Minnesota Outdoors: Wood ducks among most interesting species

Blane Klemek

    Recent heavy rains in some parts of northern Minnesota have recharged ephemeral wetlands and have caused water levels in lakes and rivers to rise. During typical summers, one can expect that temporary wetlands will be dry and that lakes and rivers will generally be low. Not so today. In fact, what many of us are seeing now are conditions we would expect after ice-out and snowmelt. Water seems to be everywhere.

    A few day ago while walking on one of my trails that meanders next to a one-acre size temporary wetland, I was surprised to see that the basin was holding about the same amount of water that it did last early May. Arrowhead plants, a plant that’s also known as “duck potato”, which was growing everywhere within the once-dry basin only a week before, were now almost completely submerged—only a few tips of the plants’ large, broad leaves protruding the surface were visible.  

    Dense stands of reed canary grass and other grasses, again, just a week prior growing in a waterless wetland, were half submerged with their seed-head laden stalks bent over and dangling just above the water.

    And then something interesting happened.

    As I stood quietly and gazing at the wetland, taking in the sights and scents of greenery and water, I noticed through the thick maze of matted vegetation that several of the seed-heads were violently moving up and down. As I focused my vision on the tips of individual grasses being jerked by something just out of eyesight, I was struck by how the sight reminded me of what a fishing rod looks like when fighting a fish.

    Peering through vegetation with my binoculars I was delighted to discover what was going on. Wood ducks!  Indeed, four wood ducks. The birds, swimming about on their own, were each launching themselves out of the water and snatching seeds from the seed-heads dangling tantalizingly from the plant’s long stalks almost out of their reach.

    Wood ducks are among one of the most interesting species of waterfowl in Minnesota. Brought back from drastically low populations through aggressive habitat and wetland restoration and protection projects, artificial nest box programs, and closely regulated hunting seasons and bag limits, wood ducks today are once again plentiful.

    Male wood ducks, drakes, are arguably the most beautifully plumaged birds on the continent. Females, hens, though less adorned in color, are attractive and graceful looking birds, too. What separates wood ducks from most other species of ducks are their affinity to trees and forested wetlands, lakes, rivers, and other water bodies. In fact, wood ducks are as at home perching on limbs in the canopies of trees and landing in oak woodlots to feed on acorns as they are swimming in the water feeding on duck weed, or, in the case of the foursome I observed last week, foraging on grass seed.

    Not entirely unique among ducks, wood ducks are cavity nesting ducks, which of course means they nest inside of trees. A wide variety of cavities are chosen by wood duck hens to lay eggs within—some naturally occurring and some that are excavated by woodpeckers—but wood ducks will also utilize artificial nest boxes, often called wood duck houses. Many people construct or purchase simple wood, metal, or plastic designs and affix the structures onto trees and posts. Often is the case that these nest boxes attract other species of wildlife, too, such as squirrels, fisher, pine marten, and other cavity nesting ducks like hooded mergansers, buffleheads, and common goldeneyes.

    Each spring after brief courtships, male and female wood ducks fly around investigating together potential cavities. Once a suitable cavity is chosen by the female, she will commence to laying an egg a day until up to a dozen are laid.

    After about a month of incubation, the ducklings hatch and remain inside the cavity for a day, followed by literal leaps of faith as each duckling innately responds to their mother’s calls from the ground below to climb to the entrance hole, jump into the air, and fall to the ground one-by-one.

    No worse for the wear, the ducklings then follow their mother to the safety of a nearby water source to feed, grow, and fledge.

    Wood ducks, their very name bespeaking of their penchant for forested wetland habitats, are sure to please whenever and wherever they’re encountered as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek