Australian Wood Ducks Chenonetta jubata are unrelated to other wood ducks in the world. Just because we like to separate members of the family including ducks, geese and swans into these simple categories, it doesn’t mean that reality and nature are ready to oblige us. Wood ducks seem to be dabbling ducks that have evolved a goose-like structure and behaviour.
Wood ducks are particularly common in the wetlands from autumn to early spring. This is probably because of their habit of gathering in large flocks around waterholes near grassland when they’re not breeding. When breeding they break into pairs, each pair separately seeking a tree hollow somewhere that might be a long way from the nearest water. They have about 10 ducklings which must leap out of the tree hollow and are then carefully protected by both parents. Because Goulburn has an unfortunate history in being very uncaring about its large remaining eucalypts, such hollows can be scarce and are often near the edges of properties and along roadways. For this reason it is not unusual to see families of wood ducks near busy country roads (such as Middle Arm Road) where their young sometimes fall victim to hurrying motorists.
Wood ducks are also known as Maned Ducks or even Maned Geese due to their odd genetics and to the small black mane on the rear of the male’s head, though it is not always easily visible. From behind, both sexes show two black stripes. Both have speckled breasts, but the speckling extends over the side of the body in females, while the males are grey. Females also have two white stripes: one above and one beneath the eye. Very few ducks quack, and these are mostly the domestic variety. Wood ducks give a loud and long, questioning “quaark?”.
Wood ducks are one of a few native birds that have benefited from the development by European settlers of the Australian landscape. Typical of such birds they are large, not very fussy about their diet, can hold their own in most fights, breed readily and above all, can adapt to the incessant changes we inflict upon a reeling set of ecosystems.
Like our introduced and domesticated livestock, wood ducks like to eat grass and members of the pea family (legumes). They only need a water supply handy to help them digest the stuff and they’re set for life. As a direct result of our tendency to put dams all over cleared paddocks full of introduced grasses and clovers, the vast majority of Goulburn rural properties have their own family or flock of wood ducks. They have become a very common species. Like geese, wood ducks have fairly inefficient digestive systems when it comes to grazing, at least in comparison to sheep and cattle. As a result these ducks need to eat more per unit of body weight than the same weight of a sheep or cattle. Then again, they hardly deplete paddocks of pasture, they produce masses of fertilising droppings and are fairly attractive, inoffensive characters.