Scientific Name: Aix sponsa
Classification: Game Species
Abundance: Found statewide
The wood duck, as its name implies, is most often found in wooded swamps, beaver ponds, freshwater marshes, and along streams and rivers near forests. It is one of seven North American ducks that regularly nest in natural cavities, particularly those found in trees. The wood ducks’ body and eyes are well adapted to the wooded habitat it favors. Its slim body allows it to fit into natural tree cavities to nest and its large eyes help the wood duck avoid limbs and branches as it flies through the forest canopy. Wood duck populations exhibited severe declines late in the nineteenth century but due largely to sound wildlife management, have staged a remarkable comeback.
The drake, or male wood duck, is one of the most strikingly beautiful ducks of any species. Its head has a large crown, or crest, and is colored with iridescent greens, blues, and purples. The drake’s distinctive facial pattern includes a white throat with fingerlike extensions onto the cheek and neck. The eyes are a deep red and the bill is colored red, white, and yellow with a black tip. The drake’s breast is burgundy, and the belly is white. Dark, bronze-green and black feathers cover the back. The hen, like all female ducks, has a drab plumage in comparison, which helps conceal her from predators during nesting and brood rearing. The brownish to gray female wood duck is distinguished by a pronounced white patch surrounding the eye, white throat and grey chest.
In late summer, wood ducks began forming breeding pairs, which continues into the fall and winter. Wood ducks migrating to northern breeding areas are paired prior to their arrival in early spring. Hen wood ducks will select a suitable nesting cavity and begin laying eggs as early as late January in southern latitudes The wood duck’s breeding range includes extreme southern Canada from British Columbia east to Nova Scotia. In the United States, wood ducks breed primarily from east Texas north to the eastern Dakotas, east to Maine, and south to Florida and Cuba. In the west, wood ducks breed along the Pacific coast from Oregon to California, and less commonly in scattered locations east of the Cascade Mountains. It winters in southern latitudes throughout its range, with highest wintering densities occurring in the southeastern United States.
In North Carolina, the wood duck is most numerous in the Coastal Plain, both during the breeding season and in the winter. Hens prefer natural cavities in large, mature trees high above the ground in wooded swamps and bottomlands, old beaver ponds, freshwater marshes, and along creeks, streams, and rivers. Hens choose sites near good brood rearing habitat. These areas consist of low, shrubby vegetation such as buttonbush, willow, and alder, or dense stands of emergent plants such as arrow arum, duck potato, smartweeds and bur-reed. They are usually interspersed with small areas of open water. Wood duck hens will also readily nest in man-made nesting boxes placed in optimum brood rearing habitat. Nesting box programs have played a large role in the recovery of wood duck populations throughout its range. The hen will lay 10-15 eggs, usually at the rate of one per day, and after approximately 30 days of incubation, the eggs will hatch. In North Carolina, the peak of hatching occurs in April and early May. The drake will leave the hen during the later stages of incubation and collect in areas with other males to molt, a process by which old feathers are replaced with new ones. A day after the eggs hatch, the hen will call softly from a branch or beneath the nest, and the ducklings will exit the nest cavity. Exiting ducklings are gathered together and then moved quickly by the hen to nearby brood rearing areas. When adequate food and cover is available, ducklings grow quickly, particularly in the first two weeks. After six to eight weeks, broods are normally independent of the hen.
Learn more by reading the Wood Duck species profile.
Seasons and Limits for Migratory Birds
State Regulations of Migratory Birds (PDF)
Summary of Federal Regulations of Migratory Birds
There are no reported problems with this species.
Each summer, biologists with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission trap, band, and release wood ducks throughout the state. The ducks are captured using traps or large, rocket-powered nets after a site has been pre-baited with corn. Once captured, biologists record each bird’s sex (male or female) and age (adult or immature) by examining the plumage, wear on certain wing feathers, and the presence, size and shape of the sex organs. An aluminum band with a unique series of identifying numbers is then placed on one leg before the duck is released at the capture site. The band number, location, and the bird’s sex and age are recorded and sent to the federal Bird Banding Laboratory, which maintains records for all birds banded across the United States.
Waterfowl hunters who harvest a banded wood duck can look on the band to find information about how to contact the Bird Banding Lab. Hunters who report the band number receive a certificate of appreciation with information about where and when the bird was originally banded. Band information contributed by hunters across the U.S. is used to examine bird distribution and migration patterns, and to estimate wood duck harvest and survival rates, which is critical for establishing annual hunting regulations across the Wood Duck’s range.
o How to maintain and replace wood duck boxes
o How to make a wood duck box
Wood Duck Species Profile
Sandy Mush Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Pond Mountain Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Green River Mountain Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
North Carolina Wood Ducks: Natural History and Management (PDF)
Male and Female Wood Ducks (Wikimedia)
Male Wood Duck (Photo by Frank Vassen-Wikimedia)
Female Wood Duck (Photo by Frank Vassen-Wikimedia)