Small in size and closely related to the Blue-winged Teal, the male Cinnamon Teal is easy to recognize by its dark reddish plumage. Female Cinnamon Teal, on the other hand, are very difficult to distinguish from female Blue-winged Teal except for having a larger bill and less distinct facial markings.
A Cinnamon Teal’s home range may be about 19 acres, and home ranges of adjacent pairs may overlap. With an overall population size smaller than most other ducks, and identification difficulties with it close relative, population trends in Cinnamon Teal populations are poorly understood.
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Description of the Cinnamon Teal
The Cinnamon Teal is a small western duck with a long, wide bill for a teal. Males and females differ dramatically in plumage.
Males have dark reddish head, neck, and body as well as reddish eyes. Length: 15 in. Wingspan: 22 in.
Plain mottled brownish plumage.
Seasonal change in appearance
Nonbreeding males resemble females but retain some reddish tones and the red eyes.
Juveniles resemble females, but are less distinctly marked.
Ponds and marshes.
Seeds and underwater vegatation.
Forages in shallow water.
Breeds across much of the western U.S. and southwestern Canada and winters in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Cinnamon Teal.
The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Cinnamon Teal often gather in flocks with other teal or Mallards during the nonbreeding season.
Male Cinnamon Teal defend very small territories that include the nest site and their favorite loafing site.
Usually silent, but low-pitched “kaar-kaar” sounds or rattles can be produced.
Blue-winged Teal females are very similar to Cinnamon Teal females, but have smaller bills.
The nest is a shallow depression lined with down.
Color: Whitish or buff.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 21-25 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in hours after hatching but remain with the female for some time.
Bent Life History of the Cinnamon Teal
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Cinnamon Teal – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
QUERQUEDULA CYANOPTERA (Vieillot)
The “western champion,” as Dawson (1909) has aptly called this species, holds a unique position among America n ducks, for it is the only member of the family that is confined to the western part of the continent with its center of abundance west of the Rocky Mountains and the only member of the family which has a regular breeding range in South America separated from that in North America by a wide gap of about 2,000 miles. The history of its discovery is also interesting. Coues (1874) says:
It has not often occurred that an abundant bird of North America has been first made generally known from the extreme point of South America, and for a long time recognized only as an inhabitant of that continent, Yet this species furnishes such a case, having been early named by King as Anas rafflesi, from a specimen taken in the Straights of Magellan. It is, moreover, a singular fact, that it was first discovered in the United States in a locality where it is of very unusual and probably only accidental occurrence.
Subsequent to its discovery in Louisiana in 1849, it was afterwards rediscovered, as a North American bird, and found to be one of the most abundant species west of the Rocky Mountains, by the various survey expeditions to the Pacific coast during the next 20 years.
Spring: The spring migration of the cinnamon teal is not a long flight, for its winter and summer ranges overlap and it is absent in winter from only the northern portion of its breeding range. The northward movement begins in March and continues through April. Dr. J. C. Merrill (1888) noted that, at Kiamath, Oregon, “early in May several flocks of this beautiful teal arrived, and before the end of the month it was common in the marsh, mostly paired and not at all shy.
Courtship: Mr. W. Leon Dawson has sent me the following notes on the courtship of this species:
Upon a little pond entirely surrounded by reeds I watched six or eight cinnamon teals disporting themselves and indulging in courting antics. A male would follow about very closely after his intended, and bob his head by alternately extending and withdrawing his neck in a lively fashion. Now and then the female would make some slight acknowledgment in the same kind. In at least one instance I think I appeared in the decisive moment, for from pretended indifferences a duck responded to long bobs of inquiry with emphatic bobs of approval given face to face, and immedi. at~ly thereafter joined her favored suitor in chasing away discredited rivals. The males were repeatedly charging upon each other with open beaks, but it is hard to think that they could or would do each other bodily harm.
The teals, by the way, of both kinds, associate closely, so that the females of the two species are sometimes confused by the observer, and the males exhibit some jealousy toward each other, as though really fearing contusion of brides. A favorite play on the part of these teals is leap-frog. A bird will vault into the air and pass over another’s head and down again with a great splash, and the other as likely as not will repeat the same trick, especiaUy two males of two pairs playing together.
