Wood Ducks and the Burden of Adorability

Did you even wonder why the males of some bird species are so utterly over-the-top? Think peacocks, pheasants, and… well, wood ducks. Every time I see a wood duck, it feels like a bit of magic. After so many years of living here on the coast, they still manage to take my breath away. When they utter that cute wheezing whistle call, I melt just a bit. These drakes are incredible, particularly compared to their plain (but still entirely charming) mates.

Cutest duck in the west.

Wood ducks: an evolutionary arms race

When males of any species are far more striking than females (bigger, more colourful, massive tails or crests) it generally comes at a cost to them—it takes energy to grow and maintain that kind of asset. There must be a benefit to that cost, and we can assume in the case of these outrageously beautiful male birds that it’s sexual attractiveness. Females select the biggest and brightest first—they’re suckers for a handsome dude, and they reap the benefits of pooling their genes with the cream of the crop.

With that kind of sexual selection, it becomes a bit of an arms race: males with just a bit more, well, attractiveness are selected for the next generation, and the next and the next. Fast forward a few million years and you have this guy.

male wood duck
The red in the eye.

I imagine a male like this is pretty irresistible to a female wood duck. He certainly caught our eye as we were photographing waterfowl at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary here in BC.

Pretty Privilege

Beautiful people, in general, have easier lives, or so the theory of ‘pretty privilege’ goes. People want to be with them; hire them; buy them drinks; be nice to them, and so on. I’m not so sure we can apply this to wood ducks and their incomparable beauty. To be sure, humans want to be around them: they are one of the most sought-after ducks in private zoo collections, along with their even-more-intricately coloured cousin the mandarin duck.

Their attractiveness coupled with their adaptability has made them an invasive species in the UK; it’s illegal to introduce them to natural environments there. (God forbid they become the next Canada goose in Europe. They’re a scourge over there. Ok they’re a scourge here too but at least they belong here.)


Wood ducks are good eating

Wood ducks’ beauty doesn’t save them in hunting season; it may make them an even more desirable target as wood ducks are one of the most-hunted species in eastern North America (and surely there are ducks with more meat on their bones than these little guys.)

If you haven’t had the pleasure of spending time with wood ducks, head to any swampy wetland in eastern North America in spring (we have a fairly good population here in the Pacific Northwest too, with a smattering of them across the prairies.)

They seem to like shallow, sheltered areas, and favour places with big hollow trees to nest in. (They also readily adopt big nest boxes.) They’re quite social, and you can often spot a whole row of them chilling on a log at the water’s edge.

Every feather is perfection.

They’re surprising difficult to photograph well—their faces are a study in contrast and we’ve had a challenge trying to capture the subtleties of the dark tones without blowing out the whites on the face. But we’ve had a ton of fun trying.

I hope you enjoy our visual tribute to this stunning little bird.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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