Garganeys - Distinctive Dabbling Ducks Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Garganeys - Distinctive Dabbling Ducks

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A garganey duck

The Garganey (Spatula querquedula) is a type of duck. It is classed as a 'dabbling duck' as it feeds either by skimming food off the surface of water, or by tipping up its body so its head can reach underwater ('diving ducks' on the other hand can submerge their whole body to find food). Female Garganeys look similar to other female ducks, with brown, cream and black plumage, although they have white feathers under their beak and a more distinctive eye stripe. Male Garganeys are easy to distinguish from other male ducks, as they have wide white curved eye-stripes on their brown heads. They also have brown mottled breasts, grey flanks and brown mottled rumps.

These birds can be found across parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. The global population is estimated to be around 2.7 million birds. The number of adult birds has decreased in recent decades. However, they are classed as of Least Concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List as the decrease is not substantial enough for a higher level of concern. They are hunted for sport in some countries. Their chicks and eggs are vulnerable to predation by animals such as mink, plus their habitat is at risk, eg from marsh drainage programmes or pollution.

In autumn and winter, Garganeys eat the seeds of pondweed and other aquatic plants. During the breeding season they will also eat insects and larvae, snails, worms, small fish, frogs and frogspawn.

These ducks are migratory - they spend the winter in Africa, and travel north to Europe and Asia for the breeding season. Before returning south for the winter, Garganeys undergo a moult of their feathers, and they are flightless for a time. In the breeding season (around April) they make nests on the ground among grasses or rushes, and line the depressions with leaves, grass and downy feathers. The female lays up to nine eggs and incubates them for about three weeks. The chicks can feed themselves soon after hatching, and they can fly when they are about six weeks old. The oldest Garganey known to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was 14 years old.

In the UK, Garganeys are occasional visitors that may be seen in spring or summer at coastal nature reserves, including Titchfield Haven in the south and Burton Mere in the north west of England.

The Spatula Genus

Garganeys are members of the Spatula genus, named for the flat shape of their beaks. There are nine other members of the genus1, and they are all named either 'shoveler' (for those with particularly large, flat shovel-like beaks) or 'teal' (for those with distinctive patches of blue-green feathers).

All the species in the genus are classed as Least Concern. The population of Cape Shovelers (Spatula smithii) in central and southern Africa has increased. Populations of Australasian Shoveler (Spatula rhynchotis) in Australia and New Zealand and Red Shoveler (Spatula platalea) in South America are stable. The population of Northern Shovelers has decreased in recent years, but they can still be found around the northern hemisphere of the Earth, from North America to East Asia via Europe and Africa. The Blue-billed Teal (Spatula hottentota) of Africa and the Cinnamon Teal (Spatula cyanoptera) of North and South America have experienced decreases in their populations, but populations of Silver Teal (Spatula versicolor) and Puna Teal (Spatula puna) in South America are stable. The population of Blue-winged Teal in Central and North America is increasing. Conservation efforts to protect habitats for these birds around the world are ongoing.

1All dabbling ducks used to be classified as Anas, but DNA analysis in 2009 found they did not all have a shared ancestry - some ducks, including Eurasian Teal, are still classed as Anas, but others moved to different genera.

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