Birds – Baldpate

(Anas americana)


Length—18 to 20 inches.

Male—Crown of head white or buff; sides of head, from the eye to the nape, have broad band of glossy green, more or less sprinkled with black; cheeks and throat buff, marked with fine lines and bars of black; upper breast and sides light reddish, violet brown (vinaceous), each feather with grayish edge forming bars across breast. More grayish sides are finely waved with black; lower parts and wing-linings white; black under tail. Back grayish brown, more or less tinged with the same color as breast, and finely marked with black. Wings have glossy green patch bordered by velvety black. Bill grayish blue with black tip. Feet and legs dusky.

Female—Smaller. Head and throat white or cream, finely barred with black and without green bands; darker above; upper breast and sides pale violet, reddish brown washed with grayish, interrupted with whitish or gray bars. Wings like male’s, though the speculum may be indistinct and gray re-place the white; back grayish brown, the feathers barred with buff.

Range—North America; nests regularly from Minnesota north-ward, and casually as far as Texas, but not on the Atlantic coast. Winters in the United States, from southern states to the Gulf; also in Guatemala, Cuba, and northern South America.

Season—Spring and autumn visitor, and winter resident, October to April.

The baldpates, keeping just in advance of the teeth of winter with the large army of other ducks that come flying out of the north in wedge-shaped battalions when the first ice begins to form, break their long journey to the Gulf states and the tropics by a prolonged feast in the wild rice, sedges, and celery in north-ern waters, both inland and along the coast. A warm reception of hot shot usually awaits them all along the line, for when celery-fed or fattened on rice their flesh can scarcely be distinguished from that of the canvasback duck, and sportsmen and pot-hunters exhaust all known devices to lure them within gun-range. The gentleman hidden behind ” blinds” on the “duck-shores” of Maryland and the sloughs of the interior, and with a flock of wooden decoys floating near by; or the nefarious market-gunner in his “sink boat,” and with a dazzling reflector behind the naphtha lamp on the front of his scow, bag by fair means and foul immense numbers of baldpates every season; yet so prolific is the bird, and so widely distributed over this continent, that there still remain widgeons to shoot. That is the fact one must marvel at when one gazes on the results of a single night’s slaughtering in the Chesapeake country. The pot hunter who uses a reflector to fascinate the flocks of ducks that, bedded for the night, swim blindly up to the sides of the boat, moving silently among them, often kills from twenty to thirty at a shot. True sportsmen must soon awaken to the necessity for stopping this wholesale murdering of our finest game birds.

Whew, whew, whew ” a shrilly feeble whistle, precisely such as the young puddle duck of the barnyard makes in his earliest vocal efforts “—announces the coming of a flock of baldpates high overhead. Audubon heard them say “sweet, sweet,” as if piped by a flute or hautboy. In spite of their marvelously swift flight, estimated from one hundred to one hundred and twenty miles an hour, their stiffened wings constantly beating the air that whistles by them, they are, nevertheless, often overtaken on the wing by the duck hawk, their worst enemy next to man. Diving and swimming under water are their only resorts when this villain attacks them.

But when living an undisturbed life, the widgeons greatly prefer that other ducks, notably the canvasbacks, should do their diving for them. Around the Chesapeake, where great flocks of wild ducks congregate to feed on the wild celery, the widgeons show a not disinterested sociability, for they kindly permit their friends to make the plunges down into the celery beds, loosen the tender roots, and bring a succulent dinner to the surface; then rob them immediately on their reappearance. Such piracy keeps the ducks in a state of restless excitement, which is further induced by the whistling of the widgeons’ wings in their confused manner of flight in and around the feeding-grounds. Here they wheel about in the air; splash and splutter the water; stand up in it and work their wings; half run, half fly along the surface, and in many disturbing ways make themselves a nuisance to the hunter in ambush. They seem especially alert and lively. Neither are they so shy as many of their companions; for when come upon suddenly in the coves of the lake, they usually row boldly out toward the centre, out of gun range, and take to wing, if need be, rather than spend their whole day dozing in the tall grasses on the shores as many others do. Not that they may never be caught napping on the sand flats or in the sedges when the sun is high, for all ducks show decided nocturnal preferences; only widgeons are perhaps the boldest of their associates. Open rivers, lakes, estuaries of large streams, and bays of the smaller bodies of salt water attract them rather than the sluggish, choked-up sloughs that shyer birds delight to hide in.

Instead of nesting close beside the water in the sedges, after the approved duck method, the widgeons commonly go to high, dry ground to lay from seven to twelve buff-white eggs in a mere depression among the leaves that the mother lines with down from her breast. Nests are frequently found half a mile or more from water. It is supposed, but not as yet proved, that the mother carries in her bill each tiny duckling to the water, where it is at home long ,before it feels so on land or in the air. At various stages of the bird’s development the plumage undergoes many changes; but aside from those of age and sex, the baldpates show unusual variability. However, Dr. Coues consoles the novice with the assurance that “the bird cannot be mistaken under any conditions; the extensive white of the under parts and wings is recognizable at gunshot range.”

The European Widgeon (Anas penelope) has found its way across the Atlantic and our continent, for it nests in the Aleutian Islands as well as in the northern parts of our eastern coast. It is occasionally met with in the eastern United States; and, al-though it has a bald pate also, its blackish throat and the reddish brown on the rest of the head and neck easily distinguish it from its American prototype.