The American Wigeon (Anas americana) is a distinctive species with a perky attitude and one of the most northerly breeding distributions among North American dabbling ducks. Highest breeding densities occur in the tundra and boreal forests of Alaska, the Northwest Territories, northeastern British Columbia, and northern and central Alberta. Wintering populations are densest in the Pacific Northwest and the Central Valley of California, where they are an important harvest species to waterfowl hunters.
This duck has a variety of distinguishing characteristics — some of which have been featured on three federal duck stamps, including the 50th anniversary stamp issued in 1984. Adult males sport a whitish crown and forehead — a recognizable mark that gives the bird its alternative common name, "Baldpate." A plumage variation with extensive white on the cheeks and throat has been given the name “Storm Wigeon” by hunters. One of the most unique aspects of American Wigeon appearance is its short and narrow bill, which is similar to that of a goose and different from most Anas species; it is adapted for grazing on upland and aquatic plants. American Wigeon are typically quick to flush and produce a distinct, high-pitched, three-note call that is reminiscent of a squeaky toy, and they have a fast, erratic flight pattern that reveals a bold white wing patch and brilliant green speculum on drakes.
Diet consists largely of plant material, aside from a sharp increase in animal matter during the breeding season, especially by females. During winter, this wigeon spends much of its time grazing in upland habitats, which often includes the well-manicured lawns of golf courses and parks, making them one of the most readily observable ducks in urban areas where the species occurs. In the early 1900s, the American Wigeon earned the colloquial name “poacher,” owing to its aggressive and opportunistic habit of stealing food from other species of ducks, particularly diving ducks. Like Gadwall (A. strepera), American Wigeon tend to use open-water wetlands more frequently than other dabbling ducks, largely because their diet is dominated by submerged vegetation.
Like most ducks in North America, many aspects of the biology of American Wigeon are well-studied including social behavior, feeding ecology, diet, and behavioral patterns in winter. However, because it nests in low densities in areas north of the Prairie Pothole region, where most dabbling duck research has been conducted, compared to the “big 5” dabbling ducks [Mallard (A. platyrhynchos), Northern Pintail (A. acuta), Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal (A. discors), and Northern Shoveler (A. clypeata)], some aspects of American Wigeon nesting ecology and population demographics -- including nest success, duckling survival and season-specific adult survival -- have been little studied or are unknown.
The population size of this duck has fluctuated greatly since 1955, with a high count of 3.8 million birds in 1959 and low of 1.7 million birds in 1986. Trends are difficult to identify, but since 1987 the population appears to be fluctuating around a lower mean value. In 2012, the population was estimated at 2.1 ± 0.1 million, which is 17% below the long-term average of 2.6 ± 0.02 million (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012) and 30% below the long-term population objective (3 million) established by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. In the past 30 years the distribution of nesting American Wigeon has shifted, with a large segment of the population now breeding in Alaska (25% above the long-term average; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2012). The reasons for this shift are unknown and invite further research.