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BULLETnature archive
Nature Archive Photo
© Tom Vezo

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In Full Plume
Peacocks and parrots are colorful, but you’re not likely to see any of those in the Arizona wilderness. If you look in the right place, however, you will see wood ducks, and they’re pretty dazzling in their own right.

By Kelly Kramer

Had you been living in Europe at the start of the 20th century, you might have encountered ladies of leisure gallivanting around with ducks on their heads. It wasn't so much a case of it raining cats, dogs and ducks, but rather a peculiar case of fashion à la mode.

Ducks, you see — and wood ducks in particular — were a favorite among hat makers across the continent for their festive iridescent plumage. In particular, the males were favored for their vibrant purple and green around-the-eye feathers, as well as the multicolored plumes that adorn their wings. The feather market, along with a loss of habitat and an increase in hunting, eventually led to a decline of the wood duck population across Europe.

A century later, on this side of the pond, wood ducks are doing fairly well, especially in Arizona, where they enjoy the temperate winter weather, and the wooded and watery areas in the eastern half of the state.

Because natural nesting areas for wood ducks are scarce, the fowl rely on nesting boxes provided by friendly naturalists. In them, females lay their eggs, but if the boxes are too close together, anxious mamas will "dump" their eggs into the nests of neighbors, sometimes resulting in up to 40 eggs per box.

Once the fuzzy little ducklings hatch, they're on their own, leaping from the nesting boxes and making their way toward water. In some documented cases, wood ducklings have jumped from heights of nearly 300 feet. Although mothers will call their children back to them, they won't help them survive in any way.

Eventually — through a diet of seeds, fruit and aquatic invertebrates — the ducks will grow to between 19 and 21 inches in length with a maximum weight of approximately 30 ounces. To spot a male, look for a long, green and purple crest with a thin white line extending from the bill over the eye and to the back of the crest. Females are more neutral, with gray and bronze heads and cheeks, and olive gray underparts. Once the weather warms, the ducks will commonly flock back to their summer range, which runs from southern Canada to Cuba.

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