Dr. Alexander Wetmore (1920) says: These single males persisted in paying attention to females already mated, much to the disgust of the paired drakes, who drove them away, bowing at them and chat- tering angrily. On one occasion six were seen making demonstration toward one female who paid no attention to them, but followed her mate. He swam first at one and then another after each chase returning to his mate and bowing rapidly, while occasionally she bowed to him in return. After a few minutes another mated pair of teal flew by and four of the males flew off in pursuit of them, leaving the first males only two to combat.
Nesting: Mr. Dawson has also sent me more or less data on some two dozen nests of this species found in Washington and about a dozen found in California, from which I have made a few selections to illustrate the variations in nesting habits. A nest containing nine eggs, found at Stratford, Washington, on June 8, 1906, was located while dragging a rope in a pasture. The nest was a deep depression in the ground in a “loose clump of rye grass, lined sparsely with bits of grass and copiously with down. The down arohes up at the hin- der end and makes a little rear wall above the ground. Depth 5 incl.ies; width 5 inside.” On the same day he flushed a bird from a nest of 11 eggs in a “thick clump of yellow dock and mint. The rope gave a vicious tug at the clump else she never would have flown.” On his return later to phot~graph the nest, he peered down into the vegetation and surprised the teal at home; she struggled wildly to escape and left the usual deluge of fresh excrement on the eggs, as evidence of her fright. The nest was “a shallow depression scantily lined with broken grass and trash, and heavily with dark down”; it measured “6 inches across and 3 deep inside.” All of the other Washington nests were apparently on dry ground, concealed in tall grass or rank herbage, often on high land and many of them were from 75 to 200 feet away from the nearest water. The California nests were in more varied situations. On May 13, 1911, in Nigger Slough, near Los Angeles, he flushed a bird at close quarters in heavy saw grass;” the nest was “built up above damp earth” and contained 11 fresh eggs. On May 24, 1912, at Los Banos, he found two nests “buried in the heart of cat-tails built up to a height of some 6 inches out of a foot of water”; the “nests were really woven baskets placed in the depths of the reeds, an unusual situation for cinnamon teals.”
One of these nests originally held eight eggs of the teal; but two eggs of the mallard had been added and three of the teal’s eggs had been thrown out into the water; this nest “was built up of dried cat- tail and sedges, 5 inches high in the center and 9 at the edges, with a free way to the water after the manner of coots. It was about 7 inches across,” and was wet and bulky.
Mr. Harry H. Sheldon (1907) refers to three nests which he “found in a grain field” near Eagle Lake, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mr. Fred A. Schneider (1893) describes a nest which he found in a marsh near College Park, California, as “very neatly constructed an inch or two above the water and firmly fastened to the round marsh grass, which grew about 30 inches high and almost concealed the nest from view.” It “was made entirely of marsh grass and lined profusely with gray down, especially around the edges. By cutting off the grass which supported the nest it could easily have been re- moved without danger of its falling apart.”
Mr. Robert B. Rockwell (1911) found a number of cinnamon teal breeding in the Barr Lake region of Colorado, but positively identi- fied only four nests as belonging to this species, in which he was: unable to detect any radical departures from the habits already attributed to the bluewings except that two of the four nests were in very wet locations, where the eggs were in constant danger of becoming damp. These two nests were practically devoid of the downy lining while the other two nests, which were built in perfectly dry locations were warmly lined with down. One of the nests was on a dry prairie fully 100 feet back from the shore of the lake amid a fairly thick growth of weeds and grass.
The down in the nest of the cinnamon teal is much like that of the blue-winged teal, but lighter than that of the green-winged teal. It is “hair brown” to “drab” in color, with large conspicuous white centers. Two types of breast feathers are found in the nests, dusky with buff edges and tips, or dusky with whitish central markings.
