This is not your average duck. The wood duck is often called Wisconsin's most beautiful duck with its bright, multi-colored feathers. When you're near Wisconsin's ponds, forest-edged lake, swamp or marsh, be sure to take a good gander at the waterfowl, they're not always the mallards that most of us know from city parks and beaches. Look for a slightly smaller bird with crest feathers draping off the back of the head (they might not always be showing) on both the male and female. Males have a red eye with a distinctive orange beak with a black tip; green, white and brown-streaked head with a white cheek patch. Their breast feathers are dark brown and spotted white with light brown feathers on the side and iridescent green-blue feathers on the back. The female has a camouflage pattern of brown with a white-striped pattern on the breast and a small spot of blue on the wing. They have a dark colored beak, a white throat patch, and a white tapering eye patch.
Can you guess where the wood duck lives? The wood duck can be found in bottomland hardwood forests, hanging out on the branches of trees and making nests in tree cavities. The cavity is lined with soft, white downy feathers where 15 eggs are laid. Soon after hatching, the young actually jump from the tree cavity when the female calls "weep, weep, weep," and they all trek to the water together. The young are raised in open wetland areas with clumps of aquatic plants and high places like muskrat lodges to dry their feathers. The wood duck is not the only water bird to nest in trees, so do hooded mergansers, goldeneyes, and some whistling ducks.
This bird is not your typical quacker either. They actually make a loud "squeal" both in flight and when they are swimming. Wood ducks also have claws, unlike most ducks. These claws help them hang on to tree branches and navigate the woodlands. The tracks can easily be identified - they're about 3 inches long with claw marks.
Wood ducks will "tip up" and dip their heads under the water to find the standard wetland fare to eat like wild rice, smartweed, pondweed, bulrush, and lotus seeds, but they love to eat "out," of the water that is. They love fruits and nuts found in the woods like beechnuts, wild grapes, and one of their favorites, acorns. Acorns are very important to their diet and this duck will spend hours foraging for them in forest litter . They'll even pick them right out of the trees. Can you just imagine seeing a duck eating acorns in the woods? They also visit grain fields to munch on wheat and corn stubble. Ducklings like softer foods and eat mostly insects like dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets, ants and beetles.
Wood ducks are more common in southern and central parts of Wisconsin. You'll also see them in the northwest parts of the state. They were abundant during Wisconsin's early history, however, they were also an important food source for early settlers. During the mid-1800s and early 1900s, state wood duck populations dropped drastically because of uncontrolled hunting for their meat and feathers and the logging of their habitat. In 1901, the U.S. Biological Survey reported that the wood duck faced possible extinction. Federal laws were enacted to protect the wood duck and hunting became a managed activity to keep a watch on their population numbers. Recently, wood duck nesting habitat has improved with the maturing of "second growth" timber, however, there are still threats to their habitat from wetland drainage, agriculture, and some logging. Wood duck boxes have become a common sight in wetland areas to help the wood duck find safe nesting places. Look for these large boxes on tree trunks or on poles in the water. If you live near a wetland, you can help the wood duck by hanging up a wood duck nest box. Wood ducks are fun to watch, study and photograph because of their natural beauty.