Wood Duck

Aixa sponsa

wood duck

Wood Duck, photographed at Cypress Creek South Natural Area South Tract, Jupiter, Palm Beach County, in March 2018.

Wood ducks, AKA woodies, AKA Aixa sponsa, arguably rank among the most beautiful and elaborately plumed of all ducks, perhaps of all birds, that make their way to the Sunshine State. It's among the most sought after of water fowl by those who hunt with binoculars and cameras and those who use more lethal tools. They even has their own fan club. Seriously.

They also have a rather odd strategy for dealing with a shortage of suitable nesting sites: dump nesting. More on that in a bit.

Wood ducks are year-round residents of Florida, as they are most of eastern North America as far north as parts of New England and Manitoba. There's also a year-round population along the Pacific Coast. Wood ducks are found in the extreme northern reaches of the United States and parts of Canada, but these birds are migratory, flying as far south as Mexico to escape winter's ravages. Florida's wood duck population also expands come winter.

It's actually female woodies who drive the migration; first-year females will return to the area where they were born, and in subsequent years to the same nest site where they raised their first brood. The guys, drakes in duck terminology, are mere followers.

Males have green heads with white stripes and a red eye; the chest is cinnamon, the sides buff with white striping and a patch of blue. Females, called hens, are duller, with a large white eye patch.

Both males and females have crests atop their heads, the male's ornate as clearly shown in the photo below. The female's, however, is on the plain side. They are fairly large as ducks go, with a body length between a foot-and-a-half and two feet and a wingspan that can approach 30 inches.

Wood ducks like heavily wooded or vegetated ponds and lakes. They are unusual in that they come equipped with claws on their webbed feet that allow them to perch in trees. Nest sites can be over water or within a short walking distance of water, but according to Cornell, they also can be more than a mile away. They nest in tree cavities often as high as 60 feet in the air or more. Which you would think would be a problem since wood duck hatchlings must make a leap to the ground within 24 hours of hatching, then trek off to the nearest pond or lake with mom. A leap of faith indeed.

In Florida, nesting is between January and August, but mostly between February and June. The female will find her hole, then lay an egg a day in it until the entire clutch is done, typically as many as 12 eggs. She'll cover them in debris to protect them as she goes out to feed herself. Mom doesn't start incubating her eggs until after the last one is laid. Dad isn't in the picture at all, usually taking off as soon as incubation begins. The eggs take about a month to hatch, then each youngin' must make that harrowing leap to the ground (or water surface). They'll swim with mom and learn the basics of wood duck life. The ducklings require eight to 10 weeks to fledge, but they'll stay with mom for a time afterwards. On average only about half the brood survive to fledge. Some Florida woodies — less than 10 percent — will start a second brood, which will often mix in with the first.

The thing with nesting in tree cavities is that there is only so much suitable housing to go around, and wood ducks can't solve the problem by carving out holes on their own. Instead, they nest dump. Hens will climb into a cavity of another wood duck and deposit their eggs in the stranger's nest and then go about their business. Other ducks do it as well — it's probably a behavior that evolved on the "theory" that it's better to dump offspring in another's nest than to not nest at all. But woodies seem to take it to an extreme: some nests have been found to have as many as 50 eggs.

The tree cavities can be quite deep, usually a couple of feet but can be as much as 15. The young use their clawed feet to climb their way out. But despite the depth of the hole, the opening is usually small to keep predators — hawks and owls, primarily — at bay. Wood ducks also will take to manmade nest boxes, which helps relieve natural housing shortages. If the boxes are too close together, they'll still engage in nest dumping, however.

The wood duck diet is mainly seeds, but they will eat other vegetation, insects and bugs. They will dabble — dunking their heads underwater but keeping their butts above — but also dive, scoop off the surface or forage on the ground.

The wood duck population appears to be stable or growing both here in Florida and throughout their range. In the last half of the 19th century, wood duck numbers spiraled near extinction because of habitat destruction, but they have significantly recovered, particularly over the last 50 years or so.

Wood ducks are members of Anatidae, the family of ducks and geese. Their closest relative: the Mandarin duck of Asia. That's the bird that made a few headlines in 2018 when one showed up in New York's Central Park.

Cypress Creek South Natural Area South Tract

Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.