The Wood Duck: A Bird of a Different Color
When you think of Chesapeake Bay waterfowl, you usually think of birds like Canada geese and mallards. If you frequent the open water and marshes of the Bay in the winter, you may see canvasbacks, buffleheads, and tundra swans. But if you explore the forested shorelines of the Bay's rivers during warmer months, you'll encounter one of the most beautiful ducks in North America: the wood duck. The wood duck's beauty is reflected in its scientific name, Aix sponsa. From the Greek word "aiks" for water bird and Latin word "sponsa" for betrothed, the name refers to plumage so striking that the wood duck looks like it is dressed for a wedding.
While wintering waterfowl are breeding on the tundra and prairies, wood ducks are breeding in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Early colonists aptly called the woody the "summer duck." They have also been known as the Carolina duck, due to where it was first described; the swamp duck, because of its preferred habitat; and the acorn duck after one of its favorite foods.
Both drakes (males) and hens (females) have crested heads, ending in hood-shaped manes. The drake's head is iridescent green, blue, purple, black and white. Its eyes and eyelids are red, throat and breast are brown with lighter brown on its sides and belly. Hens, like most other female birds, are duller in plumage. Their heads and necks are grey and bodies are brown. Sporting a smaller mane, the female has a white teardrop patch around its eye. Wood ducks weigh between 1 and 2 pounds. Flight speed averages about 47 miles per hour. The call of the male wood duck is a delicate squeak, while the female has a much harsher call. The female's alarm call is a loud "weeek."
Wood ducks, so named because they nest in tree cavities, are found in wooded swamps and woodlands near ponds, streams, and rivers. Preferred forest types include floodplain forests, red maple swamps, temporarily flooded oak forests and northern bottomland hardwoods with many perching sites. The wood duck's range nearly coincides with the United States' borders and at one time the bird was considered a possible national symbol.
Ninety percent of wood duck food is plant material including seeds, nuts, berries and grain. Wood ducks eat more nuts than any other North American duck. The rest of their diet is made up of land and aquatic insects. During breeding season their diet mainly consists of aquatic invertebrates, including insects, crayfish, bivalves and snails.
Courtship and pairs begin to form in autumn and into spring. Wood ducks are monogamous, meaning one male breeds with one female. Nesting begins between mid-January, in the deep South, and early April in the northern part of its range. The wood duck is tied to old growth timber that provides a diversity of cavities high up in the trees.
The female builds her nest in a tree cavity that must be at least 8 inches in diameter, usually 30 feet or more above the ground or water. The nest cavity is lined with down and wood chips. Wood ducks often reuse the same nest year after year. The average clutch size is 12 eggs, which the female incubates for 28-37 days. Some wood ducks double brood, meaning they nest twice in a single year. They are the only North American waterfowl to do so.
Ducklings are born precocial, meaning they are mobile, downy, and can find their own food. Young remain in the nest only 24 hours after hatching. The hen calls them out of the tree cavity from the water or ground below. Using their sharp clawed feet, the nestlings are able to climb out of the cavity and leap down, sometimes from as high as 60 feet, to land next to the mother hen waiting below. The young will never return to their nest again. The ducklings are able to fly 56-70 days after hatching.
Eggs are preyed upon by raccoons, opossums, some snakes and birds. Flightless ducklings are also preyed upon by snapping turtles, mink, large fish and additional species of snakes.
At one time, unregulated hunting took its toll on the wood duck. Large roosts of migrating wood ducks were an easy target for market hunters who decimated wood ducks and other waterfowl in order to satisfy the demand for game meat by grocers, restaurants and hotels. Hunting and loss of both wintering and nesting habitat due to poor forestry practices and clearing for agricultural, residential and industrial development almost caused the wood duck's extinction around the turn of century.
In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act outlawed market hunting of migratory waterfowl. Soon after, both the United States and Canada banned the taking of wood ducks. To address the loss of natural tree cavities for nesting, state game departments, sportsmen's organizations and the federal agencies began installing nesting boxes which wood ducks would readily use. In 1942, hunters in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways were allowed take one wood duck per day.
Conservative bag limits and artificial nesting sites greatly aided the comeback of the wood duck. But like all wildlife, the wood duck's continued survival depends upon conservation of habitat - in this case, the forests along streams, rivers and shorelines known as riparian forests. Riparian forests not only provide homes for wood ducks but protect stream banks, improve water quality, and provide homes for other wildlife. Forest products like wood and paper are important to many local economies. Finally, forests provide a place for recreational activities like hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. They offer us a place to experience the beauty of nature, the beauty of wood ducks.