Bird Watcher's General Store

Wood Ducks - 05/14/04


Dear Bird Folks:

I was watching a nature show last week and they a had segment on Wood Ducks. I was shocked at how beautiful these ducks were. I would love to see some. Do we ever get Wood Ducks around here and if so, where could I find some?

Jackie, -Bourne.

Not Now Jackie,

With all of the colorful songbirds returning from the tropics, do we really have to talk about ducks right now?? Can't duck talk wait until fall? No, I suppose you are right. Wood Ducks breed here on Cape Cod and they are just as important as the cutesy songbirds. And besides, what kind of spring would it be without seeing a family of baby ducks? Let's do it.

First of all, if anyone doesn't know what a male Wood Duck looks like, they should stop right now and go over to the nearest bird book and look at a picture of one. Go ahead, do it now and get ready to be impressed. The drake Wood Duck is without question the most ornate looking water bird in North America and perhaps the world. They look less like a duck and more like a clown who has fallen off the back of a bus heading to Vegas. This crazy bird is made up of just about every color that you can think of, including red, green, orange, tan, white, yellow, black, bright blue and I think there is some paisley in there too. The bill alone contains at least four colors and sometimes more on the weekends. Yet, this outrageous looking duck is content to make it's home here on sedate Cape Cod and not just in Provincetown either.

Right now the future seems to be bright for the Wood Duck, but in the early 1900s it was well on it's way to extinction. Apparently, back then, many people thought that this beautiful bird looked much better dead than flying free and millions of them were shot. Adding to their plight was the loss of it's woodland swamps and bottomlands. (That's right, there really is such a thing as bottomland or at least there used to be.) Now, with protection, the Wood Duck has rebounded nicely, with tens of thousands of them nesting in Massachusetts alone.

Finding Wood Ducks on the Cape can be tricky. As their name implies, this duck likes woods and it also can be quite shy. You are more likely to find them on some scummy backwater pond, than on a crystal clear lake.

However, if you want to see Wood Ducks without having to bushwhack through all of Cape Cod, take a drive up to Sudbury, Ma.. Great Meadows and Oxbow National Wildlife Refuges have put out Wood Duck nesting boxes in which hundreds of baby ducks hatch out each year. In fact, it is nesting boxes that have helped save the Wood Ducks. Woodies are one of the few ducks that nest off of the ground, in tree cavities, like woodpeckers and bluebirds. And just as with bluebirds, if you put out a properly built nest box and live near a quiet pond, you too could end up with a nest of Wood Ducks. How cool would that be?

The story of how the young ducks enter the world is yet another amazing chapter from the world of nature. The hen woodie lays about a dozen eggs in a box or tree cavity, that often can be as much as fifty feet above the ground.

The mother duck somehow works it out so all of the babies hatch at the same time. Then, the very next day, when the young birds are barely 24 hours old, the mother leaves the box. Not wanting to be left alone, the ducklings follow her. But the joke is on the kids since the mother can fly and they can't. Off they step into midair, dropping all fifty feet straight down. They somehow are able to flutter down to earth safely, where they scramble to their feet and quickly march to the nearest scummy pond.

I'd go out now Jackie, as the next few weeks are the best time to look for Wood Ducks. Once the females start sitting on eggs, the handsome males drift away and begin to molt. By mid July they have lost their signature colors and the males become rather dull. And with all the political conventions coming up this summer, you don't need to see any more dull males.


Artwork by Catherine Clark


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