Wood Duck

This week for Flora and Fauna Friday we’re focusing on one of our resident waterfowl, the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).

The Wood Duck is a medium-sized species of Duck native to the Eastern US. In South Carolina they are a common species and permanent residents. Many individuals are non-migratory but they may be joined by northern birds in the winter months. The species is strongly sexually dimorphic, meaning males and females have distinct and obvious differences. Males are beautifully patterned with bright red eyes, pink bills, and a complex plumage of brown shades accented by greens, blues, and white. Females have a very drab and camouflaged appearance, sporting only a distinct white eye patch over a plumage of light brown and white. Both males and females have a crest of feathers on their head but it is more pronounced in males. Wood Ducks feed primarily on vegetation, especially Duckweeds, seeds, and nuts.

Wood Ducks, as the name implies, live in the woods. More specifically, they inhabit swamps, floodplain forests, and vegetated ponds surrounded by woodlands. The reason for this preference is three fold. First, flying through the woods is dangerous. This means Wood Ducks have little competition for food from other duck species since those other species would rather avoid the hazard. Second, it’s hard to see through trees. This means Wood Ducks are better protected from aerial predators like Falcons and Eagles that other Ducks must avoid. Third, Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities. It’s hard to nest in trees without any trees around. Cavity nesting helps protect a nest and its mother from predators like Raccoons, Rats, Snakes, Bobcats, and Alligators.

Wood Ducks are one of only two species in the genus Aix. The other is the equally handsome Mandarin Duck, native to East Asia. This means they’re fairly weird compared to most of our species of Ducks. To name a few: they have that crest, they have claws, they roost in trees, they prefer to feed on the water’s edge rather than open water, they nest in cavities, they don’t migrate, and they don’t quack, instead they whistle and scream.

Wood Ducks are a conservation success story. Their numbers were in rapid decline at the turn of the 20th century due to habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. Thanks to federal intervention and a shift in American hunting culture, their numbers today are completely recovered. Being fairly large, cavity nesting birds means Wood Ducks are very susceptible to habitat degradation from logging. They require large standing dead trees over standing water that Pileated Woodpeckers have already nested in. Much like Eastern Bluebirds, their recovery has nest boxes to thank. It takes decades to grow trees large enough for Wood Ducks to nest in but it only takes an afternoon for a conservation minded citizen to build and install a Wood Duck box on the edge of a swampy farm pond or fishing hole. Sometimes that little bit of effort from enough people is all it takes to make a real impact.

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