visitors to Oklahoma's streams, rivers and wetlands, the squeal
of the wood duck (Aix sponsa) is as distinctive as its brilliant
Common throughout the eastern part of the state, the woodie, as it is affectionately known by hunters and non-hunters alike, is considered by many to be the unofficial symbol of Oklahoma's wilderness heritage.
With plumage that spans the color spectrum, the drake (male) bears the signature marks of the species. Its crested head exhibits a dazzling array of iridescent hues ranging from green, purple and blue. Highlighting the effect are its red eyes and orbital ring. It is also distinguishable by its orange and white bill, as well as its intricate white throat and facial patterns. Equally brilliant, but in a more understated fashion, are its chestnut breast, purplish-blue speculum and golden sides accented with outlines of white and black.
The female is fawn-colored on top and cream-white underneath. Her crest is shorter but well pronounced. Her most obvious marks include a colorful speculum and white teardrop-shaped markings around the eyes.
The wood duck floats higher than other ducks, and a pair will proudly tilt their heads and tails up while swimming quietly along the water's edge searching for insects, seeds, acorns and pecans.
In flight, the wood duck is identifiable by its square tail and the downward tilt of its bill. Its defining feature, however, is its haunting cry.
Woodies are uncommon in the western part of the state, but they reside year-round near the wooded ponds, streams and rivers of eastern Oklahoma. Weighing about two pounds, wood ducks commonly occur in pairs and begin seeking nest sites in April and May.
Unlike other ducks, woodies never nest on the ground, preferring instead the elevated comfort of tree cavities. They may find suitable cavities anywhere from five- to 60-feet above ground, and sometimes well away from water. After selecting a site, the hen lays a creamy-white egg every day until she achieves a clutch of six to 15 eggs. She covers the eggs with down from her breast, but she does not begin incubating until she completes her clutch.
To imprint her voice on her ducklings, the hen actually begins communicating before they hatch. Within 30 days of incubation, the shells crack and yield chocolate-colored ducklings with cream-colored breasts. The very next day, the hen flies to the water or ground and calls for her young to follow.
With the help of their sharp claws, the ducklings climb one at a time to the cavity opening, pausing momentarily before leaping as far as 60 feet to the waiting hen. For a man, such a leap would be comparable to a 400-foot fall! With short wings and feet extended for resistance, their light weight and thick down allow them to bounce softly or splash down beside the hen. Having permanently left the tree cavity, they follow the hen to water where they quickly learn to feed and escape predators. They mature quickly and generally leave the hen by September.
One of America's great conservation stories, the wood duck was almost driven to extinction by the turn of the century. Given full protection in 1918, populations rebounded slowly until waterfowl biologists created artificial nesting boxes to offset the shortage of natural cavities. Sportsmen's dollars allowed conservation agencies and concerned individuals to install nest boxes throughout the United States.
This management tool has been tremendously successful, allowing woodies to expand into areas that were formally unsuitable.