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Aix sponsa (wood duck)

Aix sponsa

A few years ago, we stumbled upon a female wood duck at the edge of a pond. We were trying to get a closer look at mushrooms growing on dead willow branches overhanging the pond—when in a sudden explosion of wingbeats and splashes, a duck hurled itself backwards across the water. It flapped one wing almost uselessly, in and out of the water, and propelled itself away from us, almost upside-down, with its other wing and its feet, making an incredible racket. We moved to another spot to get a clearer view of the injured duck, then found we had to move again to see it. From our new vantage point we could also see the willow branches more clearly and, under them, a handful of virtually motionless ducklings. She was not injured at all, we realized; she had successfully lured us away from her young!

Aix sponsa is a small but gorgeous duck found throughout the Midwest—usually seen by casual birdwatchers in spring or early summer. They have crests on the backs of their heads; the breeding male has striking and distinctive colors, while females are not as colorful but are still easily recognized by the white patch around their eyes.

Because we promised to discuss edibility at this site "when we have actually tried eating whatever it is," we feel obligated to mention that we have tried wood duck and found it delicious (neither of us could ever enjoy hunting, but family members shot, dressed, and baked wood ducks for us on one occasion). That said, we hope you don't kill wood ducks (or any animals) unless you are starving and must out of necessity—which, frankly, seems pretty unlikely if you're reading this. Besides, it's much more fun to "hunt" ducks with a camera!

 

Breeding males have such distinctive colors and markings that an intricate verbal description hardly seems necessary. Non-breeding males, seen in late summer, lose much of their brilliance and look more like females, but keep their red eyes and bills.

Females are dull grayish brown overall, with muted blue and purple wing markings often barely visible. Their bills and eyes are black, and their eyes are surrounded by a large whitish patch that narrows toward the back of the head.

Ducklings are gray overall, with pale yellowish, then gray faces and blackish crown stripes; the eyes and bill are black. A thin black stripe extends behind each eye. Wood ducks usually have two sets of ducklings each year, unlike other ducks.

Habitat, as the common name "wood duck" suggests, is usually near trees and woods. In water, wood ducks are often found under shoreline branches or among cattails. However, wood ducks also nest and sit in trees. Many state parks in the Midwest have erected wood duck nesting boxes near water—although, in our experience, anyway, other bird species usually inhabit them.

Range of Aix sponsa

midwestern range


Aix sponsa
breeding male and female


Aix sponsa
breeding male

 

Aix sponsa
female


Aix sponsa
female

Aix sponsa
very young ducklings

Aix sponsa
older ducklings


Aix sponsa
wood ducks in flight


Aix sponsa
breeding male




References: Peterson 1980, Hepp, G. & F. C. Bellrose (2013) in Rodewald 2017, Sibley 2014, Retter 2017.


Kuo, Michael & Melissa Kuo (July, 2017). Aix sponsa (wood duck). Retrieved from the midwestnaturalist.com website: www.midwestnaturalist.com/aix_sponsa.html

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