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Wood Duck (What Time is it in Nature)

August 22, 2015

We’ve recently had an unusual visitor at Prairie Ridge!  A Wood Duck has been spotted at our pond several times over the last few weeks.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Wood Ducks are part of the duck, goose, and swan family Anatidae and are found throughout about two-thirds of the US, parts of Canada, and a large part of Mexico.  They are easy to tell apart from nearly every other duck in the US.  Both males and females have crested heads and a distinctively boxy shape, but males are more colorful than females during the breeding season.  Breeding males have iridescent green feathers on their heads split by white stripes, chestnut breasts, red eyes, and colorful beaks.  Females are more drab with grey-brown feathers and chests speckled with white.  They also have a white patch that completely encircles each eye.  In the late summer, the males may lose their bright colors and take on an appearance closer to the females, but they keep the red eyes and brightly colored bills.  The Wood Duck in the Prairie Ridge pond is one of these, pictured above.

Wood Ducks are rather unique among waterfowl in that they are excellent climbers and nest in tree cavities.  Their webbed feet are tipped with sharp claws that allow them to grip tree branches and bark and their short, compact wings allow them to fly comfortably through wooded areas where few other ducks are seen.  You’ll typically spot them in wooded swamps, marshes, along streams, and sometimes small lakes where they tend to prefer areas with trees or extensive cattails.

These gorgeous ducks have a unique appearance, but they also exhibit some interesting behaviors.  Male and female Wood Ducks will search together for an appropriate cavity for nesting in a tree, though they cannot make their own cavities and must find holes excavated by other species.  Once a cavity is discovered, the female will build a soft nest, lining it with downy feathers she pulls from her own chest.  A typical nest will eventually contain 6-15 eggs, which will hatch into alert chicks covered in thick down.  The downy chicks will jump down from the nest the day after they hatch, sometimes falling 50 feet or more, then follow their mothers to a nearby body of water.

Wood Ducks will readily build their nests in nest boxes.  However, if the nest boxes are too close together or natural tree cavities are close to one another, female Wood Ducks will “egg dump” by laying eggs in the nests of other, nearby females.  Some exceptionally large nests that have been the victim of egg dumping have contained nearly 30 eggs!

The Wood Duck population crashed badly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as hunting pressure for feathers for ladies’ hats and meat coupled with massive loss of habitat eliminated much of the population in North America.  Changes to the hunting regulations for waterfowl in the US and the addition of nest boxes to their preferred habitats have allowed their populations to rebound to the point that the Wood Duck population of North American is currently fairly stable.

If you’d like to see the Prairie Ridge Wood Duck, your best chance to see it is to visit the pond soon, either immediately after we open at 9AM and just before we close at 4:30PM.  Head down to the pond and look for lines of open water among the duckweed.  You’ll often see the Wood Duck at one end of the open line!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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