Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Wood Ducks move right in on the Ipswich River

Wood duck pair in our backyard on the Ipswich River
In the spring of 2012 our family put up a wood duck box in our backyard along the Ipswich River, about a mile upriver from downtown Ipswich. While we had noticed one or two wood ducks the previous fall right after we moved here, putting up the box was mostly a whim to amuse our two toddlers.  And, although it fit in with our native landscape makeover we were doing to attract wildlife and slow run off to the river, we never thought ducks would actually use it. It's literally twenty feet from our tire swing, sand box, slide and (new this spring) life-sized replica of a bald eagle nest the kids built.
Our not-always-quiet backyard and its wood duck box

Last spring, while we did see a few ducks displaying in our trees, we didn't get our hopes up. And then, on Mother's Day, I saw a hen go in the box. We watched for two hours until she emerged and immediately ordered a tiny infrared camera to go in the box. DuckTV was born.

Mama Wood Duck checking for predators before going out for a snack, April 2014

My girls, then aged two and four, watched DuckTV every morning while 'Mama Duck', as they call her, spent a half hour to two hours laying an egg, then rejoin her mate on the river for the rest of the day. After laying eight eggs, one a day, she started incubating until they hatched on June 16th. Sadly we were on vacation and missed the whole thing. A neighbor, who happily checked DuckTV for us, reported six of the eight eggs hatched. The next morning the hen flew out of the box, called to her chicks, and they all jumped and followed her down to the river.  Wood duck chicks have been known to jump from heights up to 290 feet unharmed!

Wood duck drake waiting...
This year we eagerly awaited the return of the ducks as hens will use the same box or tree cavity until they die. Sure enough, on March 11th of this year we heard the first wood duck fly past our house. And this year, instead of just a few ducks, our back yard seems to be overrun with them! One morning there were five pairs in one tree! It wasn't long until a hen plopped into our box on the morning of March 22nd.  She checked it out for about an hour with her mate waiting nearby.

Mama Duck's 13 eggs in a nest of down pulled from her own body

 One week later she laid her first egg, and by April 11th she was done, having laid a whopping thirteen! Wood duck hens will cover their eggs with down pulled from their own bodies and then go out to feed two or three times a day, allowing us to climb up there to count the eggs and therefore estimate hatch date.

Wood duck hens incubate between 28 to 32 days, so hatch date could be as early as May 8th. And we will most definitely be home this year. There's no way we'll miss Jump Day again! While we don't have our camera linked to the web (working on it) we can capture video. Click here to see a video of the hen burying her eggs before she went out to feed.

Wood ducks are not endangered, although due to habitat loss suitable nest cavities are becoming more scare. We still haven't figured out why they love our backyard so much when they could nest in the five acres of woodland across the river, but we've put up two more boxes just in case.

Wood ducks will nest up to a mile away from water and clearly are not spooked by human activity once they establish a nest.  For information about putting up your own wood duck box, including plans to build one, visit the MA State wood duck web page.