The feathered harlequin

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112792597321305.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Words can scarcely describe the vividness of the wood duck's plumage. The head, disinctive crest, and back glint with shiny greens, purples and blues, serve as a means of instant identification.’);

The male wood duck is arguably the most vividly colored wild bird in North America. Not even the painted bunting, or even the most gaudy of some other attractive birds, can offer the brilliant patterns and iridescent hues this bird displays when we see him close to the lakes, rivers, and woodland ponds in the United States and southern Canada.

The female woody must take a back seat to the male when it comes to coloration. She is a rather drab duck, with a white patch around each eye that seems to give her a perpetually frightened look.

Words, however, can scarcely describe the vividness of the drake’s plumage. The head, distinctive crest, and back glint with shiny greens, purples, and blues, serve as a means of instant identification. These features, combined with the wine-colored breast flecked with white, red eyes, and orange beak create a beautiful and unique bird. It is a medium-sized duck, being about halfway in size between a mallard and a blue-winged teal. It is, of course, always a delight to bird watchers to see one in a natural setting.

This duck is also different from most of our other waterfowl in that it prefers the seclusion of the woods, and it will perch in trees similar to a pigeon. They prefer to nest in rot cavities of trees, especially pines. Unused woodpecker and squirrel abodes are frequently occupied and enlarged to fit the wood duck’s needs. The large, oval tree holes of abandoned nest sites of pileated woodpeckers are a favorite of the wood duck.

In early April in this region, mated pairs of wood ducks arrive from their winter homes in the South, but some may hang around the Rock River Valley all year if the winter is not too severe. The female selects the nesting site, while the male stands by and apparently gives his final approval. The entrance may be near the ground, or up to 40 feet above; near the shore of a body of water, or up to a half mile away. After the nest has been prepared, the female lays a single, dull-white egg each day until about a dozen have been deposited. Incubation begins immediately after the last egg is laid.

The hen leaves the nest each morning and evening to feed mainly on aquatic vegetation. Before departing, she covers her eggs with a blanket of down plucked from the feathers on her breast. Incubation requires about a month, approximately a week longer than most other ducks.

The day the ducklings hatch, the mother perches on a nearby limb and calls to them with a series of peeps. Then, one by one, they climb to the entrance of the nest with the aid of their sharp nails, hesitate a moment, and then tumble to the ground. The little balls of fluff may bounce a bit when they hit the ground, but usually none is injured. After all have “bailed out,” the mother ceremoniously leads them to the water, which they quickly enter. It was once supposed that the hen carried the young to the ground in her bill or riding on her back, but many observations have proven this to probably be untrue. They literally take a “swan dive” to reach the ground from the nest.

Unrestrained hunting in the years before 1900 decimated the wood duck populations to the point where they were threatened with extinction. They were more susceptible to the hunter’s shotgun than other ducks, mainly because they lived in the more densely settled and wooded parts of the country. Also contributing to their demise was the clearing of forests, which made nesting trees scarcer.

Wood ducks were given partial protection from hunters by the Migratory Bird Act Treaty of 1910, and since that time they have slowly increased in numbers. Man-made nesting boxes are constructed by bird lovers and conservation officials and erected all over the country, and serve as acceptable nesting sites in the absence of hollowed cavities in trees.

This beautiful duck is a trusting species, and is very home-oriented. It will return year after year to nest in areas where it is encouraged and protected.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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