The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
Wigeon, also known as the Eurasian or European wigeon
Female left, and male right, pair of breeding Wigeon
Wigeons are also known as Widgeons
A large flock of migrating Wigeon
Eurasian wigeon, European wigeon, Widgeon
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
45cm to 51cm
75cm to 86cm
500g to 900g
Eurasian wigeons are medium-sized ducks with rounded heads. Males and females are unalike: males have a yellowish forehead stripe, a chestnut head and neck, a pink breast and a grey body, with paler underparts. Females are rusty brown all over, with a white belly, and there is little contrast between the colouring of their head and upper body markings.
A white stripe is visible on their wings, particularly in flight. Male wigeons have white-grey tails, which are edged with black.
Female wigeons are similar in colouring to female mallards, and lack the bold plumage of their male mates, although both sexes do have the same black-tipped blue-grey bill.
Juvenile wigeons are similar in appearance to adult females. By their first winter, young males develop the distinctive grey body and chestnut head of adult males, but it takes a further year for the white wing markings to be fully defined.
Eurasian wigeons rank between the smaller tufted duck and larger mallard in terms of size. Female wigeons are slightly smaller than males and usually weigh less, although there is some overlap between the measurement ranges for the sexes.
Eurasian Wigeons are a medium-sized duck
Unlike many ducks, male Eurasian wigeons have a distinctive, almost musical call, which sounds like a two-pitch whistle, “wheee-ooooo” and can be heard in flight as well as when foraging on water or land.
Female Eurasian wigeons are not blessed with the same tuneful whistle of males. Instead, their call sounds like a gruff growl.
Eurasian wigeons are primarily herbivores, and their diets consist mainly of plant matter, foraged both from grazing on land or found while dabbling head-down in shallow ponds and lakes.
Grasses, sedge, leaves, stems and roots of aquatic vegetation are among the main elements of a wigeon’s diet all year round. During the breeding season, some small insects, particularly midges, are eaten.
In winter, grazing Eurasian wigeons eat seeds, rice, potatoes and even droppings of seagulls. Feeding occurs during both the day and night in winter months, according to the timing of the tides.
Midges and other tiny insects and invertebrate larvae form much of the initial diet of newly hatched wigeon ducklings, although it is not long before their diet matches that of adult birds, switching to plant matter, grasses and seeds.
Wigeon foraging for food in the water
During the breeding season, habitats preferred by wigeons are shallow, freshwater marshes, lakes, and lagoons. Landscapes that offer tree shelter are favoured, with water surrounded by scattered trees or open woodland frequently chosen for nesting.
In winter, Eurasian wigeons move south in search of coastal marshes, estuaries, bays and other sheltered marine localities.
The range of Eurasian wigeons extends from Iceland and northern Britain eastwards across northern Europe and throughout northern Asia to the coast of the Pacific.
During winter, the species moves southwards into central and southern Europe, South Asia and as far south as northern and central Africa.
Some Eurasian wigeons may migrate as far as the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America, with some year-round vagrant residents become established at isolated spots in the continent.
During winter, up to around 400,000 Eurasian wigeons are found across the British Isles. Other regions with large non-breeding populations include China, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and South Asia.
Countries with large breeding populations of Eurasian wigeons are led by Sweden, Finland, and European Russia.
Male and female Wigeon - female left, male right
Wigeons are relatively common winter visitors to the UK, but considerably less widespread in the United States, which is a fair way outside of their usual range.
Across Britain, an influx of wintering wigeons arrive from Scandinavia each autumn, inflating the year-round population of around 400 pairs to an enormous 400,000 plus birds.
The Somerset Levels are known as a favourite spot for wintering wigeons, with tens of thousands being recorded in some years.
During spring and summer, central and northern Scotland and parts of northern England may offer the best chances of glimpsing breeding wigeons and their ducklings, as up to 400 pairs breed in these locations each year.
Eurasian wigeons are a rare vagrant species in the US, and live alongside and occasionally hybridize with American wigeons. Small numbers of Eurasian wigeons spend winters on the mid-Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Wigeons are relatively common winter visitors to the UK
The maximum recorded lifespan of a Eurasian wigeon is 34 years and 7 days, with a much shorter average life expectancy of 3 years being more typical. Breeding occurs for the first time at one year.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, provides wigeons with protection against being captured, killed or injured, and also makes it illegal to damage or destroy their nests or eggs.
