Among the many species of wildlife that you may observe at Lake Churchill is the wood duck (Aix sponsa) – a distinctively North American species that spends most of its time along the Atlantic coast from Canada to the lower Mississippi River valley and on the Pacific Coast from British Columbia to California. After a long winter in the relatively frost-free southeastern and western United States, wood ducks migrate via the Atlantic and Pacific flyways to their Canadian breeding grounds, arriving there by April (Lake Churchill lies within the Atlantic flyway). However, about 30% of the wood duck population are permanent United States residents.
Many naturalists consider the wood duck to be the most beautiful duck in North America. The male has breeding plumage of iridescent green, a purple crested head and burgundy chest with white striping from the eye and the base of the bill (worn from October through June) is unexcelled among ducks. The female is less showy, although still beautiful and more colorful than other female ducks. At close range, her iridescent plumage, red eyes, and black, red, and white bill are conspicuous. A white eye-ring, light-colored throat, and fine crest distinguish the female from both the male wood duck and females of other duck species. Both sexes usually show a downward-pointing crest at the back of the head, and their long, broad, square tails are distinctive features in flight. Wood ducks are intermediate in size – the males average about 1.5 lbs. and the females slightly over 1 lb.
Wood ducks nest in trees. The nests are lined with down taken from the breast of the female and are situated from 3–15 feet above the ground – usually close to water. Being a tree-nester, the wood duck can easily be induced to nest in artificial nesting boxes, many types of which have proven successful. The female breeds when one year old and lays 8–15 dull white to cream-colored eggs, which are incubated for 28–30 days. Hatching occurs usually in June. By mid-August both the males and females have completed their molt, and they begin storing up energy in the form of fat in preparation for their fall migration. By the first severe frost, the wood ducks are headed south – and Lake Churchill is on their radar screen.
Federal, provincial, and state wildlife agencies can provide an abundance of the habitat essential to wood duck survival by maintaining over-mature trees in nesting areas, controlling pesticides, and preserving wetlands, particularly wooded swamps. Reasonable hunting regulations combined with management policies will ensure that “woodies” continue to be a source of enjoyment and a valuable resource. Many private and government websites offer information on the wood duck. Ducks Unlimited at ducks.org is one of those sites.