Colorful Wood Ducks and the Continuing Threats They Face

Updated on October 16, 2018
Casey White profile image

Dorothy is a former newspaper reporter and the author of several books. Michael is a professional landscape/nature photographer.

A Beautiful Couple

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The male and female wood duck are very compatible.  There's nothing nicer than seeing a pair of wood ducks swimming slowly down a pond together.
The male and female wood duck are very compatible.
The male and female wood duck are very compatible. | Source
There's nothing nicer than seeing a pair of wood ducks swimming slowly down a pond together.
There's nothing nicer than seeing a pair of wood ducks swimming slowly down a pond together. | Source

The Most Beautiful Ducks in the World

The wood duck is usually (and widely) regarded as the most beautiful duck in America (probably the world), although by the early part of the 20th century, hunters had almost completely wiped out this gorgeous bird. Had it not been for the protective laws that put an end to the slaughter, the wood duck might very well have ended up on the list of extinct species. But, some hunters are gung-ho and think it is worth risking jail time in order to bag some of these birds.

In 2008, 12 hunters in Tennessee killed a total of 169 wood ducks on the opening weekend of the wood duck/teal hunting season, although State regulations limit hunters to no more than two wood ducks a day in September which means that that particular hunting party should have bagged no more than 48 ducks over that weekend. In the end, the men (most of them; one was a minor) ended up in court and paid hefty fines, court costs, $2,000 restitution each and the loss of their hunting privileges for four years, proof that violation of the already-generous law will not be tolerated.

A wood duck is crested and long-tailed. The male has bold white patterns on his face with a red bill, chestnut breast, and buff flanks. The female wood duck is a dark gray with a white eye patch. Usually, when they are found, they are seen in pairs like the ones shown in the above photographs, provided by two of my photographer friends, Vineeth Radhakrishnan of Austin, Texas; and Larry Jernigan of Heber Springs, Arkansas.

Starlings: No Friend to the Wood Duck

Starlings post a real threat to wood ducks.  The female will build her nest on top of the one built by the wood duck, essentially taking over the nesting area.  When the wood duck hen tries to return to her nest, she is often physically attacked.
Starlings post a real threat to wood ducks. The female will build her nest on top of the one built by the wood duck, essentially taking over the nesting area. When the wood duck hen tries to return to her nest, she is often physically attacked.

The Threats They Face From Starlings

In some areas, starlings can wipe out wood duck production because they are cavity nesters, competing assertively for the use of nest boxes. After being introduced from Europe in 1890, they have spread all across the United States, having totally overlapped the range of the wood duck.

Starlings are real threats to wood ducks.

Starlings are considered an alien species of bird and are not protected by law; they are one of many bird species that have been responsible for global and local extinctions and have eroded the beauty and unique features of many natural environments. Today, despite efforts to limit their numbers, they are one of the most common birds in America.

During the prospecting and egg-laying phases for wood ducks, the starlings begin their interference; the wood duck hen is only present for brief periods each day and the starlings puncture holes in the wood duck’s eggs when the hen is absent. Usually, they will bury the duck eggs under the materials that use to construct their own nest, which is built above the nest the wood ducks provided.

The wood duck hen, upon her return to the nest, is often attacked by the starlings that are now aggressively defending their own nest. Often, a group of starlings will physically attack the hen, pecking at her head and affixing themselves to her back.

Many people have tried many preventive solutions to the problem the wood ducks face from the starlings, but it seems the only thing that works, in the long run, is to target the starlings in an attempt to lower and limit their numbers. Traps have been designed for placement inside a wood duck house, and those have proven successful, along with armed people in rural areas who are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect their beautiful wood ducks.

A Proper Nesting Box

This wood duck nesting box is close enough to the water and includes a protective guard to keep predators away.
This wood duck nesting box is close enough to the water and includes a protective guard to keep predators away. | Source

Placement of Nesting Boxes

Wood duck hens have historically built their nests in natural tree cavities but studies have shown that only a very small percentage of those hatched successfully, largely because of predatory raccoons. Today, with the help of those who love the ducks and want to see them thrive, nest boxes are being built in order to protect the ducks from climbing predators.

It may be tempting to place a nesting box high in a tree, but that’s a method that didn’t work very well for the wood ducks. People now, in an attempt to stave off the predators, have started building the nests lower to the ground and mounting them on poles that have an effective predator guard. They have realized that higher-mounted boxes are more dangerous than the ones that are built lower, and studies have apparently shown that the low-mounted boxes are actually preferred by the wood duck hen.

When/if you decide to build a nesting box, build it about a foot across and about 20-24 inches tall to accommodate several hens and up to 30-40 eggs. And, don’t be disappointed if your nesting box isn’t used right away; it might take them a year or two to decide to use it. If, after three years, it hasn’t been used, you probably need to simply relocate it.

