Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) are by far my favorite duck species. They’re beautiful and I love to listen to them in flight. I can close my eyes and tell the males from the females. Males whistle and females make a squealing noise.
These birds are among the most colorful of all ducks. Drakes have heads that are bright green with feathers that stick out above their backs. Their breasts are a rich reddish-brown with light-colored markings and their sides have a finely striped tan appearance. The colors seem to be accentuated by patches of white.
Despite being colorful birds, they can hide exceptionally well. I’ve flushed numerous wood ducks while fishing, and sometimes I’ve been so close that they startled me.
When I was a teenager, I loved hunting them. My favorite method was sneaking up on them in the late afternoon with my camouflaged canoe. I’d lie back in the stern with netting on me and ease downstream and wait for them to break. When they began taking off, I’d lean forward and try for a shot.
Occasionally, I’d see one perching in a tree. That was usually easier. I remember a few times getting a few while basically lying on my back.
I kept working on my stealth technique. Sometimes I’d ease the craft to within a few feet of them before they flushed.
My method in the morning was more typical. I’d sit and listen for them in a homemade blind near some decoys at the edge of a patch of wild rice. There was a lot of wild rice on the river behind my house.
That was part of the reason I quit duck hunting though. I didn’t have a dog who would retrieve, and I knocked too many birds down only to lose them to the weeds. I hated killing and not retrieving them.
I have no interest in killing any wood ducks anymore. I love watching them too much. I’d still like to get close enough for a few good camera shots though. Wood ducks are gorgeous birds, especially the drakes.
Years ago, the wood duck numbers were very low, but conservation efforts have changed that. Wood ducks nest in trees, especially hollow ones. Sometimes their nesting cavities are over 50 feet high. Often there aren’t enough good natural places for them to nest.
Efforts to create more homes by building nesting boxes has helped increase their numbers dramatically. Wood ducks are now probably our most common duck, particularly inland and on the smaller waters. Our cypress and tupelo swamps are full of them.
When provided with safe and dry nesting places wood ducks can be quite productive. They often raise two broods per year. Each clutch might contain over a dozen eggs.
In Maine where I grew up, wood ducks lived there during the breeding season but left before winter. In this area, they are year-round residents. Some folks even refer to them as Carolina ducks. I see them in our swamps at any time of the year. Let’s hope that doesn’t change.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.