Wood Duck
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 5/3/96

Each morning that I paddle upstream from West Point on the Eno, I approach with anticipation the first bend in the river that swings ninety degrees to the right. If I am the first one to disturb the morning's serenity, with no hikers or paddlers having proceeded me, I will often find a small flock of wood ducks resting on the water just as I turn the bend. They are there every season of the year.

I usually have only two or three seconds to get a quick glance at these beautiful birds before they explode out of the water with thrashing wings and accompanying squeaky cries. I then watch a group of two to eight individuals wing off, over water and trees, to find a more secluded and yet undisturbed cove further upstream. As they fly, the outstretched necks of the wood ducks remind me of the projecting bills of toucans flying over the Amazon. A wild pulse races through my body ...
This bird is the Triangle area's only breeding duck. This means, unlike the other twenty species of ducks that only spend winter on our local waterways, the wood duck is with us year-round. The other ducks - the teals, shovelers, wigeons, canvasbacks and their like - disappear from Durham in early spring for their migration to the prairie pothole habitats of the upper Midwest of the United States, Canada and other points north.

I find the wood duck to be the most beautiful of all the ducks in eastern America. The drake's showy colors and bizarre designs have, unquestionably, no match. The wood duck hen, not possessing the characteristic washed out and protective attire of other female species, wears an exquisite white mask with spotted breast and flanks. Both sexes together make a very stunning and showy couple.

The wood duck prefers a tree cavity for a nesting site. In our area this often begins as the result of a beaver girdling the trunk of a tree. When the outer bark is stripped off from the ground to about three feet, the tree will eventually die, rot out and leave a hollow standing structure leaning over a river. A forest flooded by a beaver pond will leave countless dying trees for potential wood duck homes.

In most cases nest boxes are also readily accepted by wood ducks. If protected properly with encircling guards around the base, the box can be safer than a hollow tree. At West Point on the Eno Park a number of boxes were erected along the edge of the river for an Eagle Scout project two years ago. One of the boxes has finally been occupied this March. We are hoping that the abundance of spring wafters with their boats and hikers with their dogs, will not deter the important mission of our wood duck couples.

Upon hatching, young wood ducks are very precocious. They remain in the nest only about twenty-four hours before they are ready to venture out. They possess sharp claws that enable them to climb out of a cavity up to eight feet deep. From there they follow their parents, dropping onto the river and are able to find their own food while following in their parent's shadow. It takes the young wood duck about two months to be able to fully master its own flight.

Ducks are generally divided into two groups for the casual observer - the divers and the dabblers. The divers actually swim under water in search of food while the dabblers are surface feeders, the wood duck being one of the latter. The wood duck's diet includes acorns, seeds, berries, grain, aquatic and terrestrial insects and other invertebrates. Tilting its body  headfirst into the water to feed, it is not uncommon to see the tail of the wood duck pointing straight up in the air.

Wood ducks were hunted for their plumage and for food almost to the point of extinction at the beginning of this century. Careful wildlife management practices have brought about a reversal in the duck's fortunes since that time. In southern Durham County along New Hope Creek and other streams flowing into Jordan Lake, recently created levees and dams have produced subimpoundments for the purpose of expanding the habitat available for wood ducks and for those who enjoy hunting them.

But the flooding of our bottomland forests and the resulting drastic alteration of river habitat is a questionable policy. Is it right to impede the natural flow of our creeks and the movement of its many other aquatic species so that the wood duck can be hunted with more ease? This is a question we must ask ourselves as we come to better appreciate Durham's bottomland forests. The situation reminds us of how we have impounded our larger rivers and then bragged about the bald eagles that have subsequently shown up to nest.

When we think of a homely local duck, the majority of us may have the image of the mallard duck and its famous "quack'' in our minds . The fact is the truly wild mallards can be seen in Durham only in the winter as migrants from the Midwest. There are some domesticated and semi wild individual mallards that remain here year-round. But it is the wood duck that holds the claim to be our only native wild breeder. It may take a little more careful observation to find that isolated cove on a river or lake where the shy wood duck retreats. But to become familiar with this beautiful neighbor of ours is well worth the effort.

Photo by male and female wood ducks