Both adults have a crested head, white belly, and a white line at the back of the wing (especially seen while the bird is in flight). The head of the male is iridescent green, blue, and purple, with two white lines that run parallel to each other from the base of the bill and behind the eye to the back of the head. The male also has a white chin and throat, red eyes, red at the base of the bill, a deep rust-colored chest, bronze sides, and a black back and tail. In contrast, the female is gray-brown overall, with white eye rings and a white throat and chin. 3-51 cm (17-20 in) long.
In the southern portion of its range, the Wood Duck begins nesting In February and early March. In the northern areas, breeding begins in mid-March to mid-April. The peak breeding season in the South is mid-March to mid-April; in the North it is late March through April. The Wood Duck is a cavity nester, readily using man-made nest boxes when natural cavities are limited. Nest cavities are usually located within 1 mile of water, and average 9 m (30 feet) above the ground. The nest is lined with wood chips and down. The female lays 6-15 (usually 10-15) eggs. Any nest with more than 15 eggs probably contains eggs that have been "dumped" by one or more other females. Like many other bird species, a female Wood Duck will lay eggs in others' nests. The reasons for this behavior are unknown, but may include a female's own nest having been destroyed or a female not wanting to "put all her eggs in one basket," as the saying goes. Dumped eggs can result in an apparent clutch size of up to 50 eggs. Females incubate the eggs for approximately 30 days, only leaving the nest twice a day. The young are precocial and remain in the nest for 24 hours. The female coaxes the young out of the cavity and leads them to the nearest water. The female will then care for the young for 56-70 days, at which time they become independent.
The Wood Duck spends most of its time in the water or in forests, always being close to a creek, river, pond, or swamp. The primary food for the adult is acorns, which it gathers in shallow flooded areas or on the ground. It will eat alternative seed crops from plants such as cypress, hickory, and buttonbush (a shrub in the genus Cephalanthus that commonly grows in swamps and along pond borders and stream margins). When preferred foods are unavailable, waste corn from fields is sometimes eaten.
The Wood Duck occurs throughout the eastern United States and in western coastal areas, spending only the breeding season in the northern half of this range. The primary winter range includes the Southeast for eastern birds, and central California for western birds. In Georgia, the Wood Duck can be found all year in appropriate habitat, but occurs more commonly in southern Georgia during the winter.
Prior to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the Wood Duck was over-hunted to an extent that might have resulted in its extinction. Luckily, with strict hunting regulations this species has been increasing in number. Current concerns for the Wood Duck center on the increasing numbers of swamps and wet areas being drained and bottomland hardwood forests being cleared. Reduction of these nesting habitats may again reduce populations of this species. However, the Wood Duck is not currently listed by governmental entities as requiring any special conservation attention in the Southeast.
The Wood Duck can be mistaken for an American Widgeon while in flight, but widgeons lack the white bar at the back edge of the wing and have white patches on their shoulders. It is difficult to mistake the distinctive coloration and pattern of the male Wood Duck when it is in the water or trees.