The gaudy male wood duck (Aix sponsa) is a sight not readily forgotten. Its head shines an iridescent green, except where crossed by bold white lines on the crest or extending in a U shape from the throat. Its eyes are bright red, while its bill is an interesting combination of yellow, red, white, and black. Its breast is a deep burgundy with white spots, separated from the body by a well-defined white line. The back is iridescent blue, while the sides are buffy, bordered on the flanks by another patch of burgundy. The tail is dark.
Of course, this is the wood duck’s breeding plumage. At the end of the breeding season, the male molts to a drab shadow of its former self. It only retains its red eye, multicolored bill, and white throat patch with U-shaped extensions.
The female wood duck is more subtly beautiful, adorned with soft brown-gray overall. It is lightly spotted with white over the breast and sides, and if you are lucky, you may get to see a patch of teal blue at the end of the wing. The most striking part of the female’s plumage, however, is a stark white spot around the eye shaped like a teardrop.
In flight, both sexes share identifying features. Wood ducks in flight look relatively small, but with a long, square-ended tail. In poor lighting, where specific markings are not visible, they appear dark overall but with a contrasting white belly. If you get a good view of the topside, you may see the blue wing stripe (it may simply look dark in poor lighting) bordered by white on the trailing edge. Wood ducks fly swiftly and directly with fast wing beats.
Best Field Marks
- Crest on both sexes.
- Colorful bill of male.
- Teardrop-shaped white patch around eye of female.
- Squared-off tail, most noticeable in flight.
The male wood duck is known for a soft, squeaky whistle, best described as a rising jeeb. When courting, it also burps repeatedly. Males assisting mates in finding a nesting site give a series of jib-jib-jib calls
Females are known for their loud, wheezy squeals of whoo-ee given when disturbed.
Distribution & Occurrence
The wood duck is a permanent resident of most of eastern Kansas. In the western part of the state, it may only be visible spring through fall. When not breeding, its needs are easily met. It will happily occupy just about any pond, marsh, or stream with a few trees nearby, regardless of whether this water is in a rural or urban area. The water must be free of ice, however, so in the winter it may move further south if it cannot find a suitable habitat.
The wood duck is also one of the few waterfowl species that nests across most of the state. Because trees are a requirement for successful nesting, this duck prefers the eastern regions. However, it will nest further west along tree-lined streams. It does not mind traveling about a mile between its chosen tree and a body of water.
These colorful ducks are quite at home foraging on both land and shallow water. They rarely tip up to feed but immerse only their heads and necks. Wood ducks mostly eat plants (including seeds) and small insects, although they will eat some small amphibians.
The courting process begins as early as January, so that when the ducks arrive at the breeding site they are already paired off. They are very wary when nesting. Their preferred nesting location is a tree cavity, usually created by woodpeckers. This hole can be as low as three feet off of the ground, or as high as 50 feet in the air. Wood ducks do not typically line their nests, the female depositing 10 to 12 eggs on average directly onto the wooden floor of the cavity. During the incubation process, however, it will pluck down from its breast to cover the eggs.
Soon after hatching, the young ducklings begin the arduous process of escaping the cavity and heading toward open water. They are born with sharp claws, helping them scramble up to the opening. The female then calls to them, and they obey by throwing themselves to the ground, falling as much as 50 feet without being hurt. The female then guides them to water—a risky undertaking due to predators. For the first few days of their life, the ducklings eat only high-protein insects, but they gradually eat more plants with time. They are left to fend for themselves at one to two months of age.
Hunters attract wood ducks with lifelike calls and decoys.
Birdwatchers may enjoy building nest boxes for wood ducks. These should be placed in well-hidden locations in the woods on trees or poles. Protect the boxes from predators by cutting down overhanging branches and putting up specially designed guards, which usually look like metal rings or cones. Be patient—wood ducks are slow to accept man-made nest boxes, but they will catch on if you have chosen a suitable location.
Female Blue-Winged Teal
This dabbling duck may appear similar to the female wood duck at first glance, but the differences are readily apparent on closer examination. The teal lacks both the short, fuzzy crest of the wood duck and its distinctive teardrop-shaped eye patch.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.
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This inexpensive booklet includes plans for building a wood duck nest box. Read our full review.