Wood Ducks -- Definitely a Bird of a Different Color
Wood Duck. Photo by Dave Menke
Wood Duck. Photo by Dave Menke

When you think of Chesapeake Bay waterfowl, you usually think of Canada geese and mallards. If you frequent the open water and marshes 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 will 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.

About wood ducks

Early colonists called the wood duck 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.

Wood ducks, so named because they nest in tree cavities, are found in wooded swamps and woodlands near ponds, streams, and rivers. Their range expands the United States, and at one time the wood duck was so prevalent it was considered as a possible national symbol.

 

Wood duck pair by Dave Menke
Wood duck pair by Dave Menke

Courtship and pairs begin to form in autumn and into spring. Nesting begins between mid-January, in the deep South, and early April in the northern part of its range. The wood duck requires old growth timber that provides a diversity of tree cavities.

The female builds her nest in a tree cavity, 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. Some wood ducks double brood, meaning they nest twice in a single year. They are the only North American waterfowl to do so.

 

Checking wood duck boxes. USFWS photo.
Checking wood duck boxes. USFWS photo.

Ducklings are born precocial, meaning they are mobile, downy, and can find their own food. The hen calls them out of the tree cavity only 24 hours after hatching. 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, snakes and birds. Ducklings are also preyed upon by snapping turtles, mink, large fish and snakes.

Wood duck history

Market Hunting of Waterfowl. USFWS photo.
Market Hunting of Waterfowl. USFWS photo.

At one time, unregulated hunting took its toll on the wood duck. Large roosts of migrating wood ducks made them an easy target for market hunters. Around the turn of the century, hunting and loss of both wintering and nesting habitat from poor forestry practices and clearing of the land almost caused the wood duck’s extinction.

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 federal agencies began installing nesting boxes which wood ducks readily used. By 1942, hunters in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways were allowed take one wood duck per day.

How are wood ducks today?

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, which in this case includes the forests along streams, rivers and shorelines known as riparian forests. Riparian forests not only provide homes for wood ducks, they also protect stream banks, improve water quality, and provide homes for other wildlife. They offer us a place to experience the beauty of nature; the beauty of wood ducks.