Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Wood Duck
Nature Bulletin No. 502-A   October 13, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Of all the fowl that swim, the Wood Duck is a most unusual bird. They perch in trees like jaybirds, and nest in tree holes like woodpeckers. The hens do not quack like the females of most ducks, and the drakes are dressed in a riot of gaudy colors. Each summer we see dozens of them -- more than any other kind of wild duck -- rear their families of ducklings on and around the streams, ponds, lakes and sloughs of Cook County's forest preserves.

Words can scarcely describe the brilliance of the drake's plumage. The head, crest and back glint with iridescent greens, purples and blues. The eyes are red, the throat white, and the bill orange-red. The breast is wine-colored flecked with white, the belly is white, and the sides are buff. The woodie is about midway in size between the mallard and the blue-winged teal. The drakes weigh about a pound and a half. The hen is smaller and plainer, with a gray-brown head and body, a white throat, and a conspicuous white ring around the eye. Her voice is a shrill, squealing "whoo-eek", while the male's is a mere squeak.

In early April mated pairs, flying two by two, arrive in the Chicago region from their winter homes in the lower Mississippi Valley or along the Gulf Coast. The female selects a hollow tree which is often an abandoned woodpecker's home. The entrance may be near the ground or 50 feet above; near the shore of the body of water where she will rear her brood, or a half mile away. There, each day, she lays a dull white egg -- the size of a hen's egg -- and usually about a dozen before she begins to set on the "clutch".

Each morning and evening when she leaves the nest to feed, she carefully covers the eggs with a blanket of down plucked from her breast Incubation covers a whole month; about a week longer than most ducks. The day after the ducklings hatch, the mother perches on a nearby tree and calls them with a high-pitched "pe-e-e, pe-e-e, pe-e- e. " The youngsters answer with a series of peeps. Then, one by one, these balls of fluff climb to the entrance with their sharp toenails, hesitate a moment, and tumble to the ground. They may bounce but none is injured. After all are on the ground, she leads them to water. It was once supposed that the hen carried her ducklings to water in her bill or riding on her back. That is not true.

As soon as the eggs are laid, the drake abandons his mate and, in company with other males, hides away on some secluded body of water where he molts and grows a new set of feathers. The hen molts later while caring for her young. Mostly they feed on plant material both from water and on shore, but a substantial part of their diet is insects. The young grow rapidly and begin to fly when two months old. At this state, because of their shrill voices, they are rightly called "squealers. ".

In the decades before 1900, unrestricted year-round hunting cut down the wood duck population to the point where they were threatened with extinction. They suffered more than other wild ducks because they lived in the more thickly settled and wooded parts of the United States. The clearing of our forests made nesting trees more and more scarce. They were given protection from hunters by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and, since then, have slowly increased in numbers. Now, over the country, thousands of man-made nest boxes are being put up to take the place of hollow trees.

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