There is a reason why ducklings remain with their mother for their first month or two of life. It takes 50-70 days before most ducklings can fly, and survival during this period is highly variable, ranging from less than 10 percent to as high as 70 percent. They are at their most vulnerable during this stage. The most common causes of duckling mortality include predation, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites. The mother offers her young a degree of protection from some of these factors while they are under her care.
Predation is arguably the greatest threat to young waterfowl. Ducklings are sought after by nearly every type of predator, including other birds (eagles, hawks, owls, herons, crows), fish (largemouth bass and northern pike), amphibians (bullfrogs), reptiles (snakes and snapping turtles), and mammals (foxes, raccoons, and mink). Their odds for survival increase dramatically when the ducklings obtain the ability to fly. (Photo: female Wood Duck and ducklings)
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One morning several weeks ago, broods of Wood Duck nestlings leaped out of their nest holes onto the ground or into the water beneath their nest trees. After leaving their nests, most traveled long distances (an average of 1 1/4 miles) with their mothers to rearing areas.
The earliest broods to hatch already have their juvenile (or “first basic”) plumage, which will remain through August. Male juvenile Wood Ducks can be distinguished from female juveniles by the two white finger-like projections that go up their cheeks and neck from their throat. The females lack these stripes but have a wider white patch around their eyes. The pictured male juvenile Wood Ducks are between eight and nine weeks old. Very soon their eyes will turn red and they will be able to fly.
There are roughly 85 species of North American birds that are cavity nesters – birds that excavate nesting holes, use cavities resulting from decay (natural cavities), or use holes created by other species in dead or deteriorating trees. Many of them get a jump start on open-nesting birds, due to added protection from the elements. Barred owls, titmice, chickadees, wood ducks, woodpeckers, bluebirds, mergansers – many have chosen a nest site and are busy excavating, lining a cavity or laying eggs long before many other species have even returned to their breeding grounds.
The reduced risk of predation a cavity nest experiences is reflected in several ways: many cavity-nesters have larger clutches of eggs than open-nesting birds and cavity-nesting young also spend a relatively longer period of time in the nest before fledging. When in the woods, keep an eye out for snags (standing dead trees) and stumps, for they provide housing for many cavity-nesting birds. (Photo: Black-capped Chickadee removing wood chips from the cavity it’s excavating in a rotting stump.)
Among the first groups of birds to move north in the spring are waterfowl. Many ducks, geese, and swans begin migrating as soon as frozen lakes and marshes start to thaw. Although an occasional Wood Duck is spotted in northern New England during the colder months, most winter further south (band recoveries indicate that in eastern U.S. about one-third of Wood Ducks are permanent residents and the others are migratory). They begin to be seen in open water in February and March but it is April before their numbers really swell, and sometimes it seems that on every stream and in every flooded field you can find at least one pair. With their distinctive plumage, it’s hard to miss them, especially the males. Soon they will be seeking out natural cavities in trees, including Pileated Woodpecker holes, in which to nest.
Northern New England birders starved for the sight of colorful waterfowl in their binoculars and scopes are celebrating the timely arrival of waterfowl in open bodies of water. Both ducks that will remain and breed here, such as Wood Ducks, as well as those that are just stopping to refuel on the way to their more northern breeding grounds, such as Green-winged Teal, have made their appearance in recent days, and many more will follow in the coming weeks.
Wood Ducks can be found year-round as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, but further north we lose them to the south in the winter. Like most ducks, migrant Wood Ducks depart shortly around sunset or shortly thereafter, and are thought to fly most of the night at speeds of 37 miles per hour or more. As the sun rises, they descend to rest and refuel. Look for them in rivers, swamps, marshes and ponds, where they refuel during the day.
Green-winged Teal typically migrate in large bunched flocks of up to a few hundred individuals, mostly at night. They tend to spend days during their migration in shallow inland wetlands and coastal marshes, typically with heavy vegetation and muddy bottoms. (Photo: Wood Ducks)
(Please excuse absence of Naturally Curious posts this week due to illness and lack of internet access.)
Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. This hen-like appearance is called the eclipse plumage and provides drakes with the ability to camouflage themselves. The necessity for waterfowl not to be seen by predators at this time is great, for this is when ducks undergo a “simultaneous” wing molt – losing all their wing feathers at the same time. It takes a month or so to replace these feathers, and during this time they are completely flightless. As soon as drakes can fly again in late summer, they begin a second molt and gradually develop their breeding plumage as fall progresses.
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Fishers are rarely seen, as they tend to travel in wooded areas and not expose themselves in open areas. However, this fisher was so intent on getting a meal that he threw caution to the wind. Fishers are generalist, opportunistic hunters and scavengers, consuming a wide variety of animals and plants. Basically, if it can catch it, a fisher will eat it – amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds and bird eggs, and mammals (snowshoe hares are at the top of the list, but rabbits, squirrels, small rodents, shrews, and porcupines are common prey).
Between its keen sense of smell, and its acrobatic abilities (due to the flexibility of its hind feet, which can be turned 180°), a fisher is able to take advantage of prey and access food wherever it may be – in the tallest tree, or, in this case, a wood duck nest box.
Noted New Hampshire naturalist/tracker/videographer, Alfred Balch, succeeded in documenting the pictured fisher swimming out to an active wood duck nest box, climbing inside and exiting with a wood duck egg gently held in its mouth. It was observed doing this more than once. Considering that wood duck clutches consist of anywhere from 6 to 16 eggs, this fisher’s stomach was probably full by the end of the day. The wood duck is the only duck in North America that regularly produces two broods in one season, so hopefully the second clutch will escape the fate of the first. (Photos by Alfred Balch)