Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Episode 443 (10-22-18): Wood Duck

Click to listen to episode (4:09).

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

Except as otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 10-19-18.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of October 22, 2018.

This week, we feature a multi-colored, winged, wet-area-inhabiting mystery sound.   Have a listen for about 10 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making the following calls and whistles.  And here’s a hint: for this mystery, thinking of what makes up trees may bring you good luck.

SOUNDS - ~12 sec

If you guessed a Wood Duck, you’re right!  This widespread duck has been described as “stunningly pretty” and “startlingly beautiful,” mostly because of the multi-colored, iridescent breeding plumage of the males.  Wood Ducks are found throughout Virginia and much of North America in forested swamps and in woodlands near streams, ponds, or other water bodies.   In those habitats, the bird nests in tree cavities or in wooden nest boxes that humans provide.   It uses sharp claws on its feet to climb and perch in trees, and it uses a long, squared tail and short, broad wings to make rapid, agile flights among trees.   Such flights caught the 19th Century attention of John James Audubon, who noted, “The flight of this species is remarkable for its speed…ease and elegance…. [W]while removing from some secluded haunt to its breeding-grounds, at the approach of night, it shoots over the trees like a meteor, scarcely emitting any sound from its wings.”

This bird is also known also as the Swamp Duck, Carolina Duck, and Acorn Duck, the latter because of one of its important food sources.   Wood Ducks will eat a variety of plant seeds, nuts, and fruits as well as flies, beetles, snails, and other animals.  In turn, Wood Duck eggs, ducklings, and sometimes adults are prey for raccoons, snakes, minks, opossums, turtles, fish, and predatory birds.

Wood Duck breeding in Virginia is from May to August, but breeding pair bonds can form as early as October and last through the winter.  The species was believed to be near extinction in the early 1900’s. Populations have recovered through protections by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a hunting ban from 1918 to 1941, followed by hunting limits, and other management actions.  Ducks Unlimited currently describes Wood Duck populations as “stable or increasing”; the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, however, currently notes that habitat loss, including draining of wetlands, “prevents the [Wood Duck] population [in Virginia] from returning to [its] former abundance.”

Striking in appearance, important as an ecological component, and popular as a game species, the Wood Duck is, as Ducks Unlimited calls it, “one of North America’s most recognizable and celebrated waterfowl.”

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, and we close with another short listen to a Wood Duck.

SOUNDS - ~ 3 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds of the Wood Duck were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.   More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at http://newstandardbluegrass.com.


Summer or Wood Duck painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate CCVI [206]), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.  Photo taken October 22, 2018, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance.  Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.

Male Wood Duck preparing to take flight in William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.  Photo by George Gentry, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/9846/rec/2, accessed 10-22-18.

Female Wood Duck in Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan.  Photo by Jim Hudgins, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/28062/rec/1, accessed 10-22-18.


The scientific name of the Wood Duck is Aix sponsa.  Those words, respectively, are Greek for “water bird” and Latin for “betrothed,” collectively meaning a waterfowl with plumage suitable for a wedding.

Following is some extra information about Wood Ducks, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Wood Duck,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040061&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=17822.

Physical Description
“The adult length is 17-21 inches with a wingspread of 28 inches.  This is the only native duck with a long, smoothed down crest, evident in both sexes at great distance.  This species rides high in the water and has a long, rectangular tail, short neck, and short broad wings allowing it to fly with ease through woods.   It has a habit of bobbing the head in flight.  The adult male has a brilliant nuptial plumage and the head is of purple and green iridescence with two white parallel lines from base of bill and from the back of eye to the rear of the crest.   The white of the chin and throat sweeps up the side of the head in U-shaped prongs, and the eyes and base of the bill are reddish.  The chest is burgundy flecked with white and is separated from the bronze sides by a white and black bar.   The tail and back are glossy purple and the belly is white. …The adult female is more attractively colored than other dabbling duck hens. It has a white chin, throat and belly, with white eye rings surrounding eyes and trailing behind on the sooty gray crested head.  The chest and sides are gray-brown marked with white dashes in disconnected lines.”

“The male's call is a soft, clear goldfinch like whistle. The female's call is a loud and distinctive, cat-like or owl-like sound.”

Nesting Habitat and Behavior
“The breeding season in Virginia is probably from the end of March through mid-August.  This species is monogamous and some pair bonds form as early as late October and pair remains together through winter.  Other pair formation occurs on the wintering grounds for birds arrive at their nesting areas already paired…. There are 1-2 broods per year. Re-nesting sometimes occurs because the nests are destroyed. …The adult hens generally return to their natal areas to nest and especially so if their nesting was successful there in the past.  The drakes have a low homing rate because they follow their mate to the nesting area of her choosing.  If pair-bonding occurred in the fall, this area may be the natal area for both.

