Even with this relatively mild winter, local ponds and lakes have retained ice cover during January and February. But as March brings more days above freezing, the ice begins to vanish and, happily for those who watch birds, rafts of ducks appear on their way back to northern breeding grounds.
Though many of these waterfowl are striking to look at, the one that draws probably the most gasps when viewed through a telescope is the wood duck. I sometimes refer to the male as the Mr. America of ducks. His plumage is a kaleidoscope of color – iridescent green and chestnut, beige flanks, red eye, and an array of streaks and stripes that look like they could have been painted on by a Picasso. To add to the brilliance of color, his head bears a sort of feathered helmet. He is breathtakingly handsome.
The female is, to my perception, also handsome – or perhaps elegant is the word – but in a more subtle way. She sports none of the flamboyant colors of her mate but, instead, fawn-beige plumage, the same erect bearing, and eyes outlined in white feathers that give her an appealing doe-eyed appearance. Her duties revolve around tending and safeguarding her many youngsters and for that, she needs to blend in to wetland and woodland vegetation. But she is nonetheless worthy of visual study.
Wood ducks breed regularly in the Barrington area. They are shy birds and most often nest and raise young in secluded wetlands with trees. In March, it is not unusual to spot them on the edge of Baker’s Lake, swimming in and out of the shoreline vegetation, or the pond in Ron Beese Park, or one of the many lakes and ponds in local natural areas. They are quite easy to distinguish from other surface-feeding, or dabbling, ducks, by their unique style of movement: pumping their neck and head forward and back as they advance through the water. When people approach, if they don’t immediately find nearby vegetation into which to disappear, the wood ducks usually take flight with their characteristic and plaintive wheep-wheep-wheep to find secluded refuge.
For breeding habitat, wood ducks need trees, preferably in or very near water. They choose trees with large cavities, sometimes 50 feet high, in which the female lines the tree hole with down from her breast and lays 6-16 eggs. On the day of hatching, the youngsters, with downy feathers dried and eyes wide open, climb one by one to the rim of the nest hole and jump into what must seem an abyss, their stubby wings and webbed feet acting like miniature parachutes. It is an annual even that I have never witnessed firsthand and one which I pine to see. Once the whole brood is out, they gather behind their mother who leads them to the nearest water, usually a wooded swamp, where they will stay together in obscurity for the summer as they grow and develop flight feathers.
Any day now, I expect to spot a pair of wood ducks prospecting for tree holes in our oak-hickory woodland. They come every spring but, as far as I know, always find someplace else to nest. I would dearly love to witness their full life cycle, but simply a glimpse of these elegant waterfowl in the oak trees – or, later, in a secluded wetland – makes my heart sing.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
Do you have any questions for Wendy about birds you’ve spotted in the Barrington area? If so, Just ask Wendy via the comments box below.