Species Profile: The Unique Wood Duck

by | August 31, 2007

© Matthew StudebakerA virtual chorus of camera shutters sound as I lay on a boardwalk over a marsh. Just a few feet away, nearly twenty wood ducks are feeding, bathing, and fighting. The photographers start taking off their large lenses in favor of short lenses and even wide angles. Freshly molted out of their eclipse plumage, the wood ducks carry on, not minding human presence at all, often swimming in close enough to touch. The fall colors of the trees transform the water into crimson, brilliant orange and yellow, all complimenting the resplendent plumage of the drakes. Where are we? North Chagrin Reservation, just minutes from downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Living only a few miles away has afforded me the privilege of following Wood Ducks through the seasons observing their various interesting behaviors and unique life cycle.

Wood duck © Matthew Studebaker

In early spring, as soon as the ice thaws on the two ponds flanking the visitor’s center, the “woodies,” as many long-time birders call them, arrive in full force. Just before dawn they land on the ponds and begin their courtship rituals. After drinking plenty of coffee, I sit on one of the benches bordering the pond as they sky begins to show pre-dawn pinks and cyans. Usually a few Wood Ducks are already in place, and more land right in front of me within a few minutes. The flirting starts as the males begin drinking, vocalizing, and lifting out of the water in display postures. Then the more aggressive males make whistling noises while jerking their heads. The courted females make lower clucking sounds, often until the males confront each other. One male will fly at another, neck extended, racing small distances across the pond. One male is usually driven away from the group of courting ducks. At the end of the confrontation, the males involved in the dispute usually bathe and flap their wings. By mid-morning many of the pairs launch off the ponds in a near vertical trajectory, making their way up into the trees to find a suitable tree cavity in which to raise their young. The only other North American waterfowl to share the Wood Ducks’ affinity for nesting in trees are the Hooded Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

Before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 the Wood Ducks were being severely over hunted to the point that they were rare and possibly facing extinction. They also faced habitat loss as hardwood forests were cleared and bottomland swamps were drained. Fortunately, hunting regulation and the discovery that Wood Ducks would accept human-made nest boxes as substitutes for natural cavities brought their numbers back, so that today they are again a common sight throughout North America. Other than Mallards, the Wood Duck is now the second most commonly shot duck during hunting season in the U.S.

Ducks on lake © Matthew Studebaker

Wood Ducks have an incubation period of about 30 days, and by mid-June, the cattails bordering the ponds are already filled with the small peeping noises of the young Wood Ducks, darting in and out of view. When just one day old, the young ducks jump out of their tree cavity onto the forest floor below. Surviving vertical drops of over 250 feet, the young form a procession behind their mother, making their way to the nearest suitable wetland. As the summer days begin to grow shorter, the number of young ducks decline as well. It is not uncommon for a ducking to become lunch for raccoons, Red Foxes, owls, hawks, falcons, Great Blue Herons, Snapping Turtles, and even large fish. Summer is a time of vulnerability for the adult males as well. Becoming flightless for several weeks during the summer, the males lose their brilliant colors and bold marking in favor of cryptic browns and tans; like camouflage, this breaks up the birds’ silhouettes.

As the colors of the deciduous trees lining the ponds begin to show fall color, the male Wood Duck quickly molts back into fresh red, yellow, green, blue, and purple; a virtual rainbow of feathers. This is perhaps the most popular time to visit North Chagrin Reservation. The ducks feast on acorns, fruits, seeds, and small invertebrates before making their journey south. While their feathers help keep them warm, it is lack of food during the winter which forces the ducks south. By December, their favored habitats are all freezing over in the northern parts of their range and the last woodies are long gone, preferring instead to spend their winters in southern United States, Mexico, and Cuba. While an individual Wood Duck may be found on rare occasions in the Northern U.S. during winter, it will be several months before they arrive in numbers again at North Chagrin Reservation, and the life cycle of the unique Wood Duck begins once again.

Wood duck portrait © Matthew Studebaker

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