If you out fishing in just about any freshwater lake, pond, river or creek you may see one these ducks flashing bright colours as it flies off. Wood Ducks, in my experience, are among the more skittish of the wild ducks. They are often flush before you can get close enough for a good look.
And that is just the first of many things these birds do that sets them apart from other North American ducks. There is no other duck that is a colourful as the male woody. Wood Ducks are in a family of their own in North America and have only one other close relative, the Mandarin Duck of Asia.
Wood Ducks are well named. They prefer to nest in old woodpecker holes or other tree hollows. Often these nests are quite some distance from the water. They will readily nest in manmade nesting boxes especially where the nesting population is high. (Note: other ducks will also nest in tree hollows including the Common Goldeneye,)
There are three breeding populations; the Atlantic, the Interior and the Pacific. The two Eastern populations breed from Southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and about two thirds of the wintering population migrates. The Pacific population does not migrate to the same extent. Woodies are absent from the Rockies and the Great Plains.
Woodies that migrate to the north do so in late winter and early spring. Hens return to their natal areas year after year. Yearling males also return to the area they were hatched but as breeding adults they follow the hens they pair up with. Pair bonds form in winter and last through the breeding season, ending just before their eggs hatch. The male leaves the female and joins other males and may never see her again. A new pair bond forms the next winter.
Mate pairs do not defend a territory but males will defend their hens wherever they go. The area around the female becomes a sort of mobile territory.
Females sit on the nest and only leave it twice a day to feed. Usually this happens in the morning and late in the day. Unlike many species of ducks, about 40% of Wood Duck nests are “dump nests”. While the resident female is away feeding, another female deposits her eggs in the nest mixing her eggs with the owners. Any nest with more than 15 eggs in likely a “dump nest”. This practice is more common where there is a high density of these ducks and limited nesting space but studies have found some females will parasite another female’s nests and also have their own nest.
Once hatched the ducklings have to get to the ground which male be several meters below them. They jump. They are so light and fluffy that few injuries occur. At no other time in their lives are they as vulnerable as when they are on the ground. Foxes, weasels, raccoons, forest hawks are there to prey on the babies. No duck can run faster on the ground than a woody. Adults can run up to 11 kilometers (seven miles) per hour.
These ducks have the largest eyes of any duck, a feature that enables them to see better in lowlight conditions than other ducks. They prefer swamps and marshes where light cannot penetrate as well.
They are generally surface feeders but they can dive for food and they have a better sense of smell than most birds, which increases their ability to find food.
They have broad wings and narrow tails, features which aid them in flights through forests.
So if you happen to see one of these ducks take some time to watch them. They are quite unique. And oh yes, they do not quack..
Note: A version of this article first appeared in Bob Izumi's Real Fishing Magazine in
Dave's column At the Water's Edge. It is used with the permission of editor.
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