If we are quiet and gentle, stepping softly over young stalks of goldenrod and cinnamon fern to observe the river corridor, we might see signs of new life. Spring is here, and the rivers run, swollen from meltwater and rain. Along their banks, and even in their waters, the rivers are full of new green shoots and invigorated life. One species to look for this time of year is the Canada Goose, who lay their eggs between April and May and often nest along the river banks.
One April a few years back, I remember every time I drove down the valley I would look out to an island in the middle of the river. On the very tip of the downstream end sat a mother Canada Goose. The bowl-like nest was practically in the water, exposed nearly all around to give me a perfect view of her proud, elongated neck as she surveyed her surroundings. They prefer their nests this way, I found out later, in order to see predators approaching.
I never saw the father, although he must have been around. Canada Geese mate for life, and this pair would each have their respective roles. According to Cornell Labs All about birds, mother Canada Goose are in charge of choosing a nest site, making the nest from moss, grass, and other plant material as well as down and some body feathers, and brooding the eggs for around 25-28 days. The males, on the other wing, remain nearby to guard the female. These proud fathers may threaten intruders, and even other geese, with a rather terrifying display of prowess, as anyone who has raised domestic geese or disturbed these prickly birds will know. Loud hissing from a wide open beak, along with neck pumping and even vibrating neck feathers are, I can say from experience, an excellent deterrent.
After April passed, I didn’t see my mother goose anymore. Her brood had hatched, probably around 5 young, fuzzy, yellow goslings that left the nest within 1 or 2 days. Once their eggs hatch and the goslings can travel, the parents will take them as far as 2 miles away from the nest site to find an open, grassy area near a body of water to raise them. Goslings start pecking at food on their second day, feeding mostly on their spring and summer food of sedges and grasses. These young will remain with their parents for about a year. As they grow throughout the summer they might join other families where there are larger food sources.
Another waterfowl you might see raising a family on the river is the wood ducks. Famous for the males’ colorful plumage, wood ducks are so named for their tendency to nest in the cavities of trees, usually in standing trees that have drowned in the water around beaver dams, swamps, marshes, and slow moving parts of the river. Often, these small ducks will use the abandoned cavities made by Pileated woodpeckers. Wood ducks tend to arrive in Vermont from late March on, in pairs that formed over the winter. The drake then follows the hen to the site she nested the year previously, as the right sized cavity is difficult to find.
According to the Vermont Eco Studies PDF on wood ducks, the hen will choose a nest in a cavity of a tree that is at least 16 inches in diameter near the base, preferably with a cavity between 20 to 50 feet in the air. They will also readily accept man made boxes, which are a valuable conservation tool for these and other cavity nesting ducks, who don’t always have an easy time finding the cavities they need. The hen creates her nest either in the woody material inside the cavity, or on top of wood shavings in a man made box by adding copious amounts of down feathers.
The nest will usually have about 15 eggs, according to the National Wildlife Federation. In some cases, one female will lay as many as 30 eggs in one nest, and another female might also lay their eggs in that hen’s nest if she cannot find her own. Once the eggs hatch, after around 30 days, the ducklings are ready to leave the nest and begin foraging for seeds, fruits and insects within 24 hours. The tiny little things have to jump out of the nest cavity down to the ground, a feat of bravery that never fails to impress me. They use their sharp little nails to scrabble out of the cavity with an abundance of peeping, following their mothers calls down to the ground regardless of height. She then quickly ushers them under the cover of vegetation.
Wood ducks are no longer listed as threatened or endangered, but their species was on the brink of extinction in the late 1800s due to overharvesting. Thankfully protection and other conservation efforts have been very successful, returning wood ducks to our rivers and wetlands. Tree cavities are not always easy to find however, and this species remains susceptible to habitat loss and degradation. They require ample vegetative cover from wet-feet trees such as willows and alder, as well as from herbaceous perennials. Conserving wetlands and marshy areas along rivers to provide nest cavity trees and ample cover from predators continues to be an important part of wood duck conservation, as well as for conserving the wetland and river ecosystems which support this and countless other species.
If you are interested in making a nesting cavity for wood ducks and similar species such as buffleheads, barrow’s goldeneyes, common goldeneyes, hooded mergansers and common mergansers, here is a link to instructions for building and placing a nest box.
National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Wood duck, Accessed 3/13/2023.
The Cornell Lab. (n.d.) All About Birds: Canada Goose, Accessed 3/13/2023.
Maia Mencucci is an environmental science student at the Community College of Vermont. Living on a windswept hilltop farm in Walden, VT, she is an avid writer and reader, spending as much time as possible in the garden, or gaining inspiration from the beautiful outdoors.