It's hard to believe, but when day-old wood ducklings leap into their new world from a nesting box or a cavity high in a tree, they survive the ordeal. More than survive, they roll their tiny fuzzy bodies upright and cheerfully toddle after their mother, on the way to the nearest river or pond, never to return to the nest.
With tiny wings extended, they resemble outsized black and yellow bumblebees as they plummet toward earth. Young wood ducks are blessed with the perfect ratio of body weight to surface area and this -- along with their lofty down -- assures them a soft landing. Sometimes they even rebound harmlessly off branches during their descent.
Last week, on a glorious May morning (one of few this spring) I witnessed to the remarkable event. From the confines of a blind I watched as not just wood ducks emerged from a nesting box, but also a lone hooded merganser youngster.
Wood ducks and hooded mergansers are cavity nesters, which lay and incubate their eggs in natural cavities in trees or man-made nesting boxes. It's not uncommon for a female hooded merganser to deposit an egg or two in a nest already occupied by a wood duck, or vise versa.
Shortly before 8 a.m. the hen wood duck left the nesting box and flew to a nearby pond where she swam about, insistently emitting a high-pitched whine. Not too long after, I heard scratching from inside the nesting box and suddenly a downy fuzz ball sporting a Mohawk hairdo and a long, narrow bill was perched at the entrance. I immediately recognized it as a hooded merganser. For a moment the chick observed its new world, and then without warning, took the leap. Fifteen feet later the tiny bird hit the ground, bounced one or twice, rolled a couple of times and then came up peeping.
I knew from past experience that once the first duckling jumped, the rest would quickly follow. I watched the entrance through my camera's viewfinder, my finger on the shutter release button. A few seconds after the merganser jumped, a little wood duck emerged from the box, paused for a moment, and it too made the leap.
No sooner had that duckling jumped when the next materialized, and then the next, and in a few fleeting moments the entire brood was on the ground. Some of the little ducks dwelled briefly at the opening, others jumped immediately, anxious it seemed, to join their siblings below. At one point, two wood duck ducklings crowed the entrance.
By now the mother wood duck had emerged from the pond and was wading through the dew covered grass toward her brood. She called unrelentingly. The ducklings responded to her orders by waddling in her direction. Unfortunately, the grass was tall enough to obscure them and I could follow their progress only by the movement of the grasses as they strolled toward the pond.
The last time I saw the little merganser it was heading away from the brood of wood ducks, but because of the tall vegetation, I had difficulty following its progress. Some people say a hen wood duck will reject a baby merganser, and others say it won't. I can't comment either way from personal observation.
I left my blind and climbed up to the box to see if any ducklings remained. It was empty, except for eggshells, a pile of down the hen wood duck used to cover the eggs in her absence and the four inches of wood shavings I had placed in the box two months earlier.
As I walked toward home with tripod and camera slung over my shoulder, I noted raccoon and mink tracks on the pond's edge. Farther along I spotted a snapping turtle in another pond. I contemplated the fate of the brood of wood ducks. I know predators are a real concern but perhaps more so, was the expected cold weather and the resulting dearth of insects. For a tiny wood duck, insects mean life.
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