Birds – Wood Duck

(Aix sponsa)


Length—17 to 19 inches.

Male—Crown of head, elongated crest, and cheeks golden, metallic green, with purple iridescence; a white line from base of bill over the eye, and another behind it, reach to the end of crest; throat, and a band from it up sides of head, white; breast rich reddish chestnut spotted with white; white underneath, shading into yellowish gray on the sides, which are finely marked with waving lines of black; strong black and white markings on long feathers at back of the flanks on the sides. Upper parts dark, iridescent and purplish, greenish brown; a white “crescent and a black one in front of wings, which are glossed with purple and green and tipped with white; wing patch purplish blue edged with white; spot at either side of base of tail, chestnut purple. Bill pinkish, red at the base, black underneath and on ridge and tip. Legs yellow.

Female—Smaller. Crest and wing markings more restricted; head dusky with purplish crown ; throat, patch around eye, and line backward, white; breast and sides grayish brown, streaked with buff; underneath white; back olive brown glossed with greenish and purple. Young drake resembles the female.

Range—” North America at large, but chiefly in the United States, breeding throughout its range, wintering chiefly in the south.” (Coues.)

Season—Summer resident.

This most beautiful of all our ducks, if not of all American birds, in the opinion of many, that Linnaeus named the bride (sponsa), although it is the groom that is particularly festive in rich apparel and flowing, veil-like crest, confines itself to this continent exclusively; neither has it a counterpart in Europe or Asia as most of our other ducks have. It is an independent little creature with a set way of doing things quite apart, many of them, from family traditions. For instance, it nests in trees rather than on the ground and walks about the limbs like any song bird; it never quacks, but has a musical call all its own; the lovers do not cease to be such after the incubation begins—to name only a few of the wood duck’s peculiarities.

Arriving from the south, already mated, in April, a couple prepare to spend the summer with us by selecting a home immediately; an abandoned hole where an owl, a woodpecker, a squirrel, or a blackbird has once nested, answers admirably; or, if such a one be not available, the twigs, grasses, leaves, and feathers that would have lined an excavation are woven into a loose, bulky nest placed among the branches. Deep woods near water, or belted waterways far away from the sea coast, are preferred localities.

How the plump, squat, little mother can work her way in and out through the small entrance to the hole where, for four weary weeks, she sits on from eight to fourteen ivory eggs, is a mystery. It is usually far too narrow for her, one would think, and yet she evidently has no desire to make it larger, as she easily might do by pecking at the soft, decayed wood. The handsome drake on guard in a tree near by calls peet, peet, o-eek, o-eek to encourage her or warn her of any threatened danger, to which a faint, musical response, like the pewee’s plaint, comes from the hole where she sits brooding. Many endearments pass between the couple, but there is no division of labor, for no self respecting drake would possibly allow his affection to overrule his disinclination for work. The duck attends to all household duties, evidently flattered and content with the vocal expressions of her lord’s regard and his standing around and looking handsome, which cost him nothing. The constant moving of his tail from side to side, when perching, is his most energetic effort.

When the fluffy little ducklings finally emerge from the shell, it is the mother who has the task of carrying the numerous brood to water. Often the nest is in a tree overhanging a lake, a quiet stream, or pond, in which case she has only to tumble the babies out of their cradle into the water, where they are instantly at home. But if the tree stands back from the water’s edge, one by one she must carry them in her bill and set them afloat, while the father swims around them on guard, proud of them, no doubt, proud of his energetic busy mate, but doubtless most proud of himself. Wood ducks become exceedingly attached to their home. They return year after year to the same hole to nest, regardless of approaching civilization, the diversion of a water course for factory purposes, the whistle of the locomotive. It is the gunner alone who drives them to a more secluded asylum. On the outskirts of villages these ducks often fearlessly enter the barnyard to pick up the poultry’s grain; and there are plenty of instances where they have been successfully domesticated.

In July the drake withdraws to moult his bridal garments, leaving his overworked mate to lead the ducklings about on land and water in quest of seeds of plants, wild oats or rice, roots of aquatic vegetables, acorns, and numerous kinds of insects. The small coleoptera that skips and flies so nimbly along the surface of still inland waters, among the sedges and the lily pads, is ever a favorite morsel, a fact that testifies to the expert swimming of this duck. By September the drake comes out from his exile clad in plumage resembling the duck’s, but still more brilliant than hers, and retaining the white throat markings. As the young birds have been gradually shedding their down through the summer and putting on feathers like their mother’s, the family likeness in each individual is now most marked. Wood ducks, if ever gregarious, are so in autumn, when flocks begin to assemble early for the southern migration; but at the north we see only family parties preparing for the journeys that are made at twilight and by night, although in the south we hear of companies sometimes numbering a hundred or more. Unhappily, their sweet, tender flesh is in a demand exceeding the legitimate supply in every state they pass through.

“The wood duck is far too beautiful a bird to be killed for food. Its economic value is too small to be worth a moment’s consideration,” says Mr. Shields. “I would as soon think of killing and eating a Baltimore oriole or a scarlet tanager as a wood duck, and I hope to see the day when the latter will be protected all the year round by the laws of all the states in the Union and of all the provinces of Canada.”