By Jeanne Church
The male wood duck is undoubtedly the most colorful duck you will ever find in Michigan, unless you have the unusual good fortune of finding its only close relative, the Mandarin duck.
The male wood duck, called a drake, wears a beautiful palette of colors during its breeding season from autumn to early summer. He has an iridescent green and purple head, a rich chestnut brown breast dotted with flecks of white, a pair of metallic blue and green wings, a red bill, and bright red eyes! In late summer, male wood ducks lose all those beautiful colors and change into a gray suit of feathers, called eclipse plumage. During this time, male wood ducks look quite similar to their female counterparts, except for their red eyes and red bill.
A Mandarin drake, during the breeding season, has some of the same striking colors as its American cousin. However, it is much more stunning with its long, orange cheek plumes, and distinctive orange “sails” along its flanks! After the breeding season is over, Mandarin drakes also wear a much less colorful coat of feathers.
Female wood ducks and female Mandarin ducks are both rather dull-looking compared to their male partners during breeding season. They have grayish-brown bodies and gray faces with a distinctive white ring around each eye. There are slight differences in coloration between these two females, as well as a difference in the size of the eye ring, but they are otherwise quite similar.
The brightly colored feathers of the males and the dull coloration of the females both serve a distinct purpose. Drakes are “dressed up” for courtship, and females are “dressed down” for camouflage as they raise and protect their young.
Even though Mandarin ducks and American wood ducks are closely related, the Mandarin duck is native to the Far East, and is considered an invasive species in North America. They show up here as escapees from local zoos or private collections. Some of those escaped Mandarins have gone on to breed in the wild and, as a result, we have free-flying, reproducing populations across the United States, including California, North Carolina, and Florida. We’ve even had a Mandarin duck here in Kalamazoo County!
In 2015, the DNR found a Mandarin drake in a Portage creek during their annual banding and data collection of local ducks. Since these birds are considered an invasive species, the DNR released the duck to the care of the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary in Augusta, Michigan, where I have had the great good fortune of photographing it on several occasions.
Not surprisingly, wood ducks are more plentiful, and much easier to find than Mandarin ducks! I have even found them in the creek behind our house! They love sluggish streams and swamps, overgrown beaver ponds and wood-fringed marshes. Unlike most other ducks, though, you won’t find wood ducks or Mandarins on large, open stretches of water. They both need places to hide, and a woodland nearby to nest.
Prior to the 20th century, wood ducks were hunted to the brink of extinction. They were highly valued for both their meat, and their colorful feathers. Thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and the invention of nest boxes in the 1930s, wood duck populations have made a remarkable recovery!
Today, wood ducks are not considered to be a threatened species, but they still face significant challenges to their existence due to wetland loss and deforestation. Private citizens who own wooded wetland areas can help save these ducks by preserving the mature trees on their property as nesting sites, and by putting up nest boxes. Mandarin ducks are also at risk of decline in their native range due to the same kinds of habitat loss.
Our American wood duck is not always easy to find, but they nest in all 83 counties of Michigan, so grab your binoculars and head to the nearest woodland marsh! They will be returning to Michigan this month!
By Jeanne Church