The wood duck is considered one of the most beautiful ducks. It is very common in our area and in most of the eastern United States. That was not always the case, as market hunting and later loss of habitat caused a steep decline in the wood duck’s numbers in the early 1900s. In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with Canada gave full protection to the wood duck. This protection continued until 1941, when the “woodies” had recovered enough to allow for a closely managed harvest.
The male woodie is a mass of iridescent greens, purples and blues all mixed together with distinctive markings such as white stripes on the head, neck, shoulder and side. His red eye and four-colored bill (red, yellow, white and black) give him a “royal” appearance. His buff-colored side feathers are marked with very fine black lines and many of his feathers have white tips striped with black. The woodie’s chest is a rich chestnut color with white flecks that look like they were brushed on by an artist.
The female looks drab in comparison to the drake but she too has a subtle beauty that includes select patterns of brown and gray shading and a fair amount of blue iridescence. Like the drake, the hen has an iridescent silver strip on the front edge of each primary wing feather. Her dark eyes surrounded by white patches stand out almost as much as the red eyes of the drake.
The wood duck is known as a perching duck that is frequently seen in the trees. In fact it nests in hollow cavities in trees but will also use a man-made nesting box. As more hollow trees were removed from wetland forests, fewer nesting sites were available, and that also helped cause the downswing in its numbers. Concerned ornithologists and waterfowl hunters started a movement to erect nesting boxes, which were readily used by the woodie. This movement and a managed harvest have helped the wood duck to become a common bird again.
The wood duck is a shallow water feeder whose diet is about 90% plant matter consisting of seeds, nuts and fruits. Not only do you find them on the water eating aquatic seeds but also in the woods looking for acorns or beechnuts. They can also be found in the crop fields feeding on spilled grains such as corn.
The most common vocal noise a woodie makes is a loud squealing-type sound that is made by the female when she’s alarmed. There are also many whistles, squeals and peeps, but no duck-type “quacks”.
The hen picks the cavity to use but builds no nest. She uses the rotten wood matter at the bottom of the hole and later pulls down from her chest to cover the eggs. One egg is laid each day until there is an average of eight to 12 eggs before she begins incubation. The female does all the work and the male leaves the hen after a brief period of incubation. After about 28 days the eggs will hatch and within 24 hours the ducklings will leave the nest and never return.
This is the unique part: No matter how high the cavity is, the ducklings will jump out to the ground or water below without hurting themselves. They have been observed bailing out of a hole at 70 feet without any problem. I have watched about 40 of these events, even one where the ducklings hit hard cement at 20 feet, and sustained no injuries. They are so light and fluffy that they just bounce.
While raising her young, the hen will sit halfway out of the nest cavity and check for predators. When she thinks it is safe she will fly to the ground or water and call to the young, at which time they will bail out like airborne rangers! They will run to her side and when they are all out she leads them to safe water and cover.
The hen does not feed her young but they instinctively peck at various objects and in the process learn to catch and eat many kinds of insects, which provide the protein they need to grow. They will begin to fly when they are about eight to 10 weeks old.
If you have a pond, creek or marsh nearby, you could erect a nesting box and probably get woodies. Just remember to put up a predator guard or a raccoon will destroy the nest.
This duck is very shy, so it is not easy to observe, but if you are lucky to do so you will have to agree with me that it is one of nature’s most beautiful creatures.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .