Post by Jen Berlinghof
Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.
Unlike most dabbling ducks, wood ducks are perching ducks, equipped with well-developed claws that help them cling to branches and nest in tree cavities anywhere from two to 60 feet high. Most courtship displays happen in fall and by mid-winter these ducks have already paired up. Come spring, the mated couples inspect old woodpecker holes, cavities created by broken branches, and wood duck boxes for a suitable nesting spot. Typically, the male will perch nearby while the female tips her head into each potential home before selecting the best nest.
Wood ducks seem to prefer nest sites adjacent to water. Once she has found the perfect hollow, the female will pluck out down from her breast to create a soft space for each egg she lays, stacking soft feathers and eggs in layers. While females usually lay one egg a day, totaling six to 16, their nests are often filled to the brim with up to 30 eggs due to a unique behavior called compound nesting. Female wood ducks will actually lay eggs in multiple nests nearby. The nest owner will incubate them along with her own brood and raise them as if they were her own.
If from the same nest, wood duck young all hatch within a few hours of each other. They’re born precocial, with fuzzy down and the urge and ability to leave home and find food. Just one day post-hatching is considered a wood duck nestling’s “jump day,” in which the chicks leap with abandon, wings spread, from their towering tree nest holes, landing near their waiting mother up to 50 feet below. While the nestlings may be momentarily stunned, they are rarely injured in this seemingly daredevil move. The female then corrals all her young on the ground and heads off to nearby water and feeding areas. The nestlings never look back.
The duck-spotting gentleman has called back multiple times to speak to the “duck lady,” each time with more anecdotes and questions about the ducks in his yard and the wood duck box he plans to install. It seems fitting that for a short time this spring I have been known as the “duck lady” around the office. I think my Grandpa “Duck” would be proud.
You can witness the wonders of wood ducks and all the diverse behaviors of birds at our new Birdwatching Hotspots programs in the Lake County Forest Preserves this spring. Join us at Lake County birding hot spots to look for waterfowl, marsh birds, and other migratory species. Spotting scopes and binoculars will be available. Free. All ages welcome. No registration required.