Colorful Wood Ducks and the Continuing Threats They Face

A Beautiful Couple

The male and female wood duck are very compatible.

The Most Beautiful Ducks in the World

The wood duck is usually (and widely) regarded as the most beautiful duck in America (probably the world), although by the early part of the 20th century, hunters had almost completely wiped out this gorgeous bird. Had it not been for the protective laws that put an end to the slaughter, the wood duck might very well have ended up on the list of extinct species. But, some hunters are gung-ho and think it is worth risking jail time in order to bag some of these birds.

In 2008, 12 hunters in Tennessee killed a total of 169 wood ducks on the opening weekend of the wood duck/teal hunting season, although State regulations limit hunters to no more than two wood ducks a day in September which means that that particular hunting party should have bagged no more than 48 ducks over that weekend. In the end, the men (most of them; one was a minor) ended up in court and paid hefty fines, court costs, $2,000 restitution each and the loss of their hunting privileges for four years, proof that violation of the already-generous law will not be tolerated.

A wood duck is crested and long-tailed. The male has bold white patterns on his face with a red bill, chestnut breast, and buff flanks. The female wood duck is a dark gray with a white eye patch. Usually, when they are found, they are seen in pairs like the ones shown in the above photographs, provided by two of my photographer friends, Vineeth Radhakrishnan of Austin, Texas; and Larry Jernigan of Heber Springs, Arkansas.

Starlings: No Friend to the Wood Duck

The Threats They Face From Starlings

In some areas, starlings can wipe out wood duck production because they are cavity nesters, competing assertively for the use of nest boxes. After being introduced from Europe in 1890, they have spread all across the United States, having totally overlapped the range of the wood duck.

Starlings are real threats to wood ducks.

Starlings are considered an alien species of bird and are not protected by law; they are one of many bird species that have been responsible for global and local extinctions and have eroded the beauty and unique features of many natural environments. Today, despite efforts to limit their numbers, they are one of the most common birds in America.

During the prospecting and egg-laying phases for wood ducks, the starlings begin their interference; the wood duck hen is only present for brief periods each day, and the starlings puncture holes in the wood duck’s eggs when the hen is absent. Usually, they will bury the duck eggs under the materials that use to construct their own nest, which is built above the nest the wood ducks provided.

The wood duck hen, upon her return to the nest, is often attacked by the starlings that are now aggressively defending their own nest. Often, a group of starlings will physically attack the hen, pecking at her head and affixing themselves to her back.

Many people have tried many preventive solutions to the problem the wood ducks face from the starlings, but it seems the only thing that works, in the long run, is to target the starlings in an attempt to lower and limit their numbers. Traps have been designed for placement inside a wood duck house, and those have proven successful, along with armed people in rural areas who are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect their beautiful wood ducks.

A Proper Nesting Box

Placement of Nesting Boxes

Wood duck hens have historically built their nests in natural tree cavities, but studies have shown that only a very small percentage of those hatched successfully, largely because of predatory raccoons. Today, with the help of those who love the ducks and want to see them thrive, nest boxes are being built in order to protect the ducks from climbing predators.

It may be tempting to place a nesting box high in a tree, but that’s a method that didn’t work very well for the wood ducks. People now, in an attempt to stave off the predators, have started building the nests lower to the ground and mounting them on poles that have an effective predator guard. They have realized that higher-mounted boxes are more dangerous than the ones that are built lower, and studies have apparently shown that the low-mounted boxes are actually preferred by the wood duck hen.

When/if you decide to build a nesting box, build it about a foot across and about 20–24 inches tall to accommodate several hens and up to 30–40 eggs. And, don’t be disappointed if your nesting box isn’t used right away; it might take them a year or two to decide to use it. If, after three years, it hasn’t been used, you probably need to simply relocate it.

Dabbling Ducks

Maintaining Nesting Boxes

If you intend to maintain your nesting box, you should plan to do an annual inspection in either January or March. At that time, you should make any needed repairs, remove old nests, and add some fresh material for the ducks that are unable to carry their own nesting materials.

A successful wood duck nest box program requires annual inspection sometime in January and March. This annual cleaning needs to be a part of your long-term maintenance commitment once you place your nest box.

It is very important to check the predator guard at least once a year. The best way to keep predators away from the boxes (on trees) is to install metal bands around the trunk. If you’ve taken our suggestion above and have built your boxes on posts, place an inverted metal cone below the box.

If your nest is built close to overhanging limbs, REMOVE THEM, as snakes and raccoons can approach the nest by climbing out onto the limbs, and you will have provided a protective guard for nothing. Never underestimate the intelligence of a raccoon or the sneakiness of a snake.


Beginning in April, a wood duck hen will pull out some of her feathers around her mid-section in order to line her nest, which will be hidden in a natural tree cavity or one made by man. Some nests are as much as 50 feet off the ground.

The hen will lay up to 15 cream-colored eggs (normally around 5–10), which she will incubate for about a month or more. The young will grow quickly and will be flying at about 8–10 weeks old. They will leave the nest soon after hatching, jumping from the nesting cavity to the ground or water below. The young leave the nest soon after hatching. They jump from the nesting cavity, often high up in a tree, to the ground or water below.

