It was only about five minutes into legal shooting time Saturday morning when Matt Arceneaux picked off what he thought was just another blue-winged teal zipping over a flooded bean field.
“It was low light, and it came in a little higher than the levee. I thought it was a teal when it was coming in. It was flying with another teal in a pair,” said Arceneaux, 28, of Cankton. “They were low on the water skimming across.”
He was hunting with his father, Jack Arceneaux Sr., and his brother Jack in Gueydan.
“When the dog brought it, I saw the white moon on its face so I immediately assumed it was a blue-winged teal,” he said. “But my brother was holding it by the foot and said, ‘No, that’s not a blue-winged teal.’
“When I saw it, I immediately thought shoveler/blue-winged teal. We call them spoon teal.”
The group started sending cellphone pictures of the duck out to friends, and guesses started pouring in, including a rare New Zealand shoveler, which is very similar in appearance to Arceneaux’s bird.
“Then we all started getting on our phones trying to research New Zealand shovelers,” he said with a laugh.
He later posted pictures of the duck on several sites, including LouisianaSportsman.com.
We forwarded the pictures to Larry Reynolds, the waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who forwarded them on to several colleagues for their opinions.
Despite similarities to the Australasian (or New Zealand shoveler), Paul Dickson, a Shreveport conservationist and director of the Pinola Conservancy, believes the bird is, in fact, just what Arceneaux suspected: a northern shoveler/blue-winged teal hybrid.
“If you look at the pictures of the Australasian shoveler, you’ll see it doesn’t actually look like it. The bluish head and the white crescent is on a Australasian shoveler, but the rest of the bird doesn’t look like it at all,” Dickson said. “Everything below the neck looks like a blue-winged teal.
“The belly also doesn’t look like a Australasian shoveler - it looks like a northern shoveler, the common shoveler we have here. All those spots all the way down the breast and the back - that’s all blue-winged teal. When two things cross, you usually get a compromise between the two species, and that’s exactly what it looks like.”
And the odds of this being an escaped bird are almost zero, said Dickson, who knows of only about 27 Australasian shovelers in all of North America.
“These things are extremely rare in captivity because Australia and New Zealand don’t normally export live wildlife, even to zoos,” he said. “They’re so rare and valuable, nobody’s going to let it get out of their hands.”
Coincidentally, according to Internet reports, another hunter hunting at Grosse Savanne Lodge shot an almost identical bird on Sunday near Lake Charles.
“You’re just seeing them,” Dickson said, referring to the two birds taken in one weekend. “Those hybrids are not all that unique. People turn up with them every year, like blue-wing/cinnamon teal hybrids. You see them pop up every year in duck hunters’ bags.
“Don’t get me wrong. They are rare - very rare. But there are a lot of duck hunters out there and nowadays when a duck hunter shoots one, it gets floated around on the Web.”
So why do two different species of ducks mate in the first place? Reynolds said a lack of female birds is partially to blame.
“Females have higher mortality during breeding season because they’re the ones sitting on the nest. Remember, when female dabbling ducks lay eggs and begin to nest, the male deserts. The female doesn’t need this brightly-colored drake hanging around attracting predators. So the male goes and he’s pretty much safe during the breeding season,” Reynolds said. “But the hen is not.
“There’s a lot of predation on nesting hens. So what that means is there is an abundance of males in the population and a shortage of females.”
And in this case particularly, with shovelers and blue-wings actually being closely related, Reynolds said hybrids are the rare result.
“The drakes are hormonally pumped up, ready to breed,” he said. “And in the waterfowl world, there are ‘forced copulations,’ so these excess males are doing whatever they can to fulfill that breeding urge.”
What’s unusual with both ducks shot this weekend is the striking male colorations found in both, Reynolds said.
“You sent me pictures of two taken on the same weekend of potentially shoveler/blue-winged teal hybrids that are males plumed out with crystal clear characteristics of both species,” he said. “That is really rare.
“If Paul Dickson is right, if those birds are indeed shoveler/blue-winged hybrids, I think it’s incredible that two of them that are so strikingly clear in their male species characteristics were killed on the same weekend less than 100 miles apart.”
Arceneaux is having the specimen mounted, and plans on providing the carcass to state biologists so they can use DNA samples to get to the bottom of the identification mystery once and for all.
“I’m curious. I’m curious as all get out...” Arceneaux said. “I was just on the lucky side of the blind.”