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Looking his best

June 20, 2022

It stands to reason that the time in the great cycle of life to look your best is during the courtship phase. So it is no surprise that male Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata) are at their resplendent best in mid-Winter. Wood ducks are one of the earliest-breeding birds, producing large clutches of very cute ducklings ready to leave the nest the first week of Spring. So this is the time to spruce up and impress the ladies.

Pair of Wood Ducks, male on the right

I have a photo of a wood duck family taken last November, when the male is looking decidedly plain. His bright colours have faded, he has lines around his eyes, the kids are out of control, the mate is nagging for more food – that’s when one loses interest in keeping up appearances.

Male wood duck in faded plumage, Nov 2021

You can see why this species was once known as ‘Maned Goose’. Their bill is more like a goose’s beak rather than a duck-bill, and the male can extend a small but impressive mane.

Male wood duck in fresh, bright plumage showing extended mane, June 2022

Wood ducks breed in tree hollows, often quite a few metres high in a tree. I asked an experienced birder once how they got the ducklings out of the nest-hollow onto the ground, which clearly happens well before they can fly. “They just push them out – they weigh only a few grams and can’t hurt themselves, they flutter down like dry leaves.”

Sometimes the number of ducklings in a family group is incredible. Local photographer Robert Gardiner sent me this incredible photo:

It is probable that like some other ducks, older wiser females get custody of the young from younger parents in a sort of day-care or creche. But that’s a bit of a mystery to ponder for another day.

The surprise to me was seeing how bright the plumage of the males looked today, in the middle of Winter. Fairywren males don’t even turn blue until the start of Spring. It seems that male Wood Ducks are better at planning; they like to get an early start.

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