Creature Feature: Gadwall

Gadwall - Photo Mike's Birds

A typical birder's look at a Gadwall drake (male).

Gadwall - Photo Mike's Birds
A typical birder's look at a Gadwall drake (male).
Gadwall Drake - Photo Duck Lover
Notice the beautiful, finely vermiculated plumage on this male Gadwall. From a distance, the bird simply looks gray, but it's a different story on closer inspection.
Gadwall Hen (female) - Photo Duck Lover
A female Gadwall looks much like a female Mallard.
Gadwall Lifting Off - Photo Kev Chapman

Bright colors abound in the waterfowl world. For example, our eyes are trained on the showy court jester, the Wood Duck drake. We marvel at the clean, crisp, long-necked lines that define the Northern Pintail. Consider the American Wigeon drake and its bold green and white patterns. It’s easy, with all those glamorous ducks, to overlook a subtly decorated species such as the Gadwall. Understated splendor is its defining feature.

The Gadwall is similar in size to a Mallard, but with a steeper forehead and thinner bill. The drake Gadwall appears to be gray-brown at a distance, with a white belly and black patch at the tail. Upon closer inspection, the male’s body feathers are exquisitely patterned in a fine herringbone, as if it wore a tweed jacket. The female Gadwall closely resembles a female Mallard. In flight, the male and female show a pure white speculum (a bright patch of secondary feathers on the wing).

• A Gadwall is a dabbling duck and tends to feed in deeper water. This is because its food of choice is submerged aquatic vegetation, rather than emergent vegetation (plants rooted below, but extending above the water’s surface).

• Although a Gadwall is able to dive, you might also observe it steal another bird’s food. This theft is most commonly seen within a small flock of American Coots, as the Gadwall waits at the surface and steals what the coots bring up from below.

• In Ohio, Gadwalls are seen in the largest numbers in mid-October during fall migration to the Gulf Coast. Flocks of up to 1,000 birds, already paired for spring breeding, display and feed on ponds, marshes, and wetlands with abundant aquatic vegetation.

• The species mostly breeds in the Great Plains and Prairie Pothole regions. Within the last century, the duck’s range has expanded more than any other in North America. In Ohio, limited breeding has been confirmed in the western Lake Erie marshes.

• The Gadwall is legal game in Ohio. Check the 2017-2018 Ohio Hunting and Trapping Regulations booklet or go to wildohio.gov for more information about duck hunting.

Nina Harfmann is a contributing Writer with the ODNR Division of Wildlife.