The Central Texas drought,which has kept the Highland Lakes from refilling for several years now, has also kept the wetlands at Circle Acres dry for much of that time. Only after periodic heavy rains do large marshy pools collect in the bottomlands here. Whenever these pools appear, though, so does what may be the most glamorous occupant of Circle Acres -- the distinctive wood duck.
Describing this species, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (one of the foremost bird-study institutions) abandons its usual staid objectivity to declare it "one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl." At Circle Acres, I regularly find at least three or four of these colorful ducks floating among the flooded willow trees. The male, in breeding plumage, is glossy green and chestnut-colored -- with a crest that looks a bit like a floppy beret, white stripes running in various directions, a bright-orange bill, and startlingly red eyes. The female's features are considerably more subtle -- feathers in shades of gray with a white patch around each eye.
The female is often trailed by about a dozen fuzzy, striped yellow-brown ducklings -- a condition that definitely adds to the wood duck's charming image. However, as with some other glamorous figures, this picture of family devotion is not all that it seems. Biologists say that the young wood ducks are able to swim and find their own food the day after they hatch. Their mother calls out to them occasionally to keep them at least loosely grouped, but otherwise, their parents provide them almost no care or assistance.
Beyond their arresting appearance, wood ducks also differ considerably from most other waterfowl in their sound and behavior. The male's typical call is a shrill, rising whistle. The female often gives a warning signal that can best be described as a squeal. They have strong claws that allow them to grip bark and perch on tree branches. They nest in holes within tree trunks and fly confidently through dense woodlands (at up to 30 mph), maneuvering tightly with their long, broad tails and short, broad wings.
Wood ducks usually inhabit well-wooded wet areas -- such as swamps, stream-side corridors, and small lakes. In undisturbed areas, beaver ponds can provide them with perfect habitat. Somewhat ironically, water ducks, like beavers, suffered a dramatic population decline in the 19th and early 20th Centuries -- caused, in large part, by human exploitation of the species for meat and decorative plumage. Also like beavers, wood ducks have recovered significantly in numbers over recent decades, as humanity has learned to appreciate them in non-consumptive ways.
The combination of beauty, grace, and renewal embodied in the wood duck makes it, for me, a strong symbol -- both for the scenic Circle Acres of the present day and for the land's continuing history of human destructiveness overcome by natural resilience.