Eggs: The cinnamon teal lays from 6 to 14 eggs, the usual set being from 10 to 12. In shape they are ovate, elliptical ovate, elliptical oval or almost oval. The shell is smooth and only slightly glossy. The color varies from “pale pinkish buff” or “cartridge buff” to almost pure white.
The measurements of 90 eggs in various collections average 47.5 by 34.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 53 by 35, 48 by 37 and 44 by 30 millimeters.
Young: Although the male does not wholly desert the female during the nesting season, the duties of incubation seem to be wholly performed by her. The period of incubation does not seem to have been accurately determined, but it is probably not very different from that of closely related species. Mr. John G. Tyler writes me:
I have observed that the male of this species departs from the usual rule among the ducks and very often assists the female in caring for her brood of young. it is rather unusual to find young cinnamon teal that are not accompanied by both par. ents and the solicitude of the male bird increases with the age of the ducklings; in fact, the male is often far more demonstrative than his mate. In one instance I observed three males and a single female accompanied by 10 downy young, the males showing unmistakable evidence of their great distress at the near presence of a man while the female swam about near her family in a most unconcerned manner.
On the authority of Mr. A. M. Shields, of Los Angeles, Mr. Fred A. Schneider (1893) has published the following interesting account of the behavior of the young:
After being hatched, the mother duck (joined by her mate) escorts the young brood to the nearest body of water and manifests the greatest solicitude for the welfare of the little fellows, giving a signal upon the slightest approach of danger1 which i5 fol- lowed by the almost instant disappearance of the entire brood, as if by magic. If on the shore they disappear in the grass; if in the water, they dive, and that is generally the last seen of them, for the time being at least, as they swim under water for great distances until reaching the edge of the stream or pond, when they imperceptibly secrete themselves among the water moss or grass. I once watched a little fellow as he made his way under the dear water. He went straight for a little bunch of float- ing moss, and by gazing intently I could just distinguish the least possible little swelling of the moss: a small hump, as it were, about the size of a marble. He had come to the surface (as intended) under the patch of moss, and his head and bill were respon- sible for the little hump in the moss.
Possibly one thing more than anything else helps the little fellows to disappear in such marvelously quick time and before you can realize it. The old duck flutters and falls around you just out of your reach and most successfully imitates a fowl badly winged, hardly able to rise from the ground. Her actions are bound to more or less avert your attention for a moment at least, and it is just that moment that the little fellows disappear, as the mother duck undoubtedly intended. After a short time, when the little ones are all securely hidden, the mother, feeling no further anxiety, gracefully recovers from her crippled condition, flies off a few hundred yards, and there awaits your departure, when she returns to her family, who soon gather around her one by one till they are all assembled and everything goes on as though nothing had happened: until the next intruder appears, when “Presto! change!” and the same actions are repeated.
Plumages: The downy young of the cinnamon teal is “mummy brown” above, darkest on the crown, and the tips of the down are “buffy citrine,” producing a golden olivaceous appearance on the back; the forehead, the sides of the head, including a broad super- ciliary stripe, and the under parts vary from “mustard yellow” on the head to “amber yellow” on the breast and “naphthaline yellow” on the belly; there is a narrow stripe of dark brown on the side of the head; and the color of the back is relieved by a yellowish spot on each side of the rump, scapular region, and edge of the wing.
The first feathers appear on the scapulars and flanks; these are brownish black, edged with “cinnamon brown.” When the young bird is about half grown the tail appears and the under parts become feathered; the chest and flanks appear to be lustrous “Sanford’s brown” and the belly silvery whitish, both mottled with dusky, each feather being centrally dusky. The bird is fully grown before it is fully feathered, the down disappearing last on the hind neck and rump; and the wings are the last to appear. A young bird nearly two-thirds grown is only partially feathered on the head; the back is wholly covered with glossy down, varying from “bister” to “sepia~~ and darkest on the rump; and the wing quills have not yet burst their sheaths.
