Wood ducks inspire efforts

We had just moved into our new home near Mount Forest, situtated on 12 acres of land that backed onto the Saugeen River. Having my coffee one morning while enjoying the view of a large field of grasses surrounded by many venerable cedar and hardwood trees, I noticed a pair of ducks land on one of the large branches of a maple tree. They were whistlers, (American Goldeye) and they seemed to be checking out the huge tree trunk after which they flew away. Whistlers are one of our waterfowl that like to nest in tree cavities. These cavities are created by rot or by birds such as pileated woodpeckers, or animals such as squirrels and raccoons. Bufflehead, Hooded Mergansers and Wood Duck are all waterfowl that prefer to nest in tree cavities. The Wood Duck habitually nests in trees and they are without a doubt our most beautiful duck and are peculiar to North America.

Often seen on open water or marsh land, the Wood Duck prefers the banks of woodland streams and ponds. It feeds upon seeds of various trees and shrubs often wandering deep into the woods in search of nuts, grapes and berries and is partial to acorns, chestnuts and beechnuts. The grinding ability of the Wood Duck’s gizzd crushes these nuts to digestible size after being swallowed whole. Their diet consists of 90% vegetable food and 10% animal (bugs) food.

A few days later a pair of Wood Ducks landed in a cherry tree near the house. The drake sat on one of the large branches while the hen walked up the trunk and checked for nest cavities. She circled the trunk several times and then flew away. These ducks show amazing agility flying through timber, threading their way with ease and moving like a meteor. Enabling them to walk on and up trees are tiny sharp claws, hooked at the end of their four toes. Also they have a hooked nail at the end of their bill.

This second sighting of ducks climbing around in the trees inspired me to construct two Wood Duck nest boxes with the hope this would attract a nesting pair. One box was placed on a maple tree up about 12 feet and within 30 feet of the river. The second box was placed in an old cherry tree near the house and in full view from our dining room and screened porch. It was at least 500 feet from the river. Weeks passed and no ducks appeared to be interested in occupying our nest boxes, but one evening as we sat on the porch, a jewel-like object flashed across our sight line – it was a hen woody, her flight swift and direct. She landed on a branch in the cherry tree and immediately disappeared into the nest box. She was returning from taking water just before dusk and was sitting on six eggs. We were both elated that we were successful in the placement of the nest box. What a wonderful sensation to realize our box was being used by these beautiful birds. Of course the male was never seen near the nest, perhaps nature’s way of limiting the amount of exposure. We soon learned to watch for these food and water flights, seeing her several times again. Sitting ducks usually go to water two or three times a day, more often if the weather turns hot. Then one morning the hen was on the ground below the nest, she was calling, and soon the six young ducks, one at at time jumped from the oval opening of the nest to the ground, bouncing like corks. All this took about 15 minutes. Then mother hen led her brood towards the river where they would spend the summer in the sedges and grasses never to be seen by us again.

Wood Ducks were once brought to near extinction because of overhunting and their meat was considered prime and their feathers were in demand for ladies hats and artificial fish flies. Farm ponds were being drained and timber cut. Their nesting cavities that occurred in mostly old growth trees were being decreased. Certain feathers were used in Cahil and Quill Gordon flies. Fortunately the North American Waterfowl Treaty was developed and signed in 1918. This prohibited the traffic in feathers and stopped spring hunting imposing limits for hunters. The domestic Mandarin Duck now supplied feathers for fly tying. Information for building Wood Duck nests is available by contacting the writer at [email protected]

Did you ever wonder how a duck lays a dozen eggs one egg a day making the difference between the first and last egg at 11 days, but after she sits for approximately 28 days all the eggs hatch within one hour of each other? Well the answer is simple, the eggs are fertilized all at the same time.