Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Biologists, duck hunters, birders, and wildlife enthusiasts in general have long debated the question of whether or not drake wood ducks enter nesting cavities as pairs prospect for potential nest sites. Some say it occurs frequently, others say rarely, while still others claim it never happens at all.
I know for sure that we can throw that first opinion out the window. After more than five decades of observing nest searching wood duck pairs, maintaining artificial nest boxes, and banding or web tagging incubating hens and ducklings in the nest; I have never once observed a male wood duck attempt to enter the inside of a nest cavity. Or perhaps I should say, I had never observed the behavior until this morning.
Here’s the story: I was photographing wood ducks at a small woodland pond in northern Iowa. The morning sun had cleared the horizon and pairs were beginning to exit the pond to search for nest sites in the adjacent woodlands. The pond also contains three wooden nest boxes; all currently occupied by hens who have just recently began to incubate eggs.
After most of the ducks had departed, one of the two remaining pairs swam to a position beneath the center box. I could see both birds anxiously eyeballing the nest when the hen suddenly flew up to the entrance. After pausing for a few seconds, she dropped inside. Within seconds, a lone drake appeared [presumably the mate of the hen beginning to incubate] and landed on the box’s roof. Still on the water, the drake belonging to the encroaching hen decided to fly to the entrance as well where, much to my astonishment, he quickly entered the nest – a development that clearly agitated the bird on the roof. Although there were now three adult woodies inside the box, all remained quiet – no sign of discontentment or strife whatsoever. Following three or four minutes of silence, a hen [which I assumed was the intruder] appeared in the door and dropped to the water. A few seconds later, the drake emerged and joined the swimming hen.
So there you have it. Drake wood ducks do indeed follow their mates into the interior of prospective nest cavities. Even if you only observe the behavior once every half century or so, it nevertheless does happen. What makes this day even more amazing is the fact that I was able to digitally document the whole event. Good thing too. If I maintain my current average, I probably won’t see this happen again until the year 2066. By then I’ll be 117 years old and might require some help getting to the blind.
May 6, 2016