A Species of Bird that Gives its Name to a Color

A Species of Bird that Gives its Name to a Color

Eurasian/common teal bird (male) 


The first Eurasian teal bird I ever saw was a flock flying south over the sea at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, in England, presumably on their way to wintering grounds around the Mediterranean or closer. The identification of this small duck with a stout neck and short tail was in the early 1960s during my introductory stages of birdwatching. Migrating teal often do not interrupt their travel, although I spotted large numbers of the species swimming on the Lagoons just north of Warren Cottage on later occasions. In Europe, the species is known as the common teal or sometimes called the Eurasian green-winged teal, and they are dabbling ducks that typically feed in shallow waters by tipping their heads into the water to find food (unlike diving ducks). This is the sole variety of teal bird to breed throughout Euro-Siberia, a region that extends from Iceland across most of Europe, and over Siberia to the Kamchatka Peninsula. 


Eurasian Common Teal Female
Eurasian/common teal (female)


Look for the male’s chestnut-colored head, with a broad green eye patch, a spotted chest, grey flanks and a black-edged yellow tail. Females are mottled brown but both genders display bright green wing patches in flight. Large flocks will form outside the breeding season and are distinguished in flight by their quick wingbeats and veering and twisting acrobatics in tight formation similar to shorebirds. Typically they frequent freshwater ponds, shallow lakes, wetlands, coastal marshes and estuaries.

The green coloring on the teal’s head has been used to describe the shade of blue-green known as “teal’, and apparently was first applied in 1917.


American green winged teal male and female
American green-winged teal bird (male and female)


American blue winged teal male
American blue-winged teal (male)


When I moved to America I again encountered a bird known as the green-winged teal which is the smallest dabbling duck in the United States, about the size of a pigeon, and which is believed to belong to the same species as the Eurasian teal. It is almost indistinguishable from the Eurasian variety, and during winter the two may be mixed together when small numbers of Siberian and Alaska-breeding Eurasian teal pass down both coasts of North America. The most conspicuous difference is the presence on American males of a vertical white bar on the side of the breast, and also they are slightly smaller than their Eurasian relatives. These two subspecies interbreed where their range overlaps. The American green-winged teal is common and widespread across North America, with an estimated four million birds that breed in Canada and the northern USA, and which migrate south across the continent during August, and winter until returning to their breeding grounds starting in early March.

While the green-winged teal is the most common representative of this bird family in North America, the blue-winged species is also widespread but avoids desert areas and stays away from the west coast where they are greatly outnumbered by cinnamon teal. The blue-winged teal arrive late in their breeding grounds (late April/early May) and depart early (August), travelling further and faster than other teal species. They use the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways rather than the Pacific route during migration.

Do not confuse the green-winged teal with the American wigeon that is slightly larger and whose male lacks cinnamon-brown coloring on its head, or the larger mallard whose drake possesses a gleaming green head, and both sexes display blue wing feathers in flight possibly causing confusion with blue-winged teal.


American wigeon male
American wigeon (male)


Mallard male and female
Mallard (male and female)


Cinnamon teal are less numerous in North America than the green and blue-winged varieties, with an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 that breed primarily in the Great Salt Lake region, the San Luis Valley of Colorado and the Caribo-Chilcoton parklands of British Colombia. Up to 500,000 migrate south as far as Mexico and Central America but generally are only found in the western regions of North America. The males have a cinnamon-red head, neck, breast and belly, a black back and rump and a characteristic red eye, black bill and yellow legs and feet. The female is a rustier color and heavily streaked.


Cinnamon teal male and female


In Pacheco Valle Woods, a neighborhood in the city of Novato, CA, constructed at the end of the 1970s and named after Ignacio Pacheco, an early Californian pioneer, the streets are titled after species of birds, including the cinnamon teal. Since the location is ideal for birdwatching this might not be surprising but no record appears to exist of how the species used were selected. With names such as sage grouse, puffin, condor, elegant tern, curlew, elf owl, sandpiper and pelican, it can be assumed that local presence was not a factor, and there is no nearby shallow water suitable for the sighting of cinnamon teal. However, the choices of flicker, red hawk, oriole, quail, kingfisher, hummingbird and dove are species that may either be resident or visitors to the development.

I would never have seen a cinnamon teal at Spurn Point or elsewhere in Britain where it is a potential vagrant, but here in California I can enjoy them from fall to spring and had my first sighting at the Madrona Marsh Preserve in Torrance, Southern California several years ago. They are truly beautiful.

The only other duck possessing a cinnamon-colored face that might cause confusion is the canvasback, but this is a large duck, is big-headed, and dives rather than dabbles.


Canvasback male and femaleCanvasback (male and female)

The lesson from so many varieties of duck is to understand the many features that can be used to distinguish between species. These include profile (size and shape and position on the water), color pattern, behavior including feeding, flying (wing beat) and flocking patterns, habitat and voice.


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