I can still remember the morning last spring. I was watching birds at Woodland Cemetery, searching for migrating songbirds. Then, on the bare branch of a tall tree high above the ground I saw a bird which caught my full attention. I could see it as a silhouette against the bright grey morning sky, and knew it was something large. Was it a raptor, maybe the resident Red-tailed Hawk?
Raising my binoculars to my eyes I focused in and saw.... a duck!
And what a duck! It was a male Wood Duck, decked out in it’s striking green and brown plumage. And it was up in a tree with no water in sight! I watched it there, roosting comfortably, and then saw it take off and fly swiftly towards the Schuylkill.
Illustration of a Wood Duck by Eliza Nobles
Sitting up in a tree isn’t unusual for Wood Ducks. In fact, in addition to roosting in their branches, this bird actually nests in cavities in trees, sometimes more than a mile from water. Like many other birds, while the male has showy plumage which helps it to attract a mate, the female is much more subdued in appearance, with cryptic coloration which helps it avoid becoming a meal. The sounds of the Wood Duck are distinctive, with the male making a sound like a loud squeak toy and the female’s alarm call sounding like a screeching gull- and with neither sounding like the quacking we normally think of when we imagine a duck. These ducks are dabblers, although they also take short dives, and they eat both plant materials and a variety of arthropods. When breeding, they practice a cunning technique called egg-dumping, or “intraspecific brood parasitism.” This is when a female Wood Duck will sneak into another female’s nest and lay one of her own eggs there, to be raised at the effort of another couple.
Although they are not as common as Mallards, Wood Ducks are frequently spotted along our cities waters, including on the Cobbs Creek along the western edge of Philadelphia. They tend to be a little shy, but can be found by exploring some of the cities green spaces when there aren’t too many people around. I’ve even spotted a pair in the shallow water behind the Rec Center on boathouse row.
You can also find a number of Wood Duck boxes in our green spaces. These are two foot high rectangles with a coffee-mug sized hole in the front and a slanted roof. Maybe providing homes for Wood Ducks is helping the species become more common. However, I suspect the greatest reason for their increasing numbers is our united effort to take care of our riverside forests, thus providing them with increasing habitat.
Next time you’re near one of our creeks or rivers, look for ducks in the water - and even in the trees - and you might spot a Wood Duck.