The wood duck (Aix sponsa) is the most common duck found both in Hall County and throughout Northeast Georgia. It is also one of the few species of duck that traditionally nests here (in addition to the Hooded Merganser) and is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all American waterfowl. Wood duck hens are incubating eggs and hatching ducklings right now on Lake Lanier, farm ponds and beaver swamps in our local area. Both nesting boxes on my pond in North Hall are occupied right now.
Once you have observed a wood duck’s (woodie’s) characteristic colors, it is hard to mistake this duck for any other. The adult male head displays a red bill, red eyes, green head, and striking white stripes on its face with a large-white throat patch and "fingerlike" extensions on its cheek and neck. It also has iridescent dark green-blue back and wings. The female is less flashy (which is true of most female birds) with a gray bill, white teardrop shaped patch around the eyes, white throat, and gray-brown head, neck and body. Their call is not a quack, but a high-pitched two-note, ascending whistle.
About half the size of a mallard, the wood duck is a type of dabbling duck, meaning it forages on or near the water’s surface for food as opposed to diving for food on the bottom. The diet of a wood duck includes hard mast (acorns) and soft mast (berries), insects, aquatic invertebrates (mollusks, snails, etc.), aquatic plants and seeds. Like most animals, diets will vary depending on the time of year. During the fall and winter, acorns, other nuts and seeds are extremely important because they are high in fat and enable them to survive the harsher winter months and prepare their bodies for breeding and egg laying. Spring and summer requirements shift toward finding higher protein foods like insects, some weed seeds and smartweed to promote growth of newly hatched ducklings.
Because of their dependence on both acorns and tree cavities for nesting, wood ducks are closely associated with the forested wetland habitats throughout North America. Woodies seldom venture far from woodland and associated water areas. Their distribution is essentially confined to riparian corridors and other areas of lowland forest interspersed with freshwater ponds, lakes, marshes and swamps. Beaver ponds form some of the finest wood duck habitat around. Flooded emergent vegetation that protrudes above the surface of the water provides good brood-rearing cover. Buttonbush, alder or other shrubs that grow out of the water provide protection from aerial predators. Other emergent vegetation such as lily pads, sedges and rushes also provide places for young ducklings to hide.
Boxes are maintained during January and February of each year first by recording use from the previous summer. By examining egg membranes left over in the box, biologists can estimate the number of ducks successfully hatched from each box. During maintenance checks, old nesting material such as wood shavings is replaced as well as necessary repairs made to the box and cone-shaped predator guard.
Wood duck boxes as well as other types of artificial nest structures are great ways to provide habitat for wildlife. If you are interested in erecting a box on your property, proper placement and location of a wood duck box is extremely important. Placing boxes in swampy or shallow water areas with plenty of cover and emergent vegetation is important. Typical farm ponds may not be a good place for duck boxes as most have steep sides, deep edges and no emergent vegetation. Without emergent vegetation, the ducklings have no place to hide, and rapidly fall prey to various predators such as snapping turtles, snakes, hawks, catfish and largemouth bass.
Placing a predator guard shaped like an aluminum flashing inverted cone around the pole underneath the wood duck box is just as important as the box itself. Without the guard, nest predators such as raccoons and black rat snakes will climb the pole, flush the nesting hen and consume the eggs.
If you would like plans to construct a wood duck nest box or need more information on wood ducks or other Georgia wildlife, contact the Gainesville Wildlife Resources Division, Game Management office at 770-535-5700 or visit the WRD website at www.georgiawildlife.com.
Kent Kammermeyer is a certified wildlife biologist. His column appears monthly.