Wood Duck Contortionist

Interesting Tidbits About Wood Ducks

  • Wood ducks are mostly vegetarian, feeding on aquatic plants, nuts, fruit, and seeds. They will also, however, eat insects, tadpoles, salamanders or snails.
  • They are called “dabbling” ducks searching for food while they are swimming.
  • An adult male duck is called a “drake.”
  • The name for a group of ducks could be any of the following: a flight of ducks; flush of ducks; paddling of ducks; a raft of ducks; a flock of ducks; or a team of ducks.
  • The wood duck also has several different nicknames, including Woodie, Carolina Duck, Squealer Duck, Summer Duck, and Carolina Duck.

Look Out Below!


  1. Fisher, James & Roger Tory Peterson (1988), World of Birds, Crescent Books, New York.
  2. Wood Duck Society (Retrieved from website on 10/13/2018).
  3. Building Nice Wood (Retrieved from website on 10/13/2018).
  4. Cleaning and Maintaining Wood Duck Boxes (Retrieved from website on 10/09/2018).

© 2018 Mike and Dorothy McKenney

Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on October 15, 2018:

Thank you, Pamela. I just despise the way I feel about the Starlings now, but the thought of them running a beautiful wood duck out of her nest box is just a bit much. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 15, 2018:

These ducks are beautiful, and it would be tragic for them to disappear. Too bad the hunters don't target Starlings. Building a nesting box if they live near you is a great idea.

Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on October 14, 2018:

Thank you so much. I didn't know about the Starlings trying to take over Martin houses but if they are gone from your backyard now, you are much better off. It kills me to think badly of any wildlife but Starlings and Cowbirds do things that are hard for us to understand. You are so right...they are so beautiful (the ducks, not the Starlings).

The Logician from now on on October 14, 2018:

I have always loved wood ducks and you have really done a great job here of introducing this duck to readers!

I have never heard that starlings are such a threat. I used to have a problem with starlings taking over a martin house I put up but after a couple years they have disappeared from my back yard along with the grackles that used to show up in spring. I wonder if it is because I see several Cooper's Hawks have carved out territory in my neck of the woods.

I was surprised 20 years ago in upstate NY to find dozens of young domesticated wood ducks for sale at an annual small town fair. If they are being raised and bought and sold like farm animals I guess they will be with us for a long time to come!

They are breathtakingly beautiful.

The Wood Duck 1

Joseph M. Schaefer, Jennifer Cohen, and Mark E. Hostetler 2

Without question, the wood duck (Aix sponsa) is one of the most colorful of all North American waterfowl. It has a striking mixture of iridescent blues, greens, and purples contrasted by white stripes and patches (Figure 1). Its coloration has made it the most sought-after duck by hunters and birdwatchers.

A male wood duck, also known as a drake.

[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

It is known in Florida as the "summer duck" and the "acorn duck." By the early 1900s, this highly desirable species was near extinction because of improper hunting regulations and habitat loss. With the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, hunting of these birds was restricted. Also, wildlife officials developed a management program to increase wood duck numbers. This program consists of yearly monitoring of the population, appropriate hunting regulations based on monitoring data, captive breeding, and the use of nest boxes. Due to the success of this program, the wood duck is now one of the most abundant waterfowl species in North America.

The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck is a large, gooselike duck with a long neck, long legs, and short tail. In flight, look for their broad wings, long neck, and hunched back.

Relative Size

About the size of a Cattle Egret slightly larger than a Fulvous Whistling-Duck.


Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks are dark overall: a chestnut breast and black belly are set off by a bright-pink bill and legs, grayish face, and broad white wing stripe, also visible in flight. Immatures are duller than adults, with a dark bill, pale breast, and mottled black belly.

Flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks regularly feed on waste grain in agricultural fields, often at night. Listen for their high-pitched whistles as they travel from feeding fields to roosting sites. They often perch in trees and on logs over water. They nest in cavities and they take readily to nest boxes.

Table of Contents

  • Subspecies and Varieties
  • Description
  • Distribution
  • Habitat
  • Migration
  • What Do They Eat?
  • Behavior
  • Predators
  • Adaptations
  • Mating Season
  • Reproduction
  • Life Cycle
  • Lifespan
  • Call
  • As pets
  • Conservation Status
  • Interesting Facts

Scientific Classification

Muscovy Duck

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Genus: Cairina
Scientific Name: C. moschata

Mallard Hen

Female mallards are far less colorful than mallard drakes. Their plumage is an overall mottled brown-buff, with light centers to the largest feathers on the back and less distinct speckling on the underparts. Hens have a bright orange bill smudged with black or gray, but the nail on the tip of the bill is always black. A hen's chin and throat tend to have less speckling, and they have a clear face pattern with a dark eye stripe and dark crown. Their wings also show the blue speculum bordered with thick white lines, and their rump, tail, and undertail coverts are buff with brown speckles. Like the drakes, their legs and feet are bright orange.

This bland coloration serves female mallards well, as it provides good camouflage for tending a nest and caring for hatchlings. At the same time, other female dabbling ducks have similar plumage, including mottled ducks, gadwalls, cinnamon teals, and northern shovelers. To be positive about the identification of a mallard hen, study the bill and head markings closely and note the color of the legs.

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