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During the breeding season, the male wood duck is one of the most recognizable birds in the United States, with no fewer than 6 different colors on its body. The most prominent features are red eyes and bill, a metallic purplish-green crest, and bright white stripes on the face, neck, and along each side. Its scientific name translates as "waterbird in bridal dress," referring to that showy plumage.
Outside of the breeding season, the male has gray feathers with blue markings on the wings and white markings on the face and neck. Female wood ducks have grayish-brown bodies. The back is dark gray-brown and the sides are a lighter shade. The most noticeable characteristics of the females are a white eye-ring around each eye, a crest of feathers at the back of the head, and white feathers on the throat and chin. Juvenile males begin to show white on the throat and face from around three months old.
Wood ducks have a unique shape among ducks -- a boxy, crested head, a thin neck, and a long, broad tail. In flight, they hold their head up high, sometimes bobbing it. Overall, their silhouette shows a skinny neck, long body, thick tail, and short wings. They also have strong claws, making them one of only a few ducks able to perch in trees.
Wood ducks are about 19 inches in length, with a wingspan of up to 39 inches.
Distribution and Habitat
In the eastern and western United States, 30-75 percent of wood ducks are permanent residents. Migratory wood ducks use the Atlantic Flyway from New Brunswick to Georgia and south to eastern Texas and the West Indies. The western migratory birds use the Pacific Flyway from British Columbia to the Central Valley of California. Both populations winter over southern portions of their respective breeding ranges, with small numbers south to central Mexico. Wood ducks are also resident in Cuba, and are scarce winter visitors to Mexico, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands.
Wood ducks can be found in ponds, lakes, marshes, and along rivers and streams. They prefer areas that have a mix of water habitats and forests. Generally, wintering habitat differs little from habitats used at other times of the year.
Wood ducks pair up in late winter and begin breeding in early spring. After the pair breeds, they build a nest in the cavity of a tree, up to 65 feet above ground. The cavity can be natural or a hole abandoned by a woodpecker. They prefer trees that overhang water or are close to a water source, but will take advantage of artificial nest boxes, even when these are placed low and in open marsh.
The nest can have approximately 15 eggs lined with feathers from the female. Sometimes there will be as few as 6 eggs in the nest and, on occasion, as many as 40. That high number is possible because some of the eggs were laid by other females. If a female cannot find a nest of her own, she will lay her eggs inside another wood duck's nest.
The female incubates the eggs for 28-37 days. The young wood ducks are well developed at hatching, and are able to leave the nest within the first day. After using their long tails and sharp claws to climb the inner side of the nest cavity, they must make the long jump from the nest entrance to the ground, encouraged by the female calling to them from below. The ducklings are tended by the mother for 5-6 weeks, and are capable of flight at about 8-9 weeks. What role, if any, the male plays in the rearing of ducklings is not known.
It is not uncommon for wood ducks in the south to raise two broods in one year, making them one of the very few members of the duck family to do so.
Juveniles feed primarily on invertebrates, along with an occasional small fish, while adults feed primarily on seeds, nuts, and other plant matter. Wood ducks usually forage in water by taking food from the surface, submerging head and neck, occasionally up-ending. They will also "browse" on land, with acorns being a favorite food item.
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This page was last updated on July 13, 2017.