The European widgeon, a popular game bird of eastern Europe, is closely related to our baldpate or American widgeon,and is a common visitor to the Eastern Seaboard of America. It is also found occasionally on the West Coast.
Since they are so similar in basic markings, they are considered here together. The difference in identification can be found in the variance of the underwing surface color. If it is whitish and mottled with dusky or ashy markings, it is the European. If the underwing is pale gray and not mottled, it is the baldpate, or American widgeon.
Both are a medium-sized duck with a purplish-pink body, white breast and black hindquarters. The head is of a white-brown hue with a green patch on the face running through the eye. They appear at a distance as small brownish ducks and sit buoyantly on the water, chest low and tail well elevated. The bend of the wing is carried low and the wing tips are pointed upwards. They pivot frequently as they feed and appear ever qn the alert even when hungry. The shiny white crown of the male's head gives the slight piebald appearance, hence the name baldpate.
These are swift flying ducks and are usually seen in compact flocks in irregular formation. Led by the master, they wheel and whiffle in a jerky zig-zag flight even though they are not frightened. When on the water they take alarm quickly and bounce into the air almost vertically and seem to spin quickly out of range.
The American variety breeds exclusively in northeastern North America. Large numbers of the species spend their winters on this continent though some seem to prefer the West Indies and parts of Central and South America.
I can recall spending a winter on the Yucatan Peninsula and having widgeon and teal regularly on the menu at the local hotels in Merida and Progresso. Market hunting below the border is still rampant and thousands of these ducks are killed each year despite international treaties, rules and regulations. It is amazing how much of our waterfowl are killed by the thousands as staple food down there, while we not only limit ourselves in our hunting, but spend large sums of money to develop the duck flocks and improve their breeding grounds in Canada and the North.
Normally, the widgeon feeds in the daylight hours on a mixed diet of vegetable and animal food, combining weeds, grasses, cockles and roots. The flock is often guided by an alert leader who directs them to a pond or marsh to surface feed and "tip" for food. The variance of their diet is responsible for the difference in their taste at the table.
I have savored many a widgeon that was as good as teal and mallard when taken while feeding in fresh water. However, the same species that has been taken from the brackish marshes has a far different flavor.
The female lays from seven to ten eggs of whitish-cream color, the eggs of the two species being almost identical.
When you have the opportunity to watch these birds feed and play at ease, you'll have quite a show. During the winter months, particularly after the duck season is over, they relax their nervousness a trifle. Watching them in company with other shore birds along such areas as the St. John's River in Florida is quite an experience.
I have often come upon them while bass fishing or trolling for shad. They are fairly easy to approach in the closed season and will decoy readily during the southward migration in the fall. Few ducks will decoy on their northern migration for they do not have a tendency to flock.
Study the migration maps published by the government. You'll also find such maps available from the conservation departments of the states. They have also been published in many bird books. From them you will be able to determine at what time of the year certain species can be seen in your immediate neighborhood.
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