GUEST COLUMN: Wood duck hen perseveres in harsh natural environment

By Ric Main

Every late March or early April for more years than I can recall, I catch a glimpse of two beautiful wood ducks high in the branches of a tree at the edge of my backyard that hangs over a 60-foot drop. They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches and will sit for 15 to 30 minutes, stretching their necks and observing down below.

There is a small heavily wooded pond below about 15 by 20 feet and only 10 to 12 inches deep at best. Cattails are extensive and surround it. This is the female’s (hen’s) annual, and very secretive, nesting place. It’s far from ideal, as it is mud by July and close to residential housing, a busy through road and a clan of coyote.

It is within acceptable duck limits, however, to larger nearby bodies of water: the old Erie Canal and Chittenango Creek.

The hen will find, not build, her nest anywhere from two to 60 feet above ground in a cavernous stump or other type cavity ranging from 10 to 20 inches deep and high with a base of leaves, rotted wood shavings, etc., or even amongst the thick cattails in a fallen branch of a low-hanging willow tree.

She will begin laying eggs, one per day, for 10 to 15 days. The eggs will take another 30 days to incubate and hatch. Her (drake) mate will hang around very attentively but usually only until the duckling eggs begin to hatch. After that, about the third and fourth week of May, the clan is all hers. He’ll be joining the boys out on the waters of the creek or canal and then scoping for some new ducky when the hens begin to appear with the little ones.

After the incubation, the ducklings all hatch remarkably within a few hours of one another and the hen will brood them for another 24 hours before leading them to water. The pond is perilously small and surveyed by predators with easy access. She must get them out soon and another day later will have to trek dangerously 800 feet to Chittenango Creek. Sunlight will be her safest asset along the edge of the nearby road where coyotes and predator fowl shy from daytime traffic.

Less than half have survived the previous night’s attacks by hawk, owl or coyote. Wood ducks have the highest mortality rate of all ducks, mainly due to poor nest selection. Half of all their nests in natural cavities end in failure due to weather and easy predator access, especially raccoons and starlings.

September has arrived, and the little ducklings, abandoned by their mother soon after their plumage was completed about mid-July, have now learned to fly. They lost a couple of siblings in a July 4 flash flood but managed to gather with a few other juveniles on the Creek to form a small flock that month.

It’s common to see wood ducks like these in small groups (fewer than 20), keeping apart from other waterfowl. They have survived on insects and large amounts of fruits and nuts, which are abundant along the creek.

Soon the small ducklings will follow adult wood ducks in a southward migration somewhere between Maryland and Florida or as far west as Texas. Their mother hen will then find a new drake at the wintering grounds come October. He will swim and fly and dine with her throughout the remainder of fall and throughout the winter; come spring, he shall follow her back to the high branches of the old oaks in my back yard.

She’ll urge him to inspect the small pond below for danger while she waits above. Tree by tree, she works her way down to him and selects her nest again. And even though the average lifespan of a wood duck is four years, they have the potential to live into their teens, which I believe she has.

“What an ornament to a river to see that glowing gem floating in contact with its waters,” wrote Thoreau of the drake.

I can only respond with, “Beauty is only feather deep once you come to know this mother Hen.”

I shall miss her dearly when she’s gone.

Ric Main of Chittenango is a photographer and nature-lover.

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