Gadwall is a gray duck in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse

Gadwall are handsome puddle ducks which are, at a distance gray in color, hence the name that most hunters in Louisiana and other Gulf states call them - "gray" ducks. According to the famous bird artist John James Audubon, the French speaking hunters in south Louisiana called them "violin" based on the whirring sound made when fly up from water or ground when frightened.

Gadwall is an unusual name. But, no one seems to know its origin, only that it traces back to the late 1600s in English literature.

Okay, I'm a hunter. I like to eat ducks. A nice, juicy roasted Gadwall is as tasty a duck as I've ever eaten. I'm getting a bit "long in the tooth" and don't do much duck hunting these days but would never pass up a shot at a Gadwall!

Gadwall are puddle ducks as opposed to diving ducks. Sure, they can dive and swim well under water especially If crippled and trying to escape a hunter or, for that matter, a bird of prey like a Peregrine Falcon or a hawk. They will also dive, if necessary to reach desirable food. However, their preferred way of feeding is to "tip up" with the head and upper half of their bodies under water and the back of their bodies and tail vertical above the surface. During the non-breeding season, Gadwall eat copious quantities of aquatic vegetation and seeds of grasses and sedges. They'll forage in grain and corn fields for wasted grain.

Gadwalls will practice kleptoparasitism. That is they will steal food from diving water birds, especially coots, when they surface after deep dives.

Prior to breeding, Gadwall, especially hens, eat copious quantities of insects, snails, small clams, plankton, and worms because this fare provides the animal proteins and fats needed to produce healthy eggs. The recently hatched ducklings quickly leave their nest and follow their mother to nearby pools and ponds where they eat similar food as vegetable foods don't provide the animal matter needed for rapid growth.

Gadwalls are birds of marshes and shallow water. They'll be found in such habitat at the shallow ends of piney woods lakes and reservoirs and borrow pits and ox bows of the rivers that pass through the piney woods.

So, what do Gadwall look like? Yes, the overall color is gray for both sexes. A close look shows that the drakes in breeding plumage are intricately patterned with gray, brown, and black and bellies are white. Hen Gadwalls resemble brownish hen Mallards with dark scalloping marks mottled brown. Both males and females have white patches on their wings but that of the male is much larger and prominent with black borders and chestnut patches above. These patches are difficult to see on a sitting duck.

Gadwalls weigh around 2 pounds while Mallards are often larger at 2-4 pounds. But, they are giants compared to the small teal with which they are often found.

Gadwalls arrive in our area early in the fall but hang around late into the spring before returning to breeding grounds. Pairs establish during fall migration where most ducks pair later. Few, if any, breed in southern wintering grounds.

All ducks quack, right? Most people are familiar with Mallards and their domesticated relatives, the white Peking Ducks. These are the duck quacks with which most people are familiar. The drake Gadwall makes a whistling call. The hen Gadwall makes a hoarse quack similar to that of the Mallard.