Bird Files: Baby Wood Ducks Drop Like Fuzzy Missiles

  • A baby wood duck in free fall caught on film by Martin B.P. Zonnenberg. Photo: Courtesy of Martin Zonnenberg

April 11, 2014

Geronimo! Days after they’re born, baby Wood Ducks are coaxed out their nest high in the trees and make a daring leap to the forest floor. These waterfowl with weird child-rearing habits will be prevalent throughout March and April as they return to their summer nesting grounds from the south.

Already paired up by the time they arrive in the north, Wood Ducks quickly set up their nests in tree cavities or raised, man-made nest boxes rather than on the ground like many waterfowl. They have been known to nest as high as 290 feet above the ground—almost as high as a 30-story building.

This height protects the nest from predators, but gives their tiny chicks a challenging rite of passage. The day after hatching, the mother calls to the ducklings and they climb to the lip of the nest opening and courageously leap, free falling to the ground. They belly flop into cold water or bounce on the soft forest floor.

Remarkably, the ducklings are rarely harmed and after a couple of good shakes,they waddle off behind their mother, hop in the water and start feeding themselves.  In about six-to-eight weeks the baby Wood Ducks can really fly.

In Pennsylvania, Wood Duck populations have been stable the last few years, which are commonly found in the quiet waters of forested wetlands. Currently, there are about 60,000 breeding pairs; however, that was not always the case. Unregulated hunting, clear-cutting of mature forests and the feather trade brought these birds to the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and the regulation of hunting and habitat conservation efforts brought them back. Also, man-made nest boxes were introduced in the 1930s to further aid their conservation. Today, it’s estimated that there are 300,000 Wood Duck nest boxes in North America.  About a third of them are inhabited by the Wood Ducks (see how to build your own nest box by clicking the diagram on this page).

The male is easily identified by his striking combination of iridescent chestnut, blue, tan and black plumage that is accented by brilliant white borders. A jaunty green, swept-back crest completes the look that the male flaunts when seeking a mate.

The female, much more drab to camouflage the nest, is mostly brown with a prominent white eye ring.

If you visit a nearby wetland you may get to glimpse these stunning birds or see fuzzy missiles falling from the sky.

Bird calls from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Michael J. Andersen and Wilbur L. Hershberger. Adult wood duck pair photo: Sam Stull.