Just in case you need another sign of impending spring (other than Peepers, Chorus Frogs, Honeysuckle leaflets, tornado warnings etc.) the Wood Ducks are now seeking out their nest holes. I know this because I happened upon a pair sizing up a tree cavity on the north bank of Swan Creek. When I first spotted these birds they were perched on a dead limb. They weren’t doing anything per se, except a lot of nervous head-bobbing. There was a hole in the trunk below and they soon directed their attentions to it.
Wood ducks are called such because they nest in tree holes and the hunt for suitable sites takes place as soon as the birds arrive back. Both the male and female birds are involved in the real estate hunt, but it is the female that makes all the decisions (of course). It is she who was reared in the immediate area and she who will eventually incubate the eggs on her own, so it is her house. The male is there only to provide a little color and the biological contribution that insures that the nest will have eggs. He has nothing to say in regards to the final choice (which is why he has that perpetual “yes dear, no dear” look).
Her requirements are fairly tight. Wood Ducks seek holes that are at least 4 inches across at the entrance, 6-8 inches in the interior and around 24 inches in depth. Granite countertops are not essential but the doorway should be well off the ground (20 – 40 feet). A vertically facing entrance is also preferred and that was the only feature of this hole that I could verify.
The hen flipped off the branch, dove for the cavity, and poked her head in for a look. The drake stood watch on an adjacent limb. His attention was focused on me. His ruby red eyes virtually burned a hole in my direction. Unfortunately, I was not the only potential fly in this domestic scene. A pair of frantic starlings – birds less than a third of his size – were darting back and forth. They had also staked ownership to this cavity and were attempting to keep these house-hunters out. Their actions were ineffective, however, and hen entered the hole without pause and stayed inside for the duration of my observation time– a good sign that she approved the set-up.
There was nothing that the Starlings could really do about it except hope (and pray, if indeed birds do such a thing) that the cavity would prove unacceptable. Ours is not to feel sorry for them. Starlings, even though small of body, are large on aggression and they are one of the biggest competitors for tree cavities. For those folks who put out Wood duck Boxes, keeping these pesky birds away is a serious challenge. I read about one earnest Wisconsinite who resorted to hanging dead starlings around the entrance as a morbid warning to any new interlopers. We are not sure how this action affected the Wood Ducks, but it apparently didn’t have any affect on the Starlings what-so-ever (a satisfying idea, though!).
For a few tense moments, the drake stood guard over the west side of the tree and one of the Starlings stood his place on the east side (see above). The Woodie grew increasingly nervous about my presence and finally opted to take a flight down to Swan Creek and keep guard from a safe distance. To his credit, he whined out a few warning calls before departing his loved one. Perhaps he told her to stay in the hole until I went away or informed her of the persistent Starling standing vulture over the hole. I should say that he “suggested” the above actions because drake Woodies are not the master of their house.
I will keep an eye on this domestic situation and see how it plays out.