The wigeon (Anas penelope) is a medium-sized duck with a well-known whistling call - 'wheeooo' - familiar to all who have witnessed their huge winter flocks on the fens and coastal marshes of Norfolk. Drakes (males) in breeding plumage have grey backs, white bellies and pink chests. The head is chestnut in colour with a buff forehead, while the tail is predominantly black. After moulting, when the plumage is said to be in 'eclipse', the drakes resemble the females, which are grey or buff-coloured birds with a white underside. The drakes are rather more rufous than the females, however. Juveniles look very similar to females.
The wigeon is a grazer but will take grain when available. In May, the drakes erect their small crests and display to females, but once mating has taken place, they take no further part in rearing the young. The female constructs a nest on the ground amongst bracken or heather, and lines it with dried grass and down from her own breast. The eggs are buff-coloured, and there may be eight in the clutch. They are incubated for 25 days and the ducklings leave the nest soon after hatching. Attended by their mother, they fly after about 40 days.
Although there is a population that winters along the east coast of the USA, most wigeon are Eurasian birds, ranging from the Mediterranean north to Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia, north to the Barents Sea. These northern populations migrate south to spend winter in southern Europe and the UK. The birds also breed in northern Britain, principally in the Scottish uplands.
Wigeons breed on upland moors near shallow lochs, and occasionally on coastal marshes. Outside the breeding season, they congregate around estuaries, coastal lagoons, reservoirs and lakes with close access to grazing meadows.
The wigeon is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Receives general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) in the UK. Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern).
The wigeon is not an especially threatened species; the UK breeding population has numbered at least 300 pairs for nearly 30 years. There have been local declines, thought to have been caused by acidification of upland lakes and loss of nesting habitat through afforestation.
There are two Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for breeding birds supporting some 80 pairs, about 27 percent of the UK breeding population. The bulk of the world’s wigeon breed in Scandinavia and Russia. The largest concentrations of the birds in Britain occur during winter with the arrival of migrants from northern Europe and Asia. Estimates suggest that over 300,000 wigeon over winter in the UK, this figure is thought to represent fewer than 18 percent of the world population. There are 38 SPAs throughout Britain designated for wintering wigeon. Of these, by far the largest numbers are found on the Ribble and Alt Estuaries in Lancashire and the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire.
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