Dabbling Ducks

Wood ducks hunt for food while they are swimming, earning the name "dabbling ducks."
Wood ducks hunt for food while they are swimming, earning the name "dabbling ducks." | Source

Maintaining Nesting Boxes

If you intend to maintain your nesting box, you should plan to do an annual inspection in either January of March. At that time, you should make any needed repairs, remove old nests and add some fresh material for the ducks that are unable to carry their own nesting materials.

A successful wood duck nest box program requires annual inspection sometime in January and March. This annual cleaning needs to be a part of your long-term maintenance commitment once you place your nest box.

It is very important to check the predator guard at least once a year. In order to keep predators away from the boxes (on trees) is to install metal bands around the trunk. If you’ve taken our suggestion above and have built your boxes on posts, place an inverted metal cone below the box.

If your nest is built close to overhanging limbs, REMOVE THEM, as snakes and raccoons can approach the nest by climbing out onto the limbs and you will have provided a protective guard for nothing. Never underestimate the intelligence of a raccoon or the sneakiness of a snake.

Soon, these baby wood ducks will be leaving the safety of the nesting box and will jump to the water or ground below the nest, which is sometimes 50 feet away.
Soon, these baby wood ducks will be leaving the safety of the nesting box and will jump to the water or ground below the nest, which is sometimes 50 feet away.

Breeding

Beginning in April, a wood duck hen will pull out some of her feathers around her mid-section in order to line her nest, which will be hidden in a natural tree cavity or one made by man. Some nests are as much as 50 feet off the ground.

The hen will lay up to 15 cream-colored eggs (normally around 5-10), which she will incubate for about a month or more. The young will grow quickly and will be flying at about 8-10 weeks old. They will leave the nest soon after hatching, jumping from the nesting cavity to the ground or water below. The young leave the nest soon after hatching. They jump from the nesting cavity, often high up in a tree, to the ground or water below.

Wood Duck Contortionist

Like all ducks (I assume), wood ducks are able to get into the most uncomfortable-looking positions.
Like all ducks (I assume), wood ducks are able to get into the most uncomfortable-looking positions. | Source

Interesting Tidbits About Wood Ducks

  • Wood ducks are mostly vegetarian, feeding on aquatic plants, nuts, fruit, and seeds. They will also, however, eat insects, tadpoles, salamanders or snails.
  • They are called “dabbling” ducks searching for food while they are swimming.
  • An adult male duck is called a “drake.”
  • The name for a group of ducks could be any of the following: a flight of ducks; flush of ducks; paddling of ducks; a raft of ducks; a flock of ducks; or a team of ducks.
  • The wood duck also has several different nicknames, including Woodie, Carolina Duck, Squealer Duck, Summer Duck, and Carolina Duck.

Look Out Below!

References

  1. Fisher, James & Roger Tory Peterson (1988), World of Birds, Crescent Books, New York.
  2. State Gazette (Retrieved from website on 10/11/2008).
  3. Wood Duck Society (Retrieved from website on 10/13/2018).
  4. Building Nice Wood (Retrieved from website on 10/13/2018).
  5. Cleaning and Maintaining Wood Duck Boxes (Retrieved from website on 10/09/2018).

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

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      • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

        Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

        4 weeks ago from United States

        Thank you, Pamela. I just despise the way I feel about the Starlings now, but the thought of them running a beautiful wood duck out of her nest box is just a bit much. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

      • Pamela99 profile image

        Pamela Oglesby 

        4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

        These ducks are beautiful, and it would be tragic for them to disappear. Too bad the hunters don't target Starlings. Building a nesting box if they live near you is a great idea.

      • Casey White profile imageAUTHOR

        Mike and Dorothy McKenney 

        4 weeks ago from United States

        Thank you so much. I didn't know about the Starlings trying to take over Martin houses but if they are gone from your backyard now, you are much better off. It kills me to think badly of any wildlife but Starlings and Cowbirds do things that are hard for us to understand. You are so right...they are so beautiful (the ducks, not the Starlings).

      • tsadjatko profile image

        4 weeks ago from now on

        I have always loved wood ducks and you have really done a great job here of introducing this duck to readers!

        I have never heard that starlings are such a threat. I used to have a problem with starlings taking over a martin house I put up but after a couple years they have disappeared from my back yard along with the grackles that used to show up in spring. I wonder if it is because I see several Cooper's Hawks have carved out territory in my neck of the woods.

        I was surprised 20 years ago in upstate NY to find dozens of young domesticated wood ducks for sale at an annual small town fair. If they are being raised and bought and sold like farm animals I guess they will be with us for a long time to come!

        They are breathtakingly beautiful.

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