Geographical Range North America
Habitat Freshwater swamps, marshes, lakes, and calm rivers edged by forests
Scientific Name Aix sponsa
Conservation Status Common

Just Ducky

If there were a beauty contest for North American ducks, the American wood duck would probably win first prize. It is one of our most strikingly colored ducks (a fact that almost led to the species' extinction in the early 1900s -- see A Conservation Success Story, below).

As is usual with birds, the male wood duck is more "fashionable" than the female. His head sports an iridescent green and maroon crest, his face is deep purple with white stripes, and his back and wings are a shimmering dark blue-green. The female is -- let's face it -- fairly drab. She has a gray-crested head, white eye-ring, brown speckled throat, white under-parts, and a gray-brown back. Her plain colors come in handy, though. They help camouflage her and her chicks, which hide under her wings when threatened.

Designed for Water and Trees

American wood ducks are medium-sized ducks, measuring 17 to 20 inches in length. Their round body shape makes them buoyant, so they sit higher in the water than other ducks. Their feet are not only webbed for paddling in water but, since wood ducks spend so much time in trees, their feet have sharp claws -- an adaptation for perching. Wood ducks' wings are broader than those of other ducks, making the birds adept at twisting and turning in flight. This maneuvering comes in handy when flying in and out of trees!

Changing their Tastes

Wood ducks feed in wet areas, including lakes and streams, flooded woodlands, and wooded swamps. Adult birds prefer to eat acorns in season; at other times they eat the seeds of trees, mulberries, duckweed, wild rice, and wild grapes. They may occasionally feed in fields, eating various grains, like corn and wheat.

While adults are plant eaters, young ducklings feed almost entirely on animal life, primarily aquatic (water-dwelling) insects. They gradually change over to a plant diet as they mature.

A Sudden Exit from the Nest

American wood ducks remain with their mates longer than most ducks. A male and female pair off during the winter, and breeding usually doesn't occur until spring or summer. (Sometimes they produce two clutches of eggs in one year.) The male follows his mate until after they have mated and nested, then he leaves the job of child-rearing to her.

These birds are cavity nesters, which means they lay their eggs in an existing hole in a tree (a good way to avoid most predators). The female has an amazing ability to return to the same tree where she was born to lay her eggs. Her nest cavity is typically about 30 feet above the ground. Though many ducks seem to prefer trees near water, recent research suggests that wood ducks in the true wild state do not in fact nest that close to water. In southern Illinois, for example, they have been found to nest deep in the forest.

The female normally lays between six and 10 tan or white eggs. She incubates (sits on) them for about a month. As the incubation period begins, the male usually loses interest in his mate and he goes off to join all-male flocks. From then on, the mother tends her young by herself.

After the ducklings hatch, they don't stay in the nest very long. The mother waits about a day before she leaves the nest, then she calls to encourage her babies to come out. They respond to her with peeping calls and immediately begin to spring upward towards the nest entrance. The ducklings eventually launch themselves outward to the ground below: quite a big first step! Then, their mother leads them to water.

At eight to 10 weeks, ducklings are fully feathered and can fly.

No Sitting Ducks

In the northern extent of the species' range, American wood ducks migrate south to their winter grounds in the fall. They return again in the spring. The wood ducks that live in more southerly locations year-round do not migrate, but just move to their local breeding grounds in the spring.

A Conservation Success Story

Wood ducks were severely over-hunted after European settlers arrived on this continent. The males especially were prized for their beautiful plumage, and many were killed and mounted as wall trophies. Later, their brightly colored feathers were in demand by fishermen for artificial trout flies.

To make matters worse, early settlers drained a good portion of the swamps, marshes and slow streams that wood ducks like to inhabit. They also harvested a good portion of the large trees that the ducks found suitable for nesting. These practices, on top of hunting, spelled doom for the birds. By the early 1900s, the American wood duck was nearly extinct.

Thankfully, passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act between the U.S. and Canada in 1918 brought the birds protection against hunting, and probably saved the species. More recently, the ducks have benefited from the efforts to restore North American wetlands, as well as the installation of artificial nesting boxes in many areas.

The wood duck has made a remarkable recovery and is no longer on federal or international lists of threatened species. Its populations are so healthy that the species can once again be hunted in limited numbers. In fact, in the United States, they are second only to mallards in the number of ducks shot each year. How nice to have a happy conservation story to tell!

Fun Facts

  • Other common names for wood ducks are woodie, summer duck, acorn duck, swamp duck, or squealer.
  • The wood duck is the only North American duck that regularly produces two broods in one year.

Class: Aves
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae