It is common knowledge that wood ducks nest almost exclusively in tree cavities and wood duck nesting boxes. Yet, for a variety of reasons, they have also been found nesting in some very unusual places.
Historically, the vast majority of wood ducks nested in naturally occurring cavities created when rot hollows out dead or dying trees and limbs or those excavated by pileated woodpeckers.
During the 1930s, conservationists began building and erecting wood duck boxes. Wood ducks were quick to adopt these manmade nesting sites and today literally thousands of wood ducks nest in them each year. However, for a variety of reasons, some woods ducks have been found nesting is some very unusual places.
It was long believed that the wood ducks that nested in cavities chiseled out by pileated woodpeckers only used those that are abandoned. However, this theory was upended in 1996 when a biologist reported he had witnessed four drake and four hen wood ducks trying to gain access to cavities in which pileated woodpeckers were currently nesting.
Remarkably, this large, intimidating woodpecker is known to permit some birds to simultaneously nest in cavities located in the same dead tree. Some of the birds known to nest this close to our largest woodpecker are the eastern screech owl, northern flicker, and eastern bluebird.
However, it is obvious that, at least in this case, the nesting pileated woodpeckers drew the line and demonstrated they clearly had no interest in sharing with or relinquishing their nesting cavity to pesky wood ducks.
The biologist reported that he watched wood ducks trying to get into the woodpeckers’ nesting cavity. The wood ducks that attempted to enter the nesting cavity were repeatedly rebuffed before they ever reached the entrance to the hollow. However, in one instance, a female woody actually began to descend into the nesting cavity while it was occupied by a male pileated woodpecker and his three nestlings. This foolhardy action was met with the woodpecker striking out at the interloper with its sharp bill.
Eventually, the pileated woodpeckers were able to stave off the invasion and successfully fledged their three young.
The famous American artist John James Audubon was one of the first to report a wood duck nesting attempt in an unusual location. Audubon wrote in his journals (1840-1844) that he located a hen wood duck nesting in a crevice in the rocks high above the Kentucky River.
Since then, in spite of having the well-deserved reputation of being a cavity nester, a handful of cases have been documented where wood ducks nested in grassy fields like mallards, teal, and gadwalls. Other wood ducks have been found nesting atop muskrat houses. Woodies have also been found nesting in a tall loblolly pine some 35 feet above the ground. Likewise, wood duck nests have been discovered nestled in hollow logs lying on the ground.
As the population of the United States grew throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cabins, barns and other structures sprang up like mushrooms across the American landscape. For some unknown reason, some wood ducks began trying to nest in these buildings. This behavior is still exhibited to this day.
The most common way that the birds use to enter dwellings is through the chimney. Unfortunately, far too often the inquisitive birds are unable to escape. The Father of Game Management, Aldo Leopold, wrote that his neighbor discovered a dead wood duck above the damper in his chimney.
I have also read reports of wood ducks flying to the chimneys attached to dryers used to cure tobacco.
In one case, a retired wildlife biologist noticed a drake wood duck hanging around his home. After pondering why the bird was displaying this unusual behavior, it finally dawned on him that perhaps the bird was waiting for his mate. Looking around for a place where she might be trapped, his gaze fixed on his chimney. When he opened the fireplace clean-out door and peered in, he spotted the hen wood duck coated in soot. The hen had apparently flown down the chimney and could not get out.
This story has a happy ending. When he thoroughly cleaned the soot off the bird, he then banded and released it. The last time he saw her, she was flying away with her mate.
Wood ducks have been documented nesting in the gables of houses. There are also many reports of wood ducks nesting in the haylofts of barns.
A noted wildlife biologist reported that wood ducks nested in a wood duck nesting box he attached to the side of his house.
A wildlife biologist in Louisiana was surprised to find wood ducks nesting in depressions located on the tops of river pilings.
While I cannot explain all of the reasons why wood ducks sometimes nest in odd locations, I believe in many instances it is due the birds’ inability to locate suitable nesting sites. That being said, if there is a beaver pond or a creek that courses through your property, consider putting up a few wood duck nesting boxes close to these features. If wood ducks nest in them, chances are these nesting attempts will be more successful than if they decided to nest in your chimney or barn.
Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.