Bird of the Week – Wood Duck!

Species: Wood Duck, or Aix sponsa

Family: Anatidae (waterfowl, i.e., ducks, geese, and swans)

Star sign: Leo

Rating: 12/10

Ideal Date: Sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Photo by Albert Kerelis

There are few creatures quite as ostentatious as the Wood Duck. Its body is a rainbow kaleidoscope; its bright red, shimmering green, gleaming white, tawny brown, and regal blue colors make it seem less like a bird and more like a stained-glass window. Even though this flamboyant friend is one of the most common birds in the United States, it never ceases to be stunning no matter how many times you see it. However, that’s just the drake Wood Duck. Females of the species are not nearly as flashy in appearance — still beautiful, mind you, but in a much more understated way. 

This contrast between male and female appearance is quite pronounced in birds— Wood Ducks are simply one of the more striking examples. But what causes sexual dimorphism in birds? The answer, as in most matters of zoology, is natural selection. While the appearance of female Wood Ducks (and other birds) is selected to favor survival and camouflage, the appearance of males is selected by females, who choose their mates based on appearance. And a lady prefers to have a boy toy who is sharply dressed and stands out from the flock. Thus, over generations, female selection has passed down extravagant appearances until today, when drake Wood Ducks have attained the ideal male body. You may not like it, fellas, but this is what peak performance looks like. 

But appearance is not the only interesting thing about these fabulous fellows. They are also unique as the only perching duck native to the United States. What is a perching duck, you ask! As the name implies, it’s a duck that perches! Perching ducks hang out in treetops surrounding water bodies, perching on branches and nesting in natural tree cavities. They have strong claws on their feet that help them grip the branches. Other perching ducks include the equally flashy Asian Mandarin Duck, which is the only other member of the Aix genus, the central and south American Muscovy Duck, and the smallest waterfowl found on earth— the African Pygmy-Goose! Like all other perching ducks, the Wood Duck nests at the tops of trees near bodies of water and takes its name from its woodland home. Baby Wood Ducks are hatched and raised in high-up nests with fantastic forest vistas — and when the time comes for them to leave the nest, they do so by leaping from their home down to the water below. This drop can be over 50 feet, and the daring ducklings make it all on their own, receiving nothing but moral support from their parents. Wow!! For such little guys, Wood Duck chicks are extremely brave and powerful. 

Wood Ducks are common in many parts of the U.S and are found in Portland year-round. There are no words that could possibly encompass the full breadth and beauty of this delightful duck’s astonishing appearance, so instead, here is a shortlist of the male’s most prominent features: its eyes, beak, and feet are a brilliant red-orange; it has a large, emerald-green crest that looks like a slicked-back pompadour; there are a few thick white lines on its body that seem to divide it into different-colored sections; its body is varying shades of brown. The female Wood Duck isn’t quite as conspicuous— she is a uniform chocolate brown color with distinctive white patches around the eyes. Both males and females are slightly smaller than Mallards, and both have shimmery blue secondary wing feathers. Although these captivating quackers were staples of Reed Lake last year, this year they have been a much rarer sight. But rest assured: if you ever see one, it will be impossible to miss. 

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