One of the most beautiful birds in North America can be found in our lakes, creeks and wooded sloughs
Story by Kenneth Boone
For the sheer joy of bird watching, it’s hard to beat wood ducks. These amazing birds have it all: a flight call so distinctive that it just sounds like the America’s swampy oak bottoms and creeks, a spooky elusiveness that makes any close-up spotting a big event and a bodacious, over-the-top color scheme that just demands long stares when you do find them.
The Wood Duck, Aix sponsa to scientists, is also called the Carolina Duck, but you don’t often hear that name in this neck of the woods. Woodies are the only perching ducks native to the U.S. and are widely regarded as one of the most beautifully colored birds in our country.
They have webbed feet adapted for swimming and with long toenails adapted for gripping, which they use for perching on branches and hanging onto tree trunks. The Wood Duck makes good use of this equipment by nesting in tree cavities and living in wooded areas near water.
As you might expect from their common name, “wood” is important to these ducks and they are most often found in places where open water and thick cover like fallen trees, willow thickets and bushes are in close proximity, along with wetland cover plants like arrowhead and cattails. They are not big water ducks and on Lake Martin you’ll likely find them in the back of sloughs, in swampy margins and in the creeks flowing into the lake, as well as nearby in shallow ponds.
Wood Ducks range from Mexico to Canada, and from coast to coast with some holes in their distribution in the Midwestern and mountain states where water and woods are not as common. In the southeastern U.S. – including here on Lake Martin – Wood Ducks are year-round natives. Wood Ducks in the North are migratory. These ducks are also resident in Cuba and are sometimes found in Bermuda and even the Cayman Islands. Wood Ducks are also found in Western Europe, but typically thought of as North American transplants on the other side of the Atlantic.
These are medium size ducks, measuring about 20 inches long with a wingspan of 26-29 inches. They are uniquely shaped with a more boxy look than other American ducks, a thin neck and a long, wide tail.
They hold their heads high when flying, at times giving their necks a curved look, and they sometimes bob their heads as they flap their wings. Wood Ducks are precision fliers and have no trouble darting in and out of thick trees. When swimming, Wood Ducks tend to jerk their heads back and forth in a fashion similar to a walking pigeon, which can make them easy identify in silhouette or dark conditions.
Adult males are the snappiest of dressers. Their handsome plumage includes a glossy, iridescent green and purple head with a crest that often hangs low on its neck like long hair slicked straight back, a rusty chestnut or burgundy breast, wings tinted with blues and buff sides and underbellies. This dapper ensemble is accented with snowy white stripes and jet black patches of feathers, including a white throat with two white stripes that arch up through black toward their eye and the back of their head. Males have bright red eyes and their bills are colored bright reds, whites and black, and sometimes yellow. During the late summer, the males molt and their coloring becomes more subdued. Females are much less colorful, a brownish gray or olive body with a white, some blue wing feathers, a speckled buff or gray breast and a white eye ring that extends into a stripe behind their eye. Young Wood Ducks are colored much like females. When the sun isn’t shining brightly, Wood Ducks can appear surprisingly dark for such colorful birds.
Wood ducks are secretive birds, and most people associate their calls with flushing or flying birds because it’s hard to get close enough to Wood Ducks to hear their softer chattering. When walking along creeks or canoeing, the first sound most people hear is vigorous splashing and wingbeats, followed by the female’s rising squeal that sounds like “oo-eek” or “cr-e-ek.” Male Wood Ducks make a rising whistle sound, “jeeeee.” They are often found in groups and a number of Wood Ducks all flushing at the same time can make a startling amount of noise.
When it comes time to nest, Wood Ducks hunt for tree cavities, where the females line their nests with feathers, down and other soft material. Since tree cavities are hard to come by, they can often be attracted to make their nests in man-made boxes set on poles above the water.
Because nesting sites are relatively rare, female Wood Ducks will sometimes lay their eggs in multiple nests found close together. As many as 30 eggs have been found in a single nest, though these “nest dumping” sites rarely result in successful incubation.
Most nests contain between 7-15 bone white eggs and the young hatch about a month after the eggs are laid. Wood Ducks are the only American duck that routinely produces two broods a year.
Again because of the scarcity of holey trees, Wood Ducks will sometimes lay their eggs in trees as far as 150 yards off the water, though they prefer to nest in trees above water … for good reason.
Here’s an amazing Wood Duck fact – shortly after young ducklings hatch, they jump from their nests. Not so amazing? Scientists have recorded baby ducks making their first foray out of the nest by leaping 290 feet without injuring themselves. How’s that for a first step?
Another interesting fact is that Woodie ducklings are almost fully independent just after hatching. Momma Wood Ducks don’t provide their babies with any type of assistance once they leave the nest. Though she will call to keep them gathered together, Wood Ducks ducklings are able to feed themselves and survive on their own from the moment they bail out of their nest. These ducks feed in the water and on land and mostly forage for seeds, acorns and berries, but they also consume insects.
Wood Ducks are commonly hunted – prized for their beauty and their good taste in the kitchen – and are second only to Mallards in the number that wind up in American duck hunter’s bags.
The birds were severely depleted by habitat loss and by hunting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, harvested for both meat and their feathers, which were popular decorations for ladies hats. However, conservation practices that included federal bag limits and setting out nesting boxes, as well as the increasing number of beavers which help create ideal Wood Duck habitat, have helped the Wood Duck population rebound greatly in recent years. In Wood Duck-friendly habitats around the lake, you’ll most likely see them early in the morning and just before dark.
Some information for this article came from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website and the Ducks Unlimited website.