The wonder of wood ducks

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.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

It may seem an odd sight, but wood ducks such as this female can perch on trees and branches. Photo © Michael Warner.

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.

A female wood duck inspects a nest box while a male perches close by. Photo © Janis Stone.

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 nestingFemale 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.

You can participate in Birdwatching Hotspots programs this spring and summer across Lake County. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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.

Birdwatching volunteers train atop the new observation deck at Spring Bluff in Winthrop Harbor. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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.

Goldenrod galls

September in Lake County, Illinois is a month of big sky punctuated by tips of tall prairie plants in an array of autumnal colors. Before the trees really get going with their own colorful show, sparks of bright yellow from the many varieties of goldenrod (Solidago spp.) dominate the open spaces. Most of the summer these plants go unnoticed, adding merely another green hue to the lush surroundings, but September is their time to shine. What may also go unnoticed, even now as goldenrod demands our attention, is the hidden world inside each plant in the form of a gall.

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A screech-owl’s story

Last week, many of us who work at the Lake County Forest Preserves had to say a sad goodbye. Our resident eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) passed away in the middle of the night. This male owl had spent the past seven years as an ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves, teaching thousands of people about the adaptations of raptors and owls. I have seen time and time again—from school children on education field trips to adults attending special events—a person’s eyes lock in and a look of amazement wash over them upon meeting this charismatic bird.

Sadly, his story is not uncommon. This particular bird was recovered in January 2004 as a juvenile. He was found by a concerned citizen in a driveway in Round Lake, Illinois with obvious head trauma and his left eye swollen and filled with blood. He was taken to Barnswallow, a raptor rehabilitation center in Wauconda, Illinois. It is suspected that this screech-owl was hit by a car, but he also had tiny sores on his talons and translucent, sheared tail feathers. These latter symptoms are signs of secondary viral infections caused by the West Nile Virus. After spending 16 months at the rehab facility, he was deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild due to the uncertainty of his eyesight in the injured eye. In the spring of 2005, he came to live in his very own mews (i.e. flight cage) near the farm area at Ryerson Woods. There he joined another resident bird, a red tailed-hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Continue reading