Wood ducks a- fledging
Seeing wood duck babies dropping from the sky is mostly a matter of being at the right place at the right time.
When we walked out to the end of the Flat Creek Nature Center boardwalk recently they could not yet have left the nest, or we’d have heard them. But when we sauntered back toward the cart path, a mama wood duck fluttered noisily away without rising from the marsh. “That looks like a diversionary move,” I exclaimed. “She has chicks nearby,” and sure enough, we began hearing the unmistakable shrill peep-peep-peep of baby ducks.
The sound led us to a large red maple, where a clutch of eggs had incubated for more than a month, and now at its base 11 brand new chicks paddle. “Peep-peep-peep” means “mama, mama, mama” in wood duck.
Dave and I have long held that of all God’s infants, absolutely none, none whatsoever, is as cute as a baby duck.
Kittens and puppies are cute, wobbly new horses and calves are cute, but nothing beats a duckling for really, really cute. And so these were. Already they sported a vivid mix of brown/black/white down, and the perkiest of upturned tails.
Their mama is dark and attractive, but the male wood duck is no doubt one of the gaudiest and most dramatically colored birds of North America. Common as wood ducks are -- and they are, very common -- we don’t see them often. (Although we did hear of a wood duck whose tree was next to a house high above a lake, who chose the day of a spring garden party to fledge her brood, then led them through a spellbound crowd and down a steep bluff to water.)
With luck, we sometimes glimpse wood ducks flying agilely through dense woods, or perching un-ducklike in high branches. They are normally reclusive -- unlike mallards, to whose name we invariably add the adjective “ubiquitous.”
We’ve seen mallards in park ponds from London to Vienna, in the Rhine and in the Rhone, swirling down icy whitewater streams in the Alps, eating corn from our hands on our own deck and, of course, raising their young on the ponds below our house.
Raising duckies to be ducks, incidentally, is hard. In 1999, we spotted a brood of 14 mallard chicks, with their mom, on the pond. A week later, despite the hazards of turtles and large-mouth bass, there were still 13.
In a few days, we found the little ones entirely alone, swimming, as usual, in tight formation or diving contentedly into the shallow grasses. What happened to their mom is anyone’s guess.
The loss of her protection was costly: Their number dropped to seven in another week. It’s a dangerous world out there for tiny ducks, even though theyare called “precocial,” meaning they are covered with down and can feed themselves and elude predators from within hours of hatching. “Altricial” birds include most songbirds, totally dependent upon their parents for warmth, food and protection.
But it seems to me that wood ducks have a more hazardous introduction into the world than any tiny baby should have to face.
Their mama, first of all, nests high in a tree, as much as 60 feet up, according to our Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior. (If you are interested at all in birds, Donald and Lillian Stokes’ series is invaluable. Published by Little, Brown & Company, these are not field guides, but cover courtship, mating, nesting, fledging -- every aspect of life -- for the birds we know best, from wrens to bald eagles.)
Wood ducks occasionally nest in boxes, but prefer a cavity in atree, perhaps one a woodpecker excavated. We searched the tree before us for a hole 3 1/2 inches high, and found at least two, 20 to 30 feet up, although there was no sign of a duck’s nursery.
The inside dimensions of the cavity must be at least 11 inches indiameter and from one to eight feet deep.
The mom typically lays 14 eggs, one per day, and another wood duck may enter the nest and add an egg or two of her own. Experts aren’t sure why they do this, but the additional eggs are accepted by the original homeowner, and itit’s not unusual to find 25 eggs in a wood duck nest.
She doesn’t begin to incubate the eggs until nearly all have been laid, and then she spends five weeks on them, with a couple of breaks a day.
All hatch within an hour or so, and next morning, the chicks leave home. As we watched 11 darting about in the stream flowing past their tree, another tiny body came hurtling through space, bounced slightly on the leaves, then slipped into the water and paddled frantically to catch up.
I looked up in time to see two more make that fall through branches and vines, righting themselves at once and scampering off in search of mama. Imagine being so small, falling so far, seeing daylight for the first time ever, alone in a swampy forest. These kids had spent the night before last inside porcelain shells. And on a perfect spring morning, we walked home silently, marveling at vulnerability, adaptation -and sheer audacity.
How many eggs would a wood duck duck, if a wood duck could duck eggs? [Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]