“Mated drakes keep other males from approaching too closely to their mate for a short period prior to nesting. hen, therefore, is defended, not the nesting area. … There is frequent movement in search of food, cover, water depth necessitated by fluctuating water levels of their preferred environment.”

Range and Habitat
The southern third of the breeding range is winter range and, therefore, migration patterns are not well-defined.  The Atlantic Coast appears to be a migratory thoroughfare with uplands and mountains being avoided.  They feed in shallow water, in fields, on forest floor or from vegetation itself when necessary to pick acorns or grapes.  They choose natural cavities of various sizes and shapes up to a mile away from the water.  Basic requirements are that the entrance is large enough, but not too large for the hen.  The base accommodates the clutch of eggs, with enough debris (like wood chips) present to form a cushiony base and to cover the first few eggs. … They will accept artificial nest boxes, which supplement available natural cavities, and prefer boxes located over water. Pileated woodpecker excavations are often used.  The optimum natural cavity has a height of 20-50 feet….

“[Juvenile birds] the first 24 hours of life in the cavity.  They respond to the hen's call by clawing up to the cavity entrance and jumping to the ground or water beneath.  The hen leads them to an area of thickest cover, and broods them and watches over them until brood bonds begin dissolving after the 5th week..  The highest duckling mortality occurs in the first two weeks of life. They fly at 8-10 weeks.  The broods are highly mobile and brood hens readily accept ducklings that are not their own.”

Ecological Associations
“There is some competition for nesting cavities from  the Common Goldeneye (although they prefer shallower cavities and different habitat), starling, Screech Owl, American Kestrel, Fox Squirrel, Hooded Mergansers, bees, and hornets.  There is predation on the eggs, ducklings and sometimes hens by raccoons (greatest threat), snakes, minks, opossums, turtles, fish, and predatory birds. Good breeding habitat is provided by activities of the beaver (ponds) and Pileated Woodpecker (cavities).”


Used for Audio

John James Audubon, “Summer, or Wood Duck,” from Birds of America, accessed from The Audubon Society, online at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/summer-or-wood-duck.

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay-3rd Edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.  See particularly Chapter 7, “Wetlands,” p. 201, including “Birds of the Wetlands,” p. 227, with Wood Duck on page 229.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y. 2001.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.  The Wood Duck entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Wood_Duck.

Ducks Unlimited, “Status of the Wood Duck,” not dated, online at http://www.ducks.org/conservation/waterfowl-research-science/status-of-the-wood-duck, as of 10/19/18.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918,” online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Chesapeake Bay Field Office, “Definitely a Bird of a Different Color,” online at https://www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/newsletter/Summer05/Wood%20ducks/Wood%20ducks.htm.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/?Title=VaFWIS+Species+Information+By+Name&vUT=Visitor.   The Wood Duck entry is online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040061&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=17822.

World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, “Carolina wood duck,” online at http://www.waza.org/en/zoo/visit-the-zoo/ducks-geese-pelikanes-and-relatives/aix-sponsa.

For More Information about Wood Ducks

Kathy Reshetiloff, “Meet the once-threatened wood duck, bird of many colors,” Bay Journal, April 20, 2023.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

BirdNote®, a daily broadcast/podcast on birds, online at http://birdnote.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “E-bird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  This program was featured in Virginia Water Radio Episode 440, 10-1-18.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.   Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Bird” subject category.

Following are links to some other episodes on ducks.
Episode 136, 11/12/12 – Ducks at the Dance.
Episode 197, 1/20/14 – Canvasback Ducks Dive While Others Dabble.
Episode 303, 2/15/16 – Common Goldeneye’s Wings Whistle Over Virginia’s Winter Waters.
Episode 398, 12/11/17 – The Green and Blue of Teal.


This episode—the audio, additional information, or information sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
K.7 – basic needs and processes of plants and animals.
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 - ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 - natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.9 - adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.
WG.18 – cooperation among political jurisdictions to solve problems and settle disputes.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.
Episode 250 (1-26-15) – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255 (3-2-15) – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282 (9-21-15) – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309 (3-28-16) – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 332 (9-12-16) – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403 (1-15-18) – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404 (1-22-18) – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade. Episode 406 (2-5-18) – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407 (2-12-19) – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.