Wood ducks spend most of their time in the water, but sometimes they are just as comfortable hanging out in a tree.
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Birds tend to be found in predictable locations, and as experienced birdwatchers, we usually look for them in those places. Hawks soar on thermals, so we search high in the sky. Shorebirds prefer the water’s edge, and we usually look for them next to the ocean. And ducks congregate in clusters on lakes and ponds. But the wood duck, as its name implies, is sometimes found on the branch of a tree.
If you’ve never seen a male wood duck, prepare yourself for a treat. The scientific name of the bird is Aix sponsa. A rough translation would be “waterbird in bridal dress.” About half the size of a mallard, he is the most colorful member of the duck family, and many artists and birdwatchers consider him the most beautiful duck in North America. Here’s a description from one of our many bird guides, Master Guide to Birding:
“The male’s crest is iridescent green with two white streaks, one extending back from the bill, the other from the eye. The white throat has two prongs extending upward; the burgundy chest is stippled with white and separated from the bronze side feathers by a ‘finger’ of black and white. A red eye and a partially red bill complete this colorful array.”
While both males and females have a crested head, white belly, and a white line at the back of the wings, the female does not share the extravagant colorings of the male. Instead, females have a gray-brown appearance overall with white eye rings and a white throat and chin.
Unfortunately, these extravagant feathers and the excellent taste of wood duck meat almost led to the species’ demise by the early 20th century. The feathers were used for everything from women’s hats to fishing flies, and the meat was sold extensively in “bird markets.” The birds were in such demand that some hunters used what were called punt guns “” essentially, a large shotgun mounted to a boat “” that could kill as many as 50 floating birds with a single shot.
Large numbers of wood ducks had thrived in the wild, but the combination of habitat loss and lack of hunting restrictions made their numbers fall rapidly. The situation became so serious that the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 forbade the shooting of any wood duck, and the restrictions were not lifted for the next 22 years.
Enough people were concerned about the wood duck’s situation that it became popular to build and maintain wood duck nest boxes. The birds accepted the artificial nests and, combined with their new protected status, the wood duck made a spectacular recovery. Putting out nest boxes is still a widespread practice in many parts of the country.
As this continent’s only native perching duck, each breeding season wood ducks seek out a nest in a hollow snag. Sometimes they will use an abandoned pileated woodpecker hole, which might have the advantage of wood chips lining the bottom. This can be important, since the wood duck doesn’t bring in additional nesting materials. It just adds a layer of its downy feathers to any rotted wood or sawdust found in the nest cavity.
To facilitate its movement in a tree, and in addition to the webbed feet common to water birds, the wood duck has sharp claws to help it balance on a branch or maneuver in and out of its nesting chamber. Even newly hatched chicks have the claws, which they use to climb out of the nest shortly after hatching.
The male and female wood duck normally form a pair during late winter, and in spring the female leads her mate to the area where she was born. When the birds start house-hunting, their preference is for a cavity at least 30 feet above the ground with a 3-inch to 4-inch opening. A snag sticking out above a lake is nice, but they will accept a spot as much as a half-mile from water. The type of water is of secondary concern. Rivers, creeks, ponds, or marshes are all suitable as long as there is a protected nest site.
Once the house is in order, it’s time to lay the eggs. The female wood duck will lay one egg per day, usually in the morning, and continue until there are 10 or 12 whitish-tan eggs in the clutch. Only then will incubation start, for as you will see, it’s important that all the eggs hatch at approximately the same time.
The actual incubation period takes approximately a month, and the day after the eggs hatch, all birds “” parents and chicks “” leave the nest permanently. The mother wood duck departs first and calls to her chicks. The chicks, using the claws on their webbed feet, climb up to the nest opening. Not yet able to fly, they might jump 30 feet, 60 feet, and sometimes more than 100 feet unharmed. Some nests aren’t even over water. But the resilient little chicks are soon following their mother, either swimming or walking to their new home.
The youngsters need a protected environment, preferably a watery area at least half covered by vegetation. The chicks can swim from the beginning, but it will be eight to 10 weeks before they can fly to escape danger. During this time the female wood duck stays with her offspring.
As the wood ducks grow, their diet gradually changes. For the first six weeks the chicks eat mainly high-protein animal material such as insects, various aquatic critters, and small fish. After six weeks their diet has progressed to mostly vegetative material. One of the staples is a plant appropriately named duckweed. Later, as the birds become adults, they will add fruits and berries, nuts and seeds to their diet. During the winter a wood duck may live up to one of its nicknames, the acorn duck, and make acorns one of its primary food sources. Wood ducks eat more fruit and nuts than any other American duck.
Because of the success of conservation programs, wood ducks can be seen in much of the United States and the southern parts of Canada. Some areas, such as Texas, have resident woodys throughout the year, while others host a migratory population that moves to the southern states in winter.
We’ve been trying for the last few years to reach one of our birding goals. Even though during nesting season they can be quite secretive, we occasionally see wood ducks when we are out birding. But we’ve never been able to see a batch of wood duck chicks as they tumble from their elevated home. Last year we found a location where the residents installed a number of wood duck boxes, but so far we’ve missed a bit on the timing. Maybe we’ll have better luck next year.