(photo gallery below)
The Gadwall Duck is a medium-sized dabbing duck ranging from 18-22”, with a 33” wingspan. The thing that makes this ordinary looking duck beautiful is the wonderful pattern on the male’s feathers; it reminds me of a man’s herringbone suit!
The Gadwall is slender and Mallard-like in shape with a round head and a thin bill. The male is patterned in soft gray-brown, with black wing coverts. There is a large square white wing patch on the back edge of his broad wings, which can be seen when he is in flight. He has a pale gray head, with an abrupt forehead, a white belly, and a black rear end. He also has a pale chestnut color on his forewings. During the breeding season, he has a puffy head and a black bill. In eclipse the male looks more like the female, but maintains his wing pattern. He is grayer above and has less orange on his bill than the female.
The female looks like a female Mallard Duck, but is smaller. She is mottled brown and white, and has a small white wing patch, and a white belly. Her upper bill is gray with orange sides, and it is sprinkled with gray-black spots. The juvenile is gray-brown overall, with a plain face and a high forehead. Like the female, its thin bill only has orange on the sides.
Range and Habitat
Gadwall Ducks like fresh water lakes, ponds, marshes, lowland areas, coastal waters, and salt marshes. They winter in much of the United States as well as the old world. They are residents in the western parts of the U.S. and breed from southern Alaska, BC, Minnesota, south to California and to west Texas.
Gadwall Ducks can be found grazing on the land where they will eat nuts, acorns, grains, and corn. They like to feed in shallow waters where they tip forward with their tails sticking up as they feed on the vegetation just below the surface of the water. They can also dive for food when necessary. They eat water beetles, insects, small fishes, tadpoles, leaches, larvae, worms, and aquatic invertebrates. They are most often found in pairs or in small groups, and you might also find them with other dabbing ducks, like the American Wigeon and Coots. The female has a loud quack, somewhat similar to a Mallard call, but the sound is more nasal. The male has a low “bek” call, with chatters and a whistled call. They are less gregarious than other ducks, but will form small flocks outside of breeding season. They sit high on the water when they swim. They are able to spring directly into the air and have a swift, direct flight. They fly in small compact groups and migrate at night.
Breeding and Nesting
Gadwall Ducks are monogamous and pair up 4-5 months before breeding season, usually during the fall migration. The male’s breeding costume includes puffy head feathers, a black bill, and striations on his body and head. The male romantically courts the female with low nasal burps! He calls and bows his head in display. He also has a mating flight with the female where he whistles and shows his off his striking markings. The female also puts her head down and quacks loudly as part of her display. Before copulation the male will bite her back and rump. Copulation takes place on the water.
Gadwalls are late nesters and prefer inland nesting sites, often a long ways from the water. They wait for the grasses to grow tall in order to hide and protect their nests. The nest is scraped out of the ground and is built of twigs, leaves, and branches. It is lined with downy feathers and grasses. It is usually hidden under a bush, although the nest can sometimes be found in open fields. The female lays 9-11 eggs. The male hangs around until the eggs are laid and then he takes off! Alone, the female incubates her eggs for about 26 days and cares for her young when they hatch. The downy young look like Mallard chicks, but are paler in color. They are able leave the nest within 24 hours, at which time the female leads them down to the water. The chicks can swim and are able to find their own food. Their diet is made up of insects. The female remains with her chicks until they fledge at about 10 weeks.
Photo Gallery Gadwall Duck
(click to enlarge)