Living with Water: At Home with Wood Ducks
I never imagined that a pond and a pair of ducks in a small California town called Rough and Ready would make me feel so at home. I’ve always wanted to live as close as possible to some body of water—flowing or still, fresh or salty—and I’ve lived with several of them.
First, there was the fairy-sized lagoon that appeared when I filled my mother’s kitchen sink and plunged my arms in up to the elbow, imagining that I could shrink and dive into the depths of the basin. Then, there was San Francisco Bay, which rocked me to sleep every night as I lay in the sailboat berth that was my bedroom. After that came a canal in France, straight as a ruler on its muttering path alongside fields of huge, muscled horses and stacked swirling rounds of hay. Most recently, there is the creek that snakes through my property and a pond that stretches wide and flat outside the backdoor of my house.
My first real wood duck sighting happened before we bought the house. My husband and I were a month into our house hunt, and our expectations for the place were not high, given the price and age of the house. But when we arrived, and I stepped onto the deck overlooking a large pond, I knew this could be the one.
I heard a small clamor, and a pair of wood ducks shot off the pond and disappeared into a stand of oaks. I had only seen a wood duck once before — its body smoothed and stuffed, perched on a bookshelf next to a pheasant in my uncle’s billiards room — but the male duck’s colors (a bright red eye surrounded by tawny gold, chesnutty purple, and iridescent green and black feathers, all patterned and cut with bright slashes of white) are hard to miss. I knew instantly what I had seen, and I wanted to see more.
The ducks didn’t come back that day as we walked along the creek and picked our way through lichen-crusted boulders, across a small tufted meadow, and past oaks filled with the tapping of acorn woodpeckers and the whirr of hummingbirds. Even if the wood ducks might not return, we knew we were here to stay.
That was last October, and we were moved in by February, trying to make sense of the place, its ebb and flow, and how we fit in. The first routine I settled into has stuck. Every morning, my alarm goes off, and I sit up and reach for my binoculars. This is the best way to scan the shoreline of the pond outside the window and spot any wood ducks that may be paddling around.
This is followed by a cup of coffee or tea next to the window with the best view of the water before I drag myself away to get ready for work. I didn’t expect the wood ducks to lodge themselves so firmly in my psyche, to become the thing I look forward to every morning. I’ve never questioned my love of water, but ducks?
Although they took off at the sight of us that first day, the ducks and I have come to a tentative (on their part) harmony. If I am content to watch them from afar—say, from the kitchen window or the edge of the deck or bed—then, they will be content to nibble at algae and insects and occasionally climb out of the water onto a fallen log to preen and stretch.
They don’t come every day, but at least a few times a week I hear their high, soft cry and they will ski gently down onto the water fluffing droplets from their feathers. They’re petite ducks with little swooping helmets of feathers capping their heads. While they follow the bifurcation of outfits that many birds do—the male brightly patterned and arrayed with color while the female is more demure and easily camouflaged—they are both stunningly beautiful.
The male acts as sentry, following the female around the pond, and as she snaps up a meal he fixes me with his bright red eye and sometimes releases a thin, rough whistle of warning from his bright orange, black, and white beak. Occasionally, the female will take notice of me and will motor over to the fallen log (it’s on the side farthest from the house) and will climb atop it to fan herself out, giving me a view of her gray-brown speckled feathers and the rhomboid of purple-blue and white near her tail. She has a shy look, with a swoop of white outlining each eye. How could I not love them?
With hopes of enticing them to relax and stay awhile, my husband Jed and I installed a wood duck box this past spring that was a gift from a friend. Wood ducks are cavity nesters, and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they take readily to nest boxes. We followed directions we found online, and installed the box in a site we thought would be ideal—close to the water but far from the house. I waited anxiously for the wood ducks to make an appearance, overtaken by visions of ducklings (if you think this sounds crazy, just type “wood ducks jump from nest box” into a search engine and you’ll understand why I am so captivated).
The woods ducks never did move into the box, but I stand ready with my binoculars and cup of tea for the day that they do. For now, I have to content myself with watching the wood ducks come and go, along with hooded mergansers, great blue herons, kingfishers, and turtles that scuba slowly up from the depths to stretch their legs in the sun.
I am happy at the thought that the ducks and these other animals and I have something in common. Water makes us feel at home. I hope that the wood ducks, like us, are just taking some time to settle in, but in the end will be sure that this place is right for them.
Do you live near water? Or have a favorite place to watch wildlife near water?