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A blog mainly about birds and birding, to supplement my website www.gobirding.eu. I shall add new posts on an ad hoc basis as and when I have something I think is worth sharing, whether that’s an interesting bird, something I’ve learned, perhaps about identification, or something that’s aroused my curiosity. Often there will be questions, some of which you might be able to answer... please use the comments!

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Intersex Wigeon?

I have seen a number of female Wigeons showing white behind the eye and when I found a first-winter male with white behind the eye at Salthouse in December 2012 I assumed I was seeing the same phenomenon again.  I thought it was coincidence when I saw a similar first-winter male in the same spot in February 2014 but when I heard it was back in late 2015 I realised they all had to be the same bird.  Not only were they all very similar, clearly aberrant, birds but they were in precisely the same spot, away from the main flock of Wigeon that winter at this site.  They have to be the same bird, and if they're the same bird then it can't (still) be a first-winter!






Wigeon, Salthouse (Norfolk, UK), 22nd February 2014





Wigeon, Salthouse (Norfolk, UK), 1st December 2012







Wigeon, Salthouse (Norfolk, UK), 23rd December 2015


So what is it, if not a first-winter male?  I missed a clue from the start that this wasn't a first-winter, I think.  The wing-coverts have - and have had since I first saw it - clear whitish fringes.  I believe first-winters should have browner fringes, less clear-cut than these.  It can't be an adult male with these non-white wing-coverts, so it must be an adult female.  But it has male-like grey feathers coming through on the scapulars and flanks, and the head is more solid reddish brown than I would expect on a female.  I think there's even a hint of the cream crown - just faint, but looking rather like it can on first-winter males where it's just beginning to come through.  In fact the pattern of grey male-like feathers does make it look a lot like a first-winter male - it wasn't completely stupid of me to jump to that conclusion when I first saw it!  Here's a first-winter male (already with white wing-coverts) that looks fairly similar:


first-winter male Wigeon, Horsey (Norfolk, UK), 17th December 2011


So the Salthouse bird is an adult female with some male features - an intersex, presumably.  But I had the impression that intersex birds develop over time, becoming more male-like as time goes on.  This bird is no more male-like now than it was four winters ago, so that seems surprising if it is an intersex - but what other explanation can there be?  Do some intersex birds only ever go so far towards male-like plumage?

Closer inspection reveals some other features that don't seem quite normal on male or female Wigeon.  The extent of dark barring on the breast is greater than I would expect, though this is normally variable on Wigoon.  There's also a bit of dark barring on the fore-flanks.  Maybe these are features thrown up by intersex Wigeons?  There is precedent for that happening with intersex ducks - intersex Pintail can show dark barring on the flanks, unlike any normal plumage of Pintail (eclipse male comes closest).

And the white on the head?  Is it too big a coincidence that one bird should show two different abnormal conditions (leucism as well as intersex)?  Probably not - intersex birds seem to be more prevalent among birds already suffering from some kind of abnormality, e.g. in hybrids or selectively-bred mutants.

If this is a female developing male characteristics, are we right in calling it intersex?  Or are there other conditions that lead to the same phenotypic outcome?

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