Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Male Wood Ducks - Dressing up for the Big Dance

Female and male Wood Ducks (c) John Ashley
Adult female (left) and male Wood Duck in September. The male is starting to moult back into his breeding plumage.
A new flock of visitors has just arrived on our little lake, here at the end of the road - fourteen Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), including juveniles and adults. But what's up (above) with this adult male's odd looking plumage?  He's missing most of the colorful feathers (below) that emphatically state (to a female Wood Duck), "Look at me, I'm a studly male!"

Feathers wear out and must be replaced. For most ducks, body feathers are replaced twice a year while flight (wing) feathers are moulted just once a year. The males' colorful feathers of winter and spring are called the "alternate" (or "breeding) plumage, while the duller feathers of  summer are called the "basic" (or "eclipse") plumage. In this way, the male's body changes color twice a year while the wings stay the same color. The females' alternate and basic feathers are the same color, so she looks the same year-round.

Right after breeding, the males replace their handsomely-colorful body feathers and go into a dull-brown, basic plumage. They also replace their wing feathers at this time and are flightless for a few weeks each summer. For a duck, a good time to be brown and less noticeable is while you are unable to fly away from threats.

In September, the male Wood Ducks moult back into their studly, colorful feathers. That's because they'll start courting females even before the fall migration. Courtship displays drop off during severe weather, but the male Wood Duck's courtship is more intense in the fall than in spring.

So our visiting Wood Ducks have new wing feathers, and the males are moulting out of their basic brown plumage and back into their colorful breeding feathers. Ladies, prepare to be impressed!

Wood Ducks in breeding plumage
(c) John Ashhley
Adult Wood Ducks during springtime, in full breeding plumage