In the full juvenal plumage, which in California is complete in July, the young male closely resembles the female, except that the wings are more like those of the adult male; the wings are duller colored and less complete than those of the adult male; the tertials and the scapulars are dusky, edged with “cinnamon brown,” the former with a greenish sheen. During the winter and first spring the young male makes steady progress toward maturity; the “mahog- any red” plumage comes in on the head, neck, breast, and flanks; the adult barred plumege appears on the upper back; and some of the gaily colored scapulars, blue on the outer web and having a buffy median stripe, are acquired. The young bird then in its first spring closely resembles the adult male, except that the belly still remains more or less dull brown, the colors are everywhere less brilliant and the wings and ~capulars are less perfect.
Both old and young males then molt into an eclipse plumage. Beginning in June the head and neck become mottled with new buffy feathers, centrally dusky, which gradually replace the red; the red of the chest and flanks is gradually replaced by handsome feathers, centrally dusky but broadly edged and barred with rich shades of buff and brown in a variety of l)atterns; the faded brown plumage of the breast and belly are then invaded and gradually replaced by a new growth of buff, whitish-tipped feathers, each with two large spots or central areas of dusky; when absolutely fresh the long white tips of these new feathers give the under parts a silvery white appearance, but the tips soon wear off, leaving these parts as in the female. While this eclipse plumage is at its height, in August, the wings are molted, the secondaries first, with the greater and lesser coverts, and then the primaries; there is much individual variation in the time at which the showy tertials and scapulars are molted; the large, blue-tipped tertials are sometimes renewed before the eclipse plumage is complete and sometimes not until after it is shed; the long, pointed, white-striped scapulars are usually the last to be acquired. The tail is molted in August with the wings and the back plumage is renewed by a double molt simultaneously with that of the under parts; the eclipse feathers of the back are dusky, narrowly edged with buff. In September a new growth of “mahogany red” or ”burnt sienna ~ feathers begins to replace the eclipse plumage on the breast and the renewal of the fully adult plumage spreads over the rest of the body, neck, and head, until, sometime in October or November, the full plumage is complete.
Food: Mr. Tyler writes me that: This duck seems to prefer, at all times, the shallow ponds and overflowed areas rather than deep canals and sloughs. The feeding operations are carried on entirely above the water and for the most part along the margin of the ponds or even out on the banks. I have never known them to dive ~n search of food and in fact believe that the female seldom, if ever, dives for any purpose whatever. The males, how- ever, occasionally, but not often, plunge below the surface of the water during the mating season; this feat usually being accomplished in the presence of a rival.
Mr. Douglas C. Mabbott (1920) says: Like the greenwing and the bluewing, die cinnamon teal lives mainly upon vegetable food, this comprising about four-fifths (79.86 per cent) of the total contents of the stomachs examined. And, like the other teals, its two principal and most constant items of food are the seeds and other parts of sedges (Cyperaceae) and pondweeds (Naiadaceae). These two families of plants furnished 34.27 and 27.12 per cent, respectively, of the bird’s entire diet. The grasses (Gramineas) amounted to 7.75 per cent; smartweeds (Polygonacene), to 3.22; inallows (Malvaceae), 1.87; goosefoob family (Chenopodiaceae), 0.75; water milfoils (Haloragidaceae), 0.37; and miscellaneous, 4.51. The 41 cinnamon teals examined had made of animal matter 20.14 per cent of their food. This consisted of insects, 10.19 per cent; mollusks, 8.69 per cent; and a few small miscellaneous items, 1.26 per cent.
Behavior: Mr. Tyler writes me: Cinnamon teal are seldom found associated in large flocks but are most often encountered in pairs hefore the breeding season and in small family groups during the fall. So far as my observacions go, the male is quite silent at all times and the only not.e that I have ever heard the female give is a very matter-of-fact “quack” which serves as an alarm note and is heard just as the bird takes wing.
Doctor Wetmore (1920) says: The only note that I have ever heard from the male cinnamon teal is a low rattling, chattering note that can be heard only for a short distance.
