Wood Duck Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year.

The male wood duck is one of our most beautiful birds.

Duck, Wood

 These are common around Culver, Indiana, in the Lafayette area, and in DuPage County. They nest in tree cavities, and commonly roost in trees. Wood ducks feed on land and in shallow water. The female has a loud squealing call that rises in pitch: “Coo-ah-lee”. The downy young are more cream colored than those of mallards, and lack the black stripe between eye and bill. They stay with their mother at rivers or wooded ponds. In flight, the wood duck appears dark, with a long tail and very narrow white rear edges of wings.

My experience with wood ducks began early. Here I’m 18 months old. We didn’t hunt wood ducks often, focusing more on other species, but a mounted one shot by my grandfather occupied a prominent place in the home.

 18AP87. A pair landed on elevated oak limbs (2 trees near one another) at the edge of woods between Mack Road and McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve. One duck immediately took off, the other disappeared. Its tree has several holes about 30 feet up which could be nest entrances, and is 100m from the edge of the marsh.

26JL87. A mother with at least 3 half-grown young swimming out on Hawk Lake near Culver.

4AP99. First of year arrived, DuPage County, IL.

22AP00. Male spotted standing on high tree branch near East Woods Trail, Morton Arboretum. The tree was near the edge of a clearing with a wet area. He was uttering a faint, rising, zipping-whistling note, and occasionally throwing his head straight back until the beak pointed straight up momentarily before the head quickly returned to the neutral position. The female, who had been several trees away, came into view after I had been watching the male a few minutes. He seemed to be watching me, too, and it is possible the display was a displacement behavior.

23AP00. Red Oak Nature Center. Here beside the Fox River, there are lots of wood ducks this morning. One pair behaved much like yesterday. The male and female were perched in adjacent trees, the male higher than female. He did the same call and display as before, both birds watching me, then they flew off (female flew first, followed by male).

26FE01. The first wood ducks of the year were a group of 4 on the West Branch of the DuPage River at McDowell Forest Preserve. At least 1 bird of each gender was in the group. They were in a smaller stream going around one of the islands, but went to the main river (which is very high) after I flushed them.

3NO01. About 10 wood ducks were in a woodland pond at Herrick Lake, north of the big trail loop and south of the former youth group camp. Many mallards also were there.

20JL02. A mother wood duck with around 8 newly hatched ducklings were swimming off the west end of Culver’s Town Park in the early afternoon in the midst of Lakefest, with speedboats all around and one nearly running them over. Brice [my youngest nephew, now a student at Virginia Tech] and I were in kayaks going past. He was fine with going out to rescue them. We tried to stay far enough off to avoid alarming the mother too much, but it was necessary to stay closer than I would have liked, to keep the speedboats off them. Gradually we herded them in closer to shore and eastward, until finally she was 50 yards or so off a stretch of shore free of humans. She led her ducklings in, and they climbed up on shore. She had been trying to go west, toward town, and out farther from shore, but with the crowds and boats, I don’t see how the ducklings would have survived.

6MR09. Mayslake. First wood ducks of the year (2 pairs).

17MR10. Mayslake. First wood duck of the year (single female).

Last fall, Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh hosted large numbers of wood ducks, often 30-40 at a time.

15MR11. Mayslake. First wood duck of the year (single male).


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