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April 27, 2023
Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) are one of those animals that just seems odd and out of place in our watersheds. During the non-breeding season, they possess the logical features best suited for camouflage, but during breeding season, the males are something else. Male wood ducks have a yellow-lined orange bill and a stunning array of iridescent colors across their bodies in mottled and striped patterns. They have red eyes and a long green cap on the back of their head. Wood ducks have a call (one among a variety of interesting noises) that is a shrill whistle more akin to an exotic bird. Oh, and they perch and nest in trees. But, wood ducks are native to our watersheds and call the Chesapeake home year-round.
Male and female wood ducks (Franklin Abbott/Audubon Photography Awards)
Unless you spend a lot of time around wooded wetlands, there’s a good chance you haven’t seen too many wild wood ducks. They live in these woody, wet areas to nest in tree cavities. Females typically lay around a dozen eggs and incubate the nest for about a month while the male stands guard. Within a day of hatching, the ducklings use their tails and sharp claws to climb up the inside of their nest tree and leap down to the ground or water below. This can be quite a drop! The ducklings hang out with mom while they grow, but they are able to walk, swim, and eat as soon as they hatch. Adult wood ducks feed on the seeds of aquatic vegetation and shrubs, tree nuts, aquatic insects, and agricultural waste like grains. Ducklings primarily feed on algae, duckweed, and small fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Ducklings emerging from nest (Wood Duck Society)
Echoing the story of so many of our iconic native species, wood ducks were in danger of extirpation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their wet, wooded habitat was drained, developed, and cut for timber. They were, along with other waterfowl, targeted extensively by market hunters for the sale of their meat. New iced rail cars expanded this market, allowing cities like Philadelphia and New York to fulfill their demand for fresh duck meat from the Chesapeake. Due to their colorful plumage, wood ducks were also targeted for the hat market (not the first animal to be slaughtered for the sake of hats, if you recall the story of the beaver). This was the result of a fad around the turn of the 20th century when birds of all types were killed by the millions for their feathers to adorn hats. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 prohibited the harvest and trade of a number of birds and their parts, which fortunately brought wood ducks and a host of other species back from the brink.
Today, wood ducks have returned to most of their native range in healthy numbers. This is thanks, in large part, to the hard work of conservationists. Wetland and stream restoration projects are a boon to the restoration of wood duck habitat by recreating forested wetland conditions that have been absent from much of the landscape for decades. The Alliance has completed a number of these projects, the most recent being five acres of wetland restoration at Cedar Point Wildlife Management Area in southern Maryland. This project converted five acres of fallow, former agricultural fields into a complex of wetland pools. The project was planted with native wetland plants and trees, and is bordered by mature forest, making it excellent habitat for wood ducks.
Beavers (read a recent Alliance blog post about them here) have also largely returned to their native range. Their habit of damming streams creates and expands wetlands, often in wooded stream valleys. Beaver ponds historically would have been a primary source of wood duck habitat, and the rebound of beaver populations can only make things better for wood ducks.
Another assist in their return are handmade nest boxes. These boxes are simple to construct with lumber and basic tools, and are meant to mimic the tree hollows that wood ducks nest in. If you have a pond on your property or know of an ideal area where you can get permission to place a nest box, give it a try! Hollow trees close to water can be hard to come by these days, and are competed for by a number of species like squirrels, woodpeckers, and invasive species like European starlings. Placing a nest box near the water can provide another source of critical nesting habitat for your local wood ducks. Instructions for building and placing a nest box can be found here.
The nest box pictured below was built and installed in February 2022 adjacent to the Wicomico River in Salisbury, MD. Now, in April 2023, the box has been selected by a breeding pair of wood ducks as their nesting site!
A constructed wood duck box on the Wicomico River in Salisbury, MD (Laura Todd, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)
Today, wood ducks are enjoyed by bird watchers, waterfowlers, and anyone else who has the pleasure of seeing one up close. If you would like to see one in the wild, check out local parks or other natural areas with trails near wetlands. A couple good parks to check out in Maryland are Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and Calvert Cliffs State Park.
Green Infrastructure Projects Associate