I have had only limited opportunities of observing this beautiful species in life, but, judging from what I have seen and from what I have read about it, I should say that it differs very little in behavior from the blue-winged teal, to which it is closely related. In the shal- low tule-bordered lakes and marshes of the far West, where this handsome little duck makes its summer home, it finds abundant shelter in the thick growth of tules and other luxuriant vegetation, in which to escape from its many enemies, prowling beasts and birds of prey. It is a prolific and persistent breeder and seems to maintain its abundance in spite of the frequent raids upon its eggs and young by predatory animals. Mr. Dawson’s notes contain many references to raided nests, of which the following is a fair sample: As I was returning at 2 p. m. from examination of a gadwall’s nest I came upon two broken eggshells of a cinnamon teal. A little search revealed the nest about 6 feet from the nearest egg, and a glance showed the tragedy which had heen enacted last night. The grass tussock gaped open and the dark down was scattered. A befouled and broken egg bore sad testimony to the mortal fright of the mother, although none of the remaining six were broken. A runt egg lay a foot or so from the nest, and I think the mother bird must have dropped it there long before the fatal night. A bit of blood on the down showed that it was the bird rather than the eggs the miscreant was after, and I found her lying dead upon her back only 6 feet away. There was a sharp deep wound over the heart: no other mark of violence: and dissection showed that although the heart itself had not been pierced, the neighboring blood vessels had and the blood was practically withdrawn.
This species, like many others, has always been able to cope successfully with its natural enemies, but against its chief enemy, man, it is powerless. The encroachments of civilization and agriculture have driven it from many of its former haunts by draining, cultivat-. ing, or destroying its breeding grounds, its shelters, and its feeding places. Many nests are destroyed and some birds are killed by mow- ing the fields in which it breeds. in the San Joaquin Valley, in 1914, I was disappointed to find that during dry season the land company, which controls vast areas, had drawn off the water for irrigation purposes and left its wonderful sloughs dry and almost duckless. But the worst enemy of all ducks is the unrestrained market hunter, of which Mr. Vernon Bailey (1902) says:
The young are protected in the tule cover until old enough to fly, but they have many enemies. The prowling coyote dines with equal relish on a nest full of eggs or an unwary duck, and there are hawks by day and owls by night. The teals could hold their own against these old time enemies, however, hut a new danger has come to them in the form of the unrestrained market hunter. Be goes to the breeding ground just before the young can fly and while the old ducks are molting and equally helpless, and day after day loads his wagon with them for the train. This whole- sale slaughter has gone on until some of the breeding grounds have been woefully thinned not only of teal, hut of other ducks. Without speedy and strenuous efforts to procure and enforce protective laws, many species of ducks that breed principally within our limits will soon be exterminated.
Fall: As the cinnamon teal winters as far north as southern California and central New Mexico, the fall migration is short and merely means withdrawal from the northern part of its breeding range, during September and the first half of October. During the short southward flight, it flocks in large numbers into all suitable sloughs and lakes, where it is eagerly sought by the sportsmen and is fully as popular as its eastern relative, the bluewing, which it closely resembles in all its habits. I am tempted to quote in full the attractive and vivid picture which Doctor Coues (1874) has drawn of this bird in its fall and winter haunts. He writes:
I have in mind a picture of the headwaters of the Rio Verde, in November, just before winter had fairly set in, although frosts had already touched the foliage and dressed every tree and bush in gorgeous colors. The atmosphere showed a faint yellow haze, and was heavy with odors: souvenirs of departing flowers. The sap of the trees coursed sluggishly, no longer lending elastic vigor to the limbs, that now cracked and broke when forced apart; the leaves loosened their hold, for want of the same mysterious tie, and fell in showers where the quail rtistled over their withering forms. Woodpeckers rattled with exultation against the resounding hark, and seemed to know of the greater store for them now in the nerveless, drowsy trees, that resisted the chisel less stoutly than when they were full of juicy life. Ground squirrels worked hard, gathering the last seeds and nuts to increase their winter’s store, and cold-blooded reptiles dragged their stiffening joints to hask in sunny spots, and stim- nlate the slow current of circulation, before they should withdraw and sink into torpor. Wild fowl came flocking from their northern breeding places, among them thousands of teal, hurtling overhead and splashing in the waters they were to enliven and adorn a]! winter.
