A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Gadwall ranks second in Kentucky duck harvest, third in Mississippi flyway

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles about the ducks most often taken by hunters in Kentucky during waterfowl season.

The gadwall (Anas strepera) ranks second in duck harvest in Kentucky, and third throughout the 14 states of the Mississippi Flyway.

Last waterfowl season hunters in Kentucky hunters bagged 16,942 gadwall ducks. (Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society)

Last waterfowl season hunters in Kentucky hunters bagged 16,942 gadwall ducks.

The gadwall harvest for the Mississippi Flyway was 623,532, or 11.67 percent of the total duck harvest of 5,339,800, according to the Migratory bird hunting activity and harvest report for the 2017-18 hunting season, compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Size and Description

The gadwall is a medium-sized duck, with no bright distinctive coloration, which can make identification on the wing challenging in low light.

Males are slightly larger, about 21 inches, and weigh a few ounces more than females, about 2 pounds, with a wingspan averaging more than 30 inches.

Male gadwalls are gray-brown with a white belly and a black rump. In flight, their white speculum, and the chestnut/black colorations of their wing coverts, the smaller feathers covering the bases of the flight feathers, are distinguishing characteristics. The bill is slate-gray and the legs and feet are yellow.

Female gadwalls are similar to males but have a mottled brown appearance, a dark bill rimmed in orange, and a smaller white speculum on their wings.

Vocalizations include duck-like quacks, similar to a mallard, chatters and whistles.

Since the late 1980s, the continental gadwall population, benefitting from improved wetland conditions, has increased to record levels, with the most recent estimate over 3 million birds. (Photo by Chris Knight, courtesy of Ducks Unlimited)

Wintering Grounds

Gadwalls are present in all four flyways but are most numerous in the Mississippi and Central Flyways.

They winter, east to west, from coastal Maryland and Virginia, south to Florida and southern Mexico, west to Baja California, and north to coastal California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

The largest concentration of wintering gadwalls is in southern two-thirds of the U.S., as far north as southern Iowa, southern Illinois, Missouri, southern Indiana and western Kentucky, south to Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The gadwall population in North America remained stable through the 1970s and early 1980s when populations of other ducks generally declined. Since the late 1980s, the continental gadwall population, benefitting from improved wetland conditions, has increased to record levels, with the most recent estimate over 3 million birds.

Gadwalls migrate in flocks, but not a long distance at a time.

Preferred Habitat

Gadwalls are found in a variety of habitats, including wetlands, farm ponds, large reservoirs, and coastal estuaries.

Food Habits

Aquatic vegetation makes up the majority of the gadwall’s diet.

As a result, they are often found feeding far from the shoreline, in deeper water than most other dabbling ducks. They eat pondweed, naiad, water milfoil and algae, as well as the seeds of pondweed, and smartweed. Aquatic invertebrates, such as crustaceans and midges, are also consumed.

Female gadwalls are similar to males, but have a mottled brown appearance, a dark bill rimmed in orange, and a smaller white speculum on their wings. (Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society)

Breeding Grounds

The breeding grounds of the gadwall are scattered, in Canada and the U.S.

This includes coastal Alaska, eastern British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and some areas in Ontario, Canada. In the Lower 48 states the gadwall breeds in Montana, Wyoming, and parts of several Great Basin states to the south, east to North and South Dakota, and Minnesota.

Gadwalls nest near seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands, mainly in the grasslands of prairies.

They begin breeding later than most duck species.

The paired male and female fly together looking for a suitable nest site, on an island or along a weedy shoreline.

The nest, built by the female, is in a shallow depression, constructed of grasses and weeds, lined with down. Sometimes several females use the same nest.

The female lays 7 to 13 white eggs, and she incubates them for 24 to 27 days. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching and are led to water, where they find their own food.

About 48 to 59 days after hatching, the young are capable of flight.

Hunter Harvest

Nationwide, waterfowl hunters bagged 1,219,665 gadwall ducks last season, with the lowest total, 64,618, in the Atlantic Flyway states.

The annual duck harvest is based on data collected by the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP), which requires licensed migratory game bird hunters to register annually in each state in which they hunt. Hunters are asked a series of questions about their hunting success the previous year, and this information is sent to the USFWS and compiled as an annual hunter activity and harvest report, which is released in August.

Kentucky has about 10,100 active duck hunters. Last season they spent about 78,400 days afield, according to survey data.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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