors, the male of this species is unremarkable, but for the visual texture of his plumage, there is no other duck that is comparable. The combination of the black and white overlapping scallops of his chest, the chaotic zippered effect of his inner wing feathers, and the crispy russet and gray and black and white layers of his middle wing and tail feathers give him one of the most elegant and intricate bird designs in nature.
And he uses his handsome plumage to his advantage in competing for the attention of females. This happens during the fall and early winter mostly during migration, which means that is when you see most of their courtship rituals. By November virtually all females have found mates, but males continue to display even in their winter habitat in the southern states, and the pair is monogamous throughout this and the nesting periods. Their courting displays are among the most complex of waterfowl species and include the following fascinating behaviors:
A male might ruffle his head feathers to attract the female’s attention, then draw his head close to his body and rise out of the water, pushing his head forward. He may arch his head over his back, then jerk forward while raising his tail and wing coverts, pushing his bill underwater and quickly tossing water into the air while whistling, then rear up as he rakes his bill through the water.
A female may show her interest in him by arching her head and neck while repeatedly moving it forward, then to the side away from the male. As the pair bond strengthens, the two birds face each other and raise and lower their heads, chins up, or turn their heads and place their bills behind their wings, as if preening.
Once they return to their breeding grounds in the LYK Delta, they select their nest while flying low over dry grassy or brushy tundra. The female then makes a closer inspection on foot while the male stands guard nearby. The nest is usually located in dense grass or brush within 200 yards of open water. For even greater safety from predators, they will nest on small islands. The female scrapes out a shallow depression, then sits in the nest and grabs nearby twigs, leaves and grasses to form the base of her nest cup, and plucks her own down feathers to make a comfortable insulating layer for the eggs. About a week after beginning her search for a nest site she is ready to start egg laying.
Like all duck species that usually have only one brood, she lays many eggs, often as many as a dozen. Almost a month later, and all together, the eggs hatch, and within two days the fully alert downy chicks leave the nest with their mother, heading for the nearest water to begin to learn how to feed themselves.
Gadwalls are dabblers, which means they ride fairly high in the water and tip forward to graze on submerged plants, such as algae, pondweed, widgeon grass and water milfoil that they can reach with their outstretched necks. The young must learn to do this, plus hunt for other aquatic plants on the surface. Snails, water beetles, midges and other invertebrates also become a part of their daily fare as they watch their mother feed.
During the breeding season, animal matter can account for nearly 50% of their parents’ diet, so this is an important part of their learning. Something else they will probably learn from their parents is how to snatch food from diving ducks, such as Coots, as they surface.
Thanks to the conservation of wetlands and nearby uplands in their breeding habitat because of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the Federal Conservation Reserve Program, Gadwalls have increased in numbers since the 1980’s.
Their Yup’ik name in parts of the LYK Delta is Uqsuqaq, and is the same name that I found for Pintail, possibly because both species are such “fatty” ducks and therefore preferred for eating by the Yup’ik people. Mareca strepera is their scientific name and means, “noisy wild duck,” from the Portuguese marreca, meaning “wild duck,” and Latin, streperus, meaning, “noisy,” in reference to the loud calls of the female. Its common name, Gadwall, is an old English word of unknown origin, and has been in use in Britain since 1676.
The oldest known Gadwall was a male, 19 years, 6 months old. He was banded in Saskatchewan in 1962 and shot during hunting season in Louisiana in 1981.