A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


The shy Wood Duck may be found in many parts of the county in slow-moving or still waters sheltered by trees. Usually seen in pairs but occasionally in small groups. Nests in tree cavities, particularly abandoned nests made by woodpeckers such as Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) or Pileated Woodpecker (Drycopus pileatus) but takes readily to manmade nest boxes, which, according to Lukas, have played an important role in supporting Wood Duck populations. Unusual among North American ducks in that it frequently has two broods a season, which means young birds may be present much later in the season than is normal in other ducks (the juvenile shown below was photographed in late August). Fond of acorns, but feeds on a variety of seeds, berries, insects, and aquatic invertebrates. The pond at the Cassini Ranch Family Campground in Duncans Mills is a highly reliable place to see Wood Ducks in Sonoma County.    

The male Wood Duck is without doubt, our most bizarrely colored and beautiful duck. He is easy to recognize and hard to forget (photo above), but both males and females have a distinctive squarish head with a crest that droops behind. Wood Ducks--especially males in breeding plumage--remind me of a French officer in a Napoleonic bicorne hat. The square-headed silhouette would be enough to set this bird apart, but Wood Duck is also spectacularly colored. Every part of the male's body is gaudily tinted--dark green head (tinges of purple and blue in the right light) with white trim; white at the throat; orange-red at the base of the bill; a large, bright red eye; yellowish-buff flanks surrounded by black and white patterning; black and shades of blue on the back; a dark tail; and oxblood near the rump and at the breast with fine white spots on the breast (sometimes inconspicuous). The female is grey-brown overall, but even she sports an exotic eye-ring with a trailing white stripe (reminiscent of ancient Egyptian facial depictions); spotting on the breast and flanks; with white and iridescent blue and purple often showing in the wings (photo below--the bird shown was accompanied by chicks). In summer "eclipse" plumage, males lose much of their color, resembling females, but with a brighter bill retaining reddish hues at the base and with suggestions of the breeding plumage face pattern. Juvenile males resemble females but lack the strong eye ring and eye stripe and show hints of the male face pattern. Eclipse plumage male retains the bright red eye.

In flight, a white belly contrasts with dark wings and breast. The long, dark, nearly square tail is an often-noted, distinctive feature. According to Kaufman (2011), turns its head to look around while flying more than other ducks. Unlikely to be confused with any other bird, except perhaps the related Asian species Mandarin Duck (Aix galericulata), which occasionally escapes the captivity of exotic bird fanciers (there is a resident population of Mandarin Duck escapees in the town of Sonoma, according to the Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas.

Selected county sightings: Cassini Campground, Duncans Mills (May 18, 2013, Colin Talcroft); Russian River, near Forestville (August 24, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Lake Ralphine (December 11, 2011, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (May 19, 2011); Brush Creek Trail (February 4, 2011, Colin Talcroft); Spring Lake (October 16, 2010, Colin Talcroft).

The challenges of female duck identification (includes a quiz)

Trivia: Wood Duck is rare among ducks in that it nests in tree cavities. Wood Duck is one of the few ducks that can perch in trees, and the only North American duck that can do so. Perching ducks occur worldwide, but their similarities in most cases appear to be the result of convergent evolution rather than genetic proximity. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 29

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 37

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 36

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 28

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 24

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 32-33

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 74

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 76

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 37

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 44

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 98, 106, 144

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 4-6, 157

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 5

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 68

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 24

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 46

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 74

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 18

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 45

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Wood Duck



© Colin Talcroft, 2009-2018

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Juvenile Wood Duck, Russian River, August 26, 2012

Wood Duck (female), Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, May 19, 2011

Wood Duck, Duncan’s Mills, May 18, 2013

Wood Duck

Aix Sponsa

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 23, 2013

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County

Female Mandarin Duck, for comparison, June 29, 2018, Munich, Germany