While the eye-catching male wood duck is one of the most distinctive waterbirds in the United States, the same cannot be said about female wood ducks, with their less-than-striking gray-brown plumage. But aside from the obvious contrasts in appearance, are there other key differences in behavior and habits between male and female wood ducks?
Female wood ducks lack the show-stopping colorful plumage seen on breeding males, with a gray-brown plumage, dark brown eyes, and a pale gray bill instead of rich chestnut-brown feathers, a metallic purple-green head, and a scarlet bill and iris.
Female and male wood ducks do, however, share a similar distinctive shape, with both sexes having trailing crest feathers at the back of their heads, long, wide tails, and broad wings.
When it comes to incubating young and rearing ducklings, male and female wood ducks take on different roles.
Female Wood Duck (Aix sponsa), also known as the Carolina Duck, with her chicks
Females incubate eggs alone, whilst males initially remain close to the nest site to guard against predators, before later withdrawing and migrating to a different site while they undergo a change of plumage. Even the calls used by male and female wood ducks are different and easily distinguishable to the trained ear.
Here we explore these key differences in appearance and behavior in more detail, so read on to learn more in our complete guide to female wood ducks.
Male wood ducks are known for their elaborate and colorful markings, in particular their scarlet eyes, glossy purple-green head, and yellow-based red bill. This is their breeding plumage, used to attract a mate. Once the job is done, in late summer the elaborate feathers are replaced with what is known as its more subdued eclipse plumage.
Male wood ducks in eclipse plumage resemble the coloration of females to some extent, although their red eyes and bills do not lose their coloring, so these features continue to be a useful guide at distinguishing between the sexes.
Female wood ducks, in contrast, have a less conspicuous appearance, with gray-brown bodies flecked with white specks, dark blue wing patches, and white rings around their eyes.
Male juvenile wood ducks may be initially mistaken for females due to their pale brown feathers. However, on closer inspection, their already-red eyes and coloured beak are a decisive identifier.
Female Wood Duck
Male Wood Duck
Female wood ducks are grayish-brown in color. Their most distinctive characteristics include a crest of feathers at the back of the head, and a patch of white feathers around the chin and throat. Female wood ducks have gray heads, with a white teardrop-shaped ring around their dark brown eyes.
Their backs are a darker shade of gray-brown, while their sides are slightly lighter in color, and flecked with white markings. A female wood duck’s wings are marked with a dark blue-purple speculum, tipped with white feathers, which is clearly visible in flight.
Close up of a female Wood Duck standing on a log
Male and female wood ducks are roughly the same size, around 48 cm (19 in) in length, and with a wingspan from 71 to 99 cm (28 to 39 in), although males may be marginally larger and heavier.
In some aspects, male and female wood ducks behave in a similar way, typical of small dabbling ducks, foraging for food, and the speed at which they walk, swim, and fly. However, there are some significant differences between the behavior of the sexes, in particular with regard to the calls made by females and males, and the roles each plays in courtship, nesting, and raising young.
Male (left) and female (right) wood ducks swimming together
Adult wood ducks have 12 distinct communication calls, while ducklings use 5 different calls. Female wood ducks have a far larger repertoire of vocalizations than males, with alarm calls to warn of predators, calls to summon ducklings, a piercing mating whistle, and a loud, pre-flight “oo-eek, oo-eek” Hauk call, which is also used to locate their mates. Males tend to be quieter, making a low, squeaky “jweeb” whistling sound and a “jibjibjib” cry before nesting takes place.
Male wood ducks use their elaborate, colorful plumage to attract females, while in response a distinctive mating call is made by a suitably impressed female. The choice of mate is ultimately made by the female, and the pair remain monogamous for one breeding season, before choosing a new mate the following year.
Female wood ducks are not known to be aggressive, unlike their male counterparts, who are fiercely protective toward their mates.
Female Wood Duck stood on the ground
Female wood ducks take responsibility for selecting the nest site, which is usually a hole or hollow high up in a tree trunk. They may revisit the same site for future broods in subsequent years, even with a different mate. If available, artificial nest boxes may also be used. Wood ducks have sharp claws that enable them to climb trees in search of a safe site before laying and incubation begin.
The female prepares her chosen nesting site, and lines it with feathers plucked from her breast. Incubation is by female wood ducks only, and lasts for 27 to 32 days. During this time, the female will briefly leave the eggs unattended early each morning while searching for food. During the initial nesting period, males wait on the ground near to the nesting site to guard against predators.
Females may lay eggs in other nearby wood ducks’ nests, a phenomenon known as egg dumping. This practice is an adaptation that maximizes the potential chance of survival of a brood, and females may end up raising extended broods containing several of another bird’s eggs.
A pair of nesting wood ducks in spring
By the time the eggs hatch, male wood ducks are no longer present, and have migrated to a different location to molt into their more muted non-breeding plumage. Around 24 hours after the ducklings hatch, the mother flies down from the nesting site to the ground, and one by one, the young wood ducks emerge from the nest and make their way to the ground below without any assistance.
Female wood ducks have a particular call that they use to summon their ducklings to them, that the juveniles instinctively respond to.
Both male and female wood ducks typically follow a similar diet to most dabbling ducks, consisting largely of seeds, fruit, invertebrates, and aquatic insects. Acorns are a particular favorite and can be swallowed whole. Before nesting, females will seek food rich in protein and calcium, such as insects and invertebrates, to assist with egg production.
A pair of wood ducks in flight
Female wood ducks incubate eggs alone and tend to their young ducklings for the first 5 to 6 weeks. Although wood duck ducklings feed themselves from the first 24 hours after leaving the nest, the mother remains a close and protective presence, on high alert for predators and guiding her young to safe shelter each night.
During this time, males are absent, as they have migrated to a different location while they undergo the molt into their non-breeding (eclipse) plumage. Young wood ducks are independent by the time they are 8 to 10 weeks old.
A female wood duck’s eyes are dark brown, in contrast to the bright red irises of a male wood duck. Juvenile male wood ducks may from a distance resemble adult females, with similar grayish-brown plumage, although they can be quickly distinguished as the juvenile male’s eyes will have started to turn the distinctive red of an adult male’s after 60 days.
Female Wood Duck perched on a log
Female wood ducks and female Mandarin ducks look fairly similar and it’s easy to see why confusion may arise when identifying between the two species. Wood ducks are typically slightly larger than Mandarins, with less pronounced white markings on their sides.
Female wood ducks’ heads are a darker shade of gray than female Mandarins’ and their white eye patches are significantly larger. Female Mandarins also lack the blue patch of wing feathers seen on female wood ducks.
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