A Cape Cod Notebook 10/7/08

listenWood Ducks in a Tree

By Robert Finch

Originally aired 10/9/07

One morning recently, as I sat at the table before the glass doors writing up some notes, I looked u p and saw a group of wood ducks - three males and two females - perched on an oak branch at the edge of the yard less than sixty feet from where I sat. Now I've seen wood ducks all my grown life, but I 've never gotten used to seeing them in trees. I know it's natural for them - after all, a preference f or woodlands is where they get their name - but it hardly seems sensible. Seeing a duck in a tree is l ike seeing an owl swimming in a pond, or a turkey soaring high overhead in the clouds.

Still, one doesn't question wood ducks when one gets them, wherever they are. I would welcome one i n my mailbox - and that's not as far fetched as it sounds, given that they prefer to nest in mailbox-s ize hollows in trees. In New England, the wood duck is also known as the "summer duck," because its wintering grounds are largely below the Mason-Dixon Line. And unlike most local ducks it won't take to coastal waters when hard freezes close its fresh water haunts. Thus on the Cape and Islands it's considered, as one source puts it, "a casual winter straggler, surviving only if fed artificially." Hmm- seems like that could apply to me as well.

But wood ducks are startlingly beautiful. Other ducks - mergansers and teal, for instance - have jus t as many square inches of bright color as the wood duck, but they don't begin to approach it in beauty. The male wood duck's vivid plumage is concentrated in its iridescent green head and light blue prima ry wing feathers, a red-orange bill, and a bright red eye. But its body is dramatically marked off with flashy streaks of stage-white that heighten the contrasting plumage and give the bird a strange ritualistic appearance, like that of some beautiful exotic artifice. The plumage of the female, as i s commonly the case in the bird world, is less showy and more subdued than the male's, but it's distinguished by a broad white eye ring.

Their tree-perching habit is just one more extraordinary thing about these birds. As the five wood ducks sat there, arranged boy-girl-boy-girl-boy, I expected them at any moment to start singing, or to spout poetry. Lined up on the oak limb, framed so close to me in the glass doors, they didn't look l ike real birds - or rather, they looked more than real. I felt that wood ducks should not be walking aro und in the real world at all, but set upon some golden bough in a glass museum display case, "in a life- like attitude."

Well, so much for impressionism. These ducks were real enough, and all the better for being so in a Cape Cod oak tree. For five minutes they sat there, like squat tropical parrots, the males occasiona lly dipping their emerald heads up and down to no one in particular. And then, as if to disabuse me of m y too aesthetic appreciation of them, one of the females defecated as she took off and flew directly o ver the house. Then she swooped back down towards the kettle hole bog, drawing the other four off with her. They threaded themselves expertly through the dense maze of gray limbs and bronzing leaves and were quickly lost to sight. I felt at once suddenly bereft and deeply blessed.