Gadwall (Grey Duck)
Gadwall are a staple among coastal waterfowlers during “big duck” season. While appearing drab at a distance, the drake is striking up close. Males are gray-brown with a white belly and a black rump. In flight, a white speculum and chestnut and black portions on the wing coverts are displayed. Females are similar to males, but have a mottled brown appearance, a yellowish bill with dark spots and a smaller white speculum. Many sportsmen characterize gadwall as neurotic. One day they’ll dive into a decoy spread from the clouds; the next, they’ll avoid it like the plague.
- Habitat: They typically spurn flooded ag fields, and prefer to feed on a wide variety of aquatic vegetation. Because of this diet, gadwalls are one of the few duck species you are just as likely to encounter in a cypress hole as in the open marsh.
- Interesting Fact: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas and Louisiana hunters combined to harvest 997,530 gadwall during the 2012 season.
Canvasback (Can, the king of ducks)
The canvasback is big, beautiful and tastes great on the table. He’s also known for approaching decoys with reckless abandon, trusting speed rather than wariness to get him out of trouble. Males have a chestnut-red head and neck, black breast, grayish back, black rump and blackish-brown tail. The sides, flank and belly are white, while the wing coverts are grayish and vermiculated with black. The bill is blackish and the legs and feet are bluish-gray. Females have a light brown head and neck, grading into a darker brown chest and foreback. The sides, flanks and back are grayish-brown.
- Habitat: The majority of canvasbacks once wintered on the Chesapeake Bay, but their range has shifted toward the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
- Interesting Fact: A surprising band return for a hunter turned out to be a 29-year-old canvasback. This was the oldest known wild duck in North America.
If the canvasback is king, the redhead is at least a prince. Like the can, he’s big beautiful and fast. He loves decoys, and there’s nothing shy or skittish about the way he approaches them. Males sport a reddish head and upper neck with a black lower neck, foreback and breast. Unlike the can, his bill is light blue-gray with a whitish band behind a relatively wide black tip. Females have a reddish-brown head, neck and breast, with a buff white chin and throat and an indistinct eye ring and stripe behind the eye. The bill is duller than the male's, but similar in pattern.
- Habitat: During the migration, hunters across the nation are likely to encounter him, but he calls the Gulf Coast his winter home. Small numbers are common from Apalachee Bay, FL to the Yucatan Peninsula, but the Laguna Madre on the border of Texas and Mexico winters approximately 80% of the North American population.
- Interesting Fact: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texans set a harvest record on redheads in 2014 with 97,770 birds.
If there’s a duck equivalent for the poster child for Gulf Coast restoration, it’s the mottled duck. While the mottled duck can be confused with American black ducks, the mottled is slightly lighter and its blue to green iridescent wing patches differ and are rimmed with black. The bill of the drake is solid yellow, while the hen has more of a yellow orangish tint with black spots. If there isn’t a reversal of coastal land lost, the days of mottled ducks on hunter’s straps are coming to an end.
- Habitat: They are year-round coastal residents from Florida to Mexico, but the Western Gulf population of Louisiana and Texas is the largest. Population levels are tied closely to the health of coastal marshes and have trended down in recent years as the coast has eroded and saltwater has crept inland.
- Interesting Fact: According to Audubon Louisiana, “Hunters who wish to help can support local, state, and federal wetland restoration funding programs which contribute to coastal wetland restoration. That, in turn, benefits not only mottled ducks but a number of additional game and non-game species of conservation concern.”