If I wasn’t committed to watching birds in my neighborhood during this period of staying close to home, I would be scouring the bosque hoping to see a pair of Wood Ducks as they search for a nesting cavity. They make a striking couple. The drake is striking in its multi-colored head that resembles a stained glass window; and the female, while drab, has prominent white crescent around its eyes that stands out against deep charcoal feathers on its head.
We are blessed to have this gorgeous duck year-round in Central New Mexico. They can be found on ponds that have over-hanging woody plants that provide cover, as well as along the lateral drains and various acequias where the shrubbery has not been cut back too much.
They are among a handful to ducks that nest in tree, or artificial, cavities. Others include the two species of Whistling Ducks, found in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and Hooded Mergansers. While ‘hoodies’ spend the winter in New Mexico, they nest in the east up into Canada and in the Pacific Northwest into Canada. The Wood Duck is the only cavity nesting waterfowl in New Mexico.
Each pair’s exploration usually starts near the end of March and concludes around mid-April. During that time, the female, with her partner in tow, will make the rounds to check out potential cavities. The process always makes me laugh, and reminds me of scenes I have encountered in clothing stores when a woman drags her husband along while she goes shopping for a new spring outfit.
As the hen explores each possible nesting site,
the drake waits patiently on a nearby limb.
While the male accompanies his mate, he has no say in the selection of the nesting cavity.
The couple might visit two or three locations on an outing before returning to the nearby pond, drain or acequia.
When the cavity is finally selected, the male accompanies the female each morning before sunrise as she goes inside and lays one egg. This process is repeated for three or four days, perhaps skipping a day. Because this happens before daylight, people and potential predators don’t observe them visiting the cavity.
Four days before the end of egg-laying period, females begin incubating at night and spend approximately 12 hours each night on the nest. She will typically lay 10 – 11 eggs, so this process can take up to two weeks.
Once the eggs are laid, the male’s job is done and he joins the other males, clustering together in small groups. When you begin to see the males hanging out together, you know that incubation has begun.
When full-time incubation has begun, the female only leaves the nest once or twice a day to feed – in early morning and late afternoon. She will sit on the eggs for approximately a month. About midway through the incubation period, she begins pulling down feathers from her breast to line the nest. Once the chicks start making noises inside the shell, she does not leave the nest at all. When this pipping begins, she starts vocalizing to them so they will recognize her voice after they hatch. When it is finally time for the ducklings to leave the nest, she will use that same call to entice them to leave the nest and follow her to the water. Her precautions to make sure no one is around is why I have never seen this happen, except on PBS Nature!
Ducklings will be ready to leave the nest about 24 h after hatching. The female emerges at the cavity entrance early in the morning and scans the area to make sure there are no predators. When she determines that the conditions are right, she flies from the cavity to the ground or water below and begins softly calling kuk, kuk, kuk. Conditioned by her call, the ducklings immediately respond by climbing up to entrance, and then leaping from the nest to their waiting mother. She then leads them to the nearest water.
Around mid-May you may begin to see mother Wood Ducks leading a line of ducklings behind her as she swims carefully near the water’s edge.
The ducklings will stay with their mother for approximately two weeks. Unfortunately, some young ducklings that don’t stay sufficiently close to their mother get preyed upon. After this period of parental watchfulness, the ducklings ‘fledge’ and are on their own, often gathering together in groups. By the end of the summer, they are ready to be on their own.
While the females are busy taking care of their eggs and young, the males begin their annual molt and lose their brightly colored feathers. At the completion of the molt, the male will remain in ‘eclipse’ plumage throughout the summer while the new feathers grow in. By the end of September will have grown in all of his new feathers.
The females complete their molt after the ducklings are fledged; however, the difference in coloration is not as noticeable.
By October, both males and females, decked out in fresh plumage, are ready to begin pairing up again.
If you live close to the river and are easily able to walk in the bosque during this period of ‘staying close to home,’ keep your eyes peeled for Wood Ducks perched in the trees as they finalize their search for just the right cavity and begin the egg-laying process.