European wigeons are classified as a species of least concern across their entire range, but in the UK have been rated with Amber status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list. This is due to the importance of the overwintering populations supported by British wetlands.
Close up of a female Eurasian Wigeon foraging for food
Wigeons nest on land within short distances of water. Nests are created in a depression on the ground, which is concealed in grasses, reeds or other waterside vegetation.
Grass, twigs and down are used to line the nest, which is formed at a site chosen by the female and constructed with no assistance from the male.
Eurasian wigeons’ eggs are a creamy buff colour and measure up to 60 mm by 42 mm (2.4 in by 1.7 in).
A typical clutch contains between 8 and 9 eggs, and one brood per season is usual, although second broods may be attempted if the initial brood fails.
Females alone incubate the eggs for 24 to 25 days, leaving them unattended for brief periods to forage for food on the nearby water.
Eurasian wigeons are a monogamous species, and once paired, they remain together for life, maintaining the pair bond from one season to the next, with brief interruptions after young have been raised.
Breeding in the UK is not especially common for Eurasian wigeons, although up to around 400 pairs do raise young in Britain each year. Recorded locations for breeding include central and southern Scotland and northern England.
Wigeon nest, with eight unhatched eggs inside
Young Wigeon duckling
Some aggression may be shown by wigeons early in the breeding season, particularly when other pairs are nearby, and lone female ducks will be chased off.
Once the eggs are laid and young hatch, this territorial behavior subsides, and wigeons become more social, gathering and foraging in larger flocks.
Large portions of a Eurasian wigeon’s daily time budget are spent resting, with roosting spots on tidal flats as well as on open water. Although they are typically diurnal birds, and actively feed during daylight hours, some nocturnal feeding is observed, depending on tidal patterns.
Two squabbling male Wigeons
Eurasian wigeons are mostly migratory, with considerable movement within the species’ breeding and non-breeding grounds each year.
Small numbers of wigeons both live and breed in specific parts of the UK each year, but their numbers are dramatically increased with the arrival of overwintering birds each autumn.
Wigeons seen in the UK during winter months tend to only be temporary residents until the weather and foraging conditions become more tolerable on their breeding grounds further north.
Wigeons from Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland begin to be spotted on lakes and reservoirs around the UK from September onwards, with migrating birds continuing to arrive into December.
Winter-visiting wigeons begin departing for their breeding grounds from late February and into March, when they head back to breeding grounds in Iceland, Fennoscandinavia and into Russia.
European Wigeon in flight
The name ‘wigeon’ is thought to be derived from the Middle French or Old French words vigeon, vingeon and vignier, meaning “to whine or shout”, which echoes the sharp, piercing whistle made by males of the species.
Male wigeons are known as drakes. Flocks of wigeons are called ‘bunches’.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Larger than the Common Scoter this elegant European diving duck spends much of its time at sea and is often seen in company with mixed flocks resting on the water’s surface far out from land.
Tundra Bean Goose
The tundra bean goose is the most common species of bean goose, and breeds on Russian tundra landscapes. Winters are spent grazing on open fields, marshes and agricultural land in western and central Europe and East Asia.
The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
Fast and erratic in flight, the Teal is the United Kingdom’s smallest wildfowl species. Despite occurring year-round in low numbers, birdwatchers are most likely to spot these tiny ducks in the winter when large numbers arrive from abroad.
Taiga Bean Goose
Taiga bean geese are a common sight on northern taiga marshes of Siberia and northern Scandinavia in spring and summer, before heading south into Europe each winter. Several hundred individuals spend winters in the UK, with rare vagrant visitors occasionally reported in North America.
One of seven American goose species, the Snow Goose is a noisy migrant that visits the Lower 48 states each winter. These beautiful birds have increased dramatically since the second half of the 20th century.
Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.
Once decimated through overhunting and habitat destruction, the Canada Goose has rebounded to become one of North America’s most abundant and familiar wildfowl.
A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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