The flashy, little male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) sports his colorful plumage from September to June. Bright red eyes; a red bill highlighted with black, white and yellow; an iridescent green head trimmed with milky white lines that follow the contours of the duck’s throat and drooping crest; a rusty breast; a golden flank – the combination of these separate parts creates a truly beautiful duck. Aix sponsa is Latin for “waterbird in bridal dress,” a reference, no doubt, to the bird’s showy plumage. The female is lovely as well, though considerably more subtle than the male. She has the same shape, with her drooping crest and short bill, but is covered in shades of soft brown, and bears a white, teardrop-shaped eye patch. In flight both are dark above with a contrasting white belly.
The male Wood Duck’s brilliant markings help him to attract a mate in early autumn, before they migrate south for the winter. Our Connecticut Wood Ducks spend the winter months from North Carolina to Florida and return to our state in mid-March. Paired ducks begin the search for a nest site in the female’s previous nesting area. These “perching ducks” have well-developed claws on their feet that enable them to perch in trees – a handy adaptation for ducks that live in wooded swamps, flooded forests, beaver ponds, and wooded riverine habitats. They rely on these wooded areas to provide them with the perfect nest site: a tree cavity. Whether a natural cavity, an old Pileated Woodpecker nest hole, or a man-made nest box, the entrance must be at least three-and-a-half inches wide to accommodate the female’s body. (On occasion a female will enter a hole that is large enough, only to find herself trapped as she drops down into someone’s chimney.) The female lays ten to fifteen eggs in a nest lined with soft down plucked from her breast. She will incubate the eggs for about a month. Some nests can contain twenty to forty eggs; evidence that one or more other females “dumped” their eggs there. Common among Wood Ducks, “egg dumping” is a form of intraspecies parasitism that allows females to spread their eggs around.
Within 36 hours of hatching, the Wood Duck ducklings will heed the call of their mother and leave the nest cavity. Instinct takes over as they claw their way up from the nest to the cavity’s entrance hole and free-fall to the ground or water below. The young will follow the female to a densely vegetated area of water where they can feed on aquatic invertebrates (e.g. insects, snails) and plants, such as duckweed, smartweed, and wild rice. When necessary, the tiny ducklings are able to dive to avoid predators. In less than two months time they will be on their own and able to fly, sporting plumage similar to the adult female.
Submitted by Cindi Kobak