The wood ducks came back today. Saturday, 2 April, 2017 it is. Looking out my window, the forest across the creek seems to think it is still winter. Like a somber crowd all dressed in monotonous, brown overcoats the trees look subdued and dreary. Granted, the grass in the lawn is greening and the daffodils are in bloom but these are about the only things showing green. In spite of this dull scene, the two ducks are reminding me that the spring eruption of new life is about to begin. My spirits are lifted by seeing these two harbingers of warmer days and sunlit skies. Around this date, for several years now, I have looked out the window to find these feathered reminders that nature is about to shift into high gear. The thought of eggs to be laid and future ducklings making their daring leap from the nest box in the sycamore fill me with anticipation. The return of the wood ducks is at least one symbol in an overcrowded, industrialized world that the biosphere still holds to its ancient rhythms.
What beautiful birds they are. The female, like most members of the avian clan, shows her beauty in an understated perfection of camouflage. Just this morning, I watched her perched in the ash tree near the nest box. Shifting my gaze caused me to struggle a bit to relocate her feathered body of subtle browns and mottled breast. The male showed no need for such subtlety. The wild, orange-red eyes and beak were set upon a head of iridescent green marked with bold highlights of white. The chestnut breast and fawn flanks were overlain by a back that seemed black but suddenly morphed into lustrous emerald when he shifted position and the morning light struck from a different angle. One would be hard-pressed to find another North American bird which surpasses the beauty of a male wood duck.
These two were on a scouting mission. It was not by chance that I happened to see them judgmentally eyeballing the wooden box set high in my sycamore. Likely they are the same pair that was here last year. Based upon past experience, I know that I will see them on their scouting forays for another few days and then they will seemingly disappear. Once the nest is established in their chosen cavity, wood ducks become nearly as elusive as the fabled unicorn. Last year I was sure wood ducks were using my box. I had seen them closely inspecting it several times. But, as April moved on, I saw no further sign of them. Then one evening, near sunset, I was standing on my front deck when they again showed themselves in a most spectacular manner. From directly behind me, and over the house, roared the enamored pair. Flying in tight military echelon like two A-10 Thunderbolts, the ducks sped directly toward the nest box on the far side of the yard. As they neared the box, the male peeled away and rocketed into the forest to the southwest. The female bore onward toward the nest box at what seemed suicidal speed. A last second flaring of the wings, a momentary touch of the feet against the box, and she had disappeared within. So rapid was her entrance into the box that I was given the impression she had flown directly into its four inch wide opening. It was suddenly very clear to me why I was so seldom aware that my nest box was being used. Indeed, on occasion I have checked and cleaned the box and found egg shell fragments without ever knowing that the box had been used.
Of course such secrecy is warranted. There are others out there who would much enjoy a meal of wood duck. Several years ago I saw a Cooper’s hawk, hardly bigger than the duck itself, try to drag a female into the creek bed beneath the sycamore. The duck escaped but barely. The male I saw this morning appeared again later in the day. This time with a red-shouldered hawk tailing him and showing what seemed a sinister interest. Yes, I think sneaking in and out of the nest box is a good idea.
Their cautious nature extends to the ducklings as well. Having had the nest box in a good viewing position for over a decade, one would think I might have looked out and seen the fledglings emerging. I never have. I can imagine the courageous youngsters, spread-eagled like little skydivers, plunging from the box to the ground sixteen feet below. In wildlife films, I have seen them hit the ground and bounce off the leaf litter like miniature elastic balls. I surely would love to see this phenomenon with my own eyes. Perhaps someday my patient observing will be rewarded.
I am also intrigued by the question of where the downy, diminutive pioneers go after their brazen leap of faith. Yes, there is a small stream practically beneath their nest. But it is intermittent and doesn’t seem to offer much that would appeal to a duck. Maybe they follow mom down the streambed to Page Ditch some half-mile distant. Perhaps they secretively cross my lawn, climb the hill behind the house, and scuttle into my neighbor’s lake. Its south end is bordered by forest and filled with the skeletons of forest sovereigns past. It looks like fine habitat. That’s where I might go if I were a wood duck. In truth, of course, I don’t know to where they disperse. The broken eggshells I see tell me that several have hatched. Their absence tells me they have left the nest box. Their elusiveness leaves me baffled.
Yes, the wood ducks have returned. But I can rest assured that they will remain as wary and elusive as they can possible be. We will renew our annual and daily game of hide and seek. Maybe this will be the year that I finally win another round.