The upper parts of both forks of the Verde are filled with beavers, that have dammed the stream at short intervals, and transformed them, in some places, into a succession of pools, where the teal swim in still water. Other wild fowl join them, such as mallards, pintails. and greenwings, disporting together. The approach to the open waters is difficult in most places, from the rank growths, first of shrubbery, and next of reeds, that fringe the open banks; in other places, where the stream nar- rows in precipitous gorges, from the almost inaccessible rocks. But these difficulties overcome, it is a pleasant sight to see the birds before us: perhaps within a few paces, if we have very carefully crawled through the rushes to the verge: fancying themselves perfectly secure. Some may be quietly paddling in and out of the sedge on the otherside, daintily picking up the floating seeds that were shaken down when the wind rustled through, stretching up to gather those still hanging, or to pick off little creatures from the seared stalks. Perhaps a flock is floating idly in midstream, some asleep, with the head resting close on the back and the bill buried in the plum. age. Some others swim vigorously along, with breasts deeply immersed, tasting the water as they go, straining it through their bills, to net minute insects, and gabbling to each other their sense of perfect enjoyment. But let t.hem appear never so care- less, they are quick to catch the sound of coming danger and take alarm; they are alert in an instant: the next incautious movement, or snapping of a twig, startles them; a chorus of quacks. a splashing of feet, a whistling of wings, and the whole company is off. He is a good sportsman who stops them then, for the stream twists about, the reeds confuse, and the birds are out of sight almost as soon as seen.
Breeding range: Western North America and southern South America. In North America east to western Montana (Missoula County), eastern Wyoming (Lake Como), southwestern Kansas (Meade County), and south central Texa’~ (Bexar County). South to southwestern Texas (Marathon), northern Mexico (Chihuahua), and northern Lower California (San Rafael Valley). West to practi- cally all the central valleys of California, central Oregon (Paulina Marsh), and northwestern Washington (Tacoma). North to south- ern British Columbia (Reveistoke, Okanogan and Chilliwack). In South America, from central Argontina (Buenos Aires) south to the Falkland Islands, and from the Straits of Magellan north in the Andes to central Peru (Santa Luzia).
Winter range: Southwestern North America and central South America. In North America east to southern Texas (Brownsville). South to south central Mexico (Jalisco and Puebla) and perhaps far- ther; has occurred in Costa Rica. North to central California (Stockton), southern Arizona (Tucson), central New Mexico, and probably southwestern Texas. In South America south to central Patagonia (Senger River) and southern Chile (Chiloe Island). North to southern Brazil (Rio Grande de Sul), southern Paraguay, Bolivia (Lake Titicaca), Peru (Corillos), and rarely to Ecuador (Quito) and Colombia (Bogota and Santa Marta). These latter records may have been stragglers from North America.
Spring migration: Early dates of arrival: Nevada, Ash Meadows, March 18; Idaho, Grangeville, April 11; British Columbia, Chilli- wack, April 22; Colorado, Boloit, March 23, Loveland, April 13, and Lay, April 20; Missouri, Lake City, April 15; Nebraska, Omaha, April 10; Wyoming, Lake Como, May 5. Late date of departure: Lower California, Colnett, April 8.
Fall migration: Withdrawal from the northern portions of the breeding range begins in September and is completed by the middle of October. A late northern record is, North Dakota, Mandan, October 10.
Casual records: Has wandered on migrations as far east as Alberta (Edmonton, May 12, 1917), Manitoba (Oak Lake), Wisconsin (Lake Koslikonong, October 18, 1879, and October 9, 1891), Ohio (Licking County Reservoir, April 4,1895), New York (Seneca Lake, about April 15, 1886), South Carolina (a somewhat doubtful record), Florida (Lake lamonia and Key West), and Louisiana (Lake Pont- chartrain).
Egg dates: California: Thirty-seven records, April 18 to July 14; nineteen records, May 14 to June 17. Colorado and Utah: Forty- two records, May 3 to July 8; twenty-one records, May 15 to June 3. Oregon and Washington: Thirteen records, May 8 to June 13; seven records, May 26 to June 2.