Strong and frequent southerly breezes, a disappearing snow pack at low elevations and the presence of large stretches of open water along streams, in the backwater of rivers and in marshes prompt the return of numerous forms of waterfowl to the Adirondacks.
Even though mid March is early for the arrival of some migrants from their wintering grounds, when the opportunity arises to reconnect with the area used for breeding, these flat-billed, webbed-footed birds take advantage of the favorable conditions and fly north. Included with these returning birds is one of the most colorful and handsome species of waterfowl in North America – the wood duck.
Its attractive blend of green, blue, rusty-orange, white and tan plumage and uniquely shaped head make the male, or drake, as visually appealing as any member of our wildlife community. Even the drab, gray colored female or hen with her crested head, distinct white marking around her eye and compact shape creates an image more regal than that of other ducks.
As its name implies, the wood duck is closely associated with aquatic settings surrounded by patches of deciduous woods. Forests that contain some mature stands of hardwoods are especially attractive, as this duck relies on older trees for some of its food and a nesting site. While acorns are frequently consumed by the wood duck in southern locations, wild black cherries, the seeds of the maples and beechnuts are more often eaten by this duck in our northern climate, where oak trees are lacking. The wood duck is also known to depend on berries from several shrubs that grow near the water’s edge, especially raspberries and blackberries. The seeds from various aquatic plants that root in the shallows and numerous invertebrates picked up from the bottom are also ingested by this “dabbler”. (A dabbler is a duck, like the mallard, that obtains the bulk of its food by dunking its head below the surface, rather than submerging its entire body.)
Rather than lay its eggs on the ground in some protected spot, the wood duck places its nest in a sizeable wooden cavity well above the forest floor. A stand of deciduous trees is likely to contain one or several trunks that have a cavity large enough to accommodate the wood duck’s nest. A hollow section of a standing tree with an entrance hole greater than four inches is greatly preferred. In wilderness settings, a tree that has experienced severe rotting of its heartwood, and which has had a large limb torn from its trunk to form an appropriate sized opening is the typical site used by the wood duck. Occasionally, a deep hole created by a pileated woodpecker may be selected for use, however, because the wood duck favors a chamber with an inside diameter of at least one foot, most woodpecker cavities fall far short of this space requirement.
Around towns and village, large nest boxes are more regularly used by the wood duck for housing its eggs. Since these structures are constructed by wood duck enthusiasts, their floor space and entrance hole size are tailored to meet the needs of this bird. Yet, while most of these boxes are placed quite close to the ground, the wood duck does not need to have its home so low to the forest floor. In wilderness settings, this bird is known to occupy cavities that are well over 50 feet high. While this height may seem to be a deadly obstacle when the time arrives for the flightless chicks to exit their nest and drop to the ground, these infants are well adapted to float slowly down and are able to bounce once they hit the layer of leaf litter that covers that forest floor.
While the depth of some natural cavities may also seem to present a problem for the chicks, these birds are able to climb several feet up vertical surfaces because of the claws that occur at the end of their toes.
It is rare to see a wood duck in the Adirondacks before St. Patrick’s Day, as conditions are rarely favorable for this bird prior to the end of March. Additionally, the wood duck, unlike most other birds, is not territorial and does not have to hurry back north to lay claim to a favored breeding site before rivals take possession of all the prime locations. However, this year, with the abnormally early appearance of spring weather, it is possible that in the coming days following a bout of strong southerly winds, a pair of wood ducks may be seen weaving their way through an alder choked stretch of stream or on an overgrown section of marsh here in the Adirondacks.