Monday, April 27, 2015

Leap of Faith: Duckling Wonders

Post contributed by Kelsey Jennings, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors Crew Member:

Remnants of a dump nest
I'm sure while walking along Lake Como, you have seen them: wooden boxes placed 10 or so feet offshore. Occasionally you'll see a male duck with iridescent plumage and white flares down his neck swimming around below them or sitting in the trees above. But, if you're really lucky, you'll see what I affectionately refer to as the "hatchling leap of faith." One by one,  7-15 ducklings jump from their warm nests into the cold spring water, only to return much later to have a nest of their own.

Wood ducks or Aix sponsa pair in late winter, with the females laying eggs in early spring. Typically, the females will lay anywhere between 10 and 20 eggs. However, if breeding pairs nest too close to one another, the females will lay eggs in both nests, a behavior called "nest dumping." In a nest dump, it is likely to have upwards of 40 eggs in a single nest, but amounts over 60 have been discovered. A nest that possesses this many eggs will likely be unsuccessfully incubated, and unless cleaned out, will not be used again.

Filling wood duck boxes with nesting material
During incubation, male wood ducks remain present to protect the female, but will abandon the clutch before the ducklings hatch.  In Minnesota, females lay their eggs in early-mid April,  with the ducklings typically hatching in May. Less than 24 hours after hatching, the mother will leave the nest and call to the babies from the water until all of the ducks have jumped. Wood ducks are unique from many other waterfowl in the way that they possess sharp claws used for perching in trees. These claws are needed for the ducklings to crawl from the bottom of the nest to the opening, which can be anywhere from a one to five foot climb.

Due to severe habitat loss and over-hunting in the 1800's, wood ducks and many other waterfowl species were virtually wiped out by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1918, the United States passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which outlawed the hunting and scavenging of over 800 migratory bird species, including the wood duck. Many species quickly rebounded to stable numbers, but the wood ducks still struggled due to expansive habitat destruction. The artificial wood duck house that we see today was implemented in the 1930's and provided a much needed boost to the population. Due to the continued efforts of natural resource officials and passionate landowners, the wood duck population has stabilized and they are now the second most commonly hunted duck in North America, behind the mallard.  If you are interested in implementing a wood duck house on your property, they are easy to assemble and plans can be found here: Although wood ducks prefer to nest near or over water, they will nest up to 1.5